Europe’s so-called “refugee crisis” and the 2015 “summer of migration” triggered a wave of solidarity actions and volunteering activities by civil society organisations and ordinary citizens, including migrants and refugees themselves. The VAI project has been inspired by this wave of solidarity back in 2015-16, but it unfolded amidst its fading out. It sought to explore how and why does volunteering by, with and for immigrants may relate to integration. The project’s overall objective was to explore innovative actions facilitating active participation and social integration. This was approached through a stepwise process of 3 Work Packages: “National Researches”, ”Capacity Building” and “Establishing volunteering opportunities” – hence producing “better knowledge”, creating “better tools”, and promoting “better practice”. These tasks were undertaken by 10 partners from Academia, Civil Society, Local Government & Media, based in 4 countries: Austria, Germany, Italy, Greece.
The VAI study highlighted the archipelago of activities and a variety of motives and experiences, taking shape against a background of advancing xenophobia. It identified the peculiar dynamics that can potentially make volunteering an important path to integration, under conditions which allow being together on equal terms while being aware of power relations and social inequalities. Findings specified such conditions but also difficulties, identified best practices and drew policy recommendations underlining the need e.g. for cooperation, coordination, recognition, valuing the volunteer and freeing refugees from the “victim role”. Beyond national findings, the study showed that volunteering should not be seen as a cost-effective gap-filling solution to a shrinking welfare state, neither a panacea to solve complex problems. It’s limits should be acknowledged, as well as its diversity: the concept of volunteering is not universally conceivable, motives vary considerably, active involvement may depend on individuals’ circumstances and can be coincidental, and there can be a range of small benefits, as well as some impact. In terms of the project’s key question, the research showed how volunteering with/by/among migrants opens up many new relationships which can meaningfully embrace diversity, by allowing for an emerging space of “coming together”.
The VAI capacity building had a twofold aim: to help migrant volunteers to construct themselves as both immigrants & volunteers; and to help civil society organisations to engage immigrants in voluntary activities. After an initial design phase, activities embarked drawing on key research findings and involving the collaborative production of 3+1 documents, drawing from a review of relevant literature with a focus on international experience and best practices of (migrant) voluntary participation. These consisted of a Volunteering Orientation Manual addressed to organisations, a Guide for Migrant Volunteers, and a Guide for Training Migrant Volunteers supplemented by a Toolkit. Once drafted, the three key documents were revised through a consultative process whereby focus groups meetings were held by the partners involved in the four countries, in which their content was tested and evaluated; and were further refined based on partners’ comments. The most important outcome of the capacity building exercise has been to (provide the means and tools so as to) strengthen both voluntary organisations and prospective migrant volunteers, and thus enhance migrants’ participation in voluntary groups. The guides were extensively disseminated via the networking activities of WP3 and used or circulated during (most of) the Pilot Actions, receiving very positive feedback especially from civil society organisations working with migrants and refugees.
VAI aimed at encouraging good practice and supporting migrants in volunteering and sought to achieve this by exploring and experimenting with innovative actions. Networking was essential in this process and partners enacted local networks, which helped a series of Pilot Actions: ranging from roundtables/workshops to training and involving (migrant) volunteers, a behind the scenes video promoting social participation through the arts, a women’s empowerment media workshop that produced a a radio show. Pilot Actions provided a space for reflection upon the learning, rewarding, creative and social potential of being involved with others and giving a hand. First, by reflecting on the experience of voluntary organisations and a diverse range of other stakeholders. Secondly, by highlighting best practices, but also challenges in involving migrant volunteers and exploring innovative possibilities for better outreach and cooperation. Thirdly, by bringing forward the perspectives of migrant volunteers themselves, their motives but also capabilities and needs. Finally, by promoting voluntarism and solidarity as a social context bringing together migrants and natives under a common frame and on equal terms.
In conclusion, VAI achieved “better“ knowledge, tools & practice in:
- highlighting the diversity of voluntary activities and variety of motives, noting their contradictions & limits & underlining that voluntarism opens up many new relationships,
- providing the means/tools to strengthen both voluntary organisations and prospective migrant volunteers, and thus enhance migrants’ participation,
- promoting voluntarism and solidarity as a social context bringing together migrants and natives under a common frame and on equal terms.
VAI partners’ activities not only reached out to significant numbers of stakeholders but also managed to involve some in debating the knowledge derived from the study, in testing the tools produced, as participants in Pilot Actions, as hubs for dissemination of project outcomes. The width and depth of the networks established/enacted have been an important added value of VAI, and in some cases resulted in follow-up activities, lasting partnerships and new synergies.
Overall, VAI has been an important opportunity to research/reflect on the concepts/practice of solidarity, altruism, helping out, offering, etc. through the lens of volunteering. It started with the aim of promoting new arrangements of volunteering among immigrants, removing obstacles and building on facilitators of societal integration. It succeeded in actively supporting both voluntary organisations and migrant volunteers, by bringing together experiences and knowledge in a structured manner. It also aimed at strengthening networks and knowledge exchange in the field of migrant volunteering and achieved this in a mutually beneficial way. VAI identified innovative practices but also challenges, and voiced the perspectives of migrant volunteers themselves, their motives but also capabilities and needs. At the same time, it actively reached out to diverse audiences and promoted voluntarism and solidarity as a social context bringing together migrants and natives under a common frame and on equal terms.