The project

Over the last decades, in a context in which the living conditions of asylum seekers and refugees are becoming increasingly difficult, many charities have dedicated themselves to the support of these groups across Europe. A large part of the activities of these organisations depends on the involvement of volunteers who participate in altruistic actions such as: legal aid, advice and support in terms of access to services (housing, schools, welfare, etc.), language or educational support (in particular children’s support), fundraising, therapeutic or moral support. This study focuses on the case of the volunteers engaged in the support of asylum seekers and refugees in order to explore questions which remain underexplored in the literature on altruistic and humanitarian action.

This research project seeks to analyse what motivates volunteers to engage with charities that support asylum seekers and refugees, as well as how they define their engagement and reflect upon their experience. In particular, the study wants to analyse whether and how these actors distinguish between altruistic action and social or political protest. In doing so, it seeks to explore how the frontiers between different forms of engagement in society are constructed and negotiated. Looking at immigration and asylum politics ‘from below’, it also aims to analyse how public debates and policies on these issues are reflected in the forms of engagement in support of asylum seekers and refugees.

The project is based on a comparative approach and on qualitative research methods: we will interview volunteers with different profiles and who are active in two contrasted contexts (Britain and France). We will also interview key representatives of the main pro-asylum charities active in these two countries, and we will analyse press reports and charities’ archives. We will undertake this empirical research in the cities of London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Paris, Lyon, and in the region of Lille-Calais. This will allow us to develop an in-depth analysis of why and how people engage in altruistic action in support of asylum seekers and refugees. This will also enable us to analyse whether differences in terms of the life trajectories and personal values of volunteers, of organisational cultures of pro-asylum charities, of national cultures of volunteering, of relations between civil society actors and public authorities, as well as of immigration and asylum politics lead individuals to define their engagement in different ways.

This approach and these methods will give us new data and perspectives on the ways ideas that relate to altruism, solidarity, humanity, care, or compassion are constructed and experienced. They will also enable us to develop original perspectives on the consequences in civil society of policies and public debates in the field of immigration and asylum.

We identify five central objectives which have the potential to inform theories and empirical research on collective action and on immigration and asylum politics:

  • Explore why and how volunteers get involved in charities that support asylum seekers and refugees
  • Address the question of how life trajectories, organisational features, and contextual factors such as policy changes or media coverage shape the ways in which volunteers define their engagement with altruistic action
  • Develop a deep understanding of how volunteers debate and negotiate the frontier between altruistic action and protest
  • Contribute to the academic literature on collective action through an original approach focused on actors’ construction of meaning
  • Develop and consolidate an international network of scholars and stakeholders working on humanitarian and altruistic action from a comparative perspective

We also identify two objectives that have concrete policy implications:

  • Contribute to policy debates at the national and EU levels by providing a well-needed analysis on the effects of funding shortages in the pro-asylum sector, as well as on the consequences on charities of policy changes in the field of immigration and asylum
  • Increase the social and political recognition of altruistic action in support of asylum seekers and refugees