In the asylum seeker sector, volunteers form an essential component of service delivery to people seeking asylum in Australia who are living in the community on bridging visas while they wait for their applications for protection to be assessed.
The need for volunteers is in part because services for people who arrived by boat in particular are underfunded, in what can be viewed as part of the government’s strategy of deterrence; and in part because some organisations such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) do not take federal government funding and hence rely on donations of money and of time.
Although some studies have been undertaken about volunteers working with refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia (e.g. Behnia 2007, Lange et al. 2007, Sawtell et al. 2010, Wilson 2011), continued research is needed about these volunteers, what motivates them, and what their experience of volunteering is like. This is particularly important given the prominent position volunteers now occupy on the front lines of service provision. Such information is useful not only for improving service delivery, but for greater understanding of community attitudes about people seeking asylum and what enables social and political change in Australia.
Over 1200 people volunteer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Volunteers at the ASRC deliver a wide range of services, from food and material aid to legal aid to casework to English language lessons.
In 2016 I led a pro-bono consultancy for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Volunteer Program. Along with researcher Fran Demetriou, we conducted a survey of the ASRC’s volunteers. From this, we delivered both an internal report evaluating processes and programs; and a public report that looked at four areas of general interest:
Demographics and motivations of ASRC’s volunteers
ASRC volunteer views on Australian society and issues facing people seeking asylum
Benefits of and barriers to volunteering at the ASRC
How the ASRC values volunteers.
The findings of the public report suggest that volunteers are committed, active and politically engaged people who want to see social and political change related to issues facing people seeking asylum. A summary of the highlights of the report is presented below.
ASRC volunteers are mostly female, at opposite ends of the age spectrum (18-34 and 55+), tertiary educated, and culturally diverse (with over half reporting one or more parents born overseas and nearly half speaking a second language).
The top motivations to volunteer are cause-related. The most common response was ‘to help address the issues facing people seeking asylum’. Older volunteers and female volunteers are more likely to volunteer for cause-related reasons, while younger volunteers are more interested in gaining professional skills and advocacy and campaigning skills.
Active and politically engaged
Volunteers report high levels of political engagement. They also volunteer for other organisations or make financial or in-kind donations. Their networks are active in the community, with over half reporting having friends or family that volunteer.
Volunteers’ top concerns in Australia are poor treatment of people seeking asylum, domestic violence and Indigenous issues. Their top concerns relating to Australia’s current approach to people seeking asylum are the poor treatment of people seeking asylum and the detention system.
What volunteers want to see
Volunteers want the Australian government to increase its humanitarian intake and support UNHCR, to explore alternative approaches to the current system for people arriving by sea, end mandatory detention and support regional resettlement.
How to create change
Volunteers feel that the most effective ways to create social and political change on this issue are programs that educate the community, volunteering, and conversations with friends and family. Most feel that they are making a difference through their volunteering.
“I feel a certain amount of hopelessness and powerlessness. Volunteering makes me feel I am doing something concrete to effect small-scale change in the lives of some, by showing ‘Hey some people care, some people want you here’ I am making a small difference as well as saying to the government ‘I disagree with your policies”.
– ASRC volunteer
Comparison with Australian population
Using the 2015 Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion Survey as the point of comparison (nb. since our report was published, a more recent Scanlon survey has been released), volunteers feel more strongly about the poor treatment of people seeking asylum, Indigenous issues, racism and climate change than the general Australian population. Volunteers also more strongly support multiculturalism, feel less of a sense of belonging and pride towards Australia, and are more greatly concerned about inequity.
Benefits and barriers to volunteering
Volunteers gain cross-cultural communication skills, a sense of empowerment in effecting change, information and awareness, and belonging and connection from their volunteering experience. They contribute their time (a reported 350,000 hours), skills (e.g. the ability to speak collectively over 55 languages), networks, loyalty and institutional know-how, and passion for the cause.
Barriers to volunteering include the commitment needed, with most volunteers having other commitments such as work, family and study and a desire for more flexible volunteering opportunities.
Member volunteers are a relatively new and unique feature of the ASRC’s volunteering population. Making up just under 10 per cent of the ASRC’s volunteers, member volunteers are people seeking asylum who both volunteer and access the ASRC’s services. The top motivation for member volunteers is ‘to give back to the community’. Member volunteers emphasise the importance of reciprocity and feeling connected. Through volunteering they gain cross-cultural communication skills, suggesting that volunteering provides a pathway to integration in Australian society and workplace culture.
Nearly all volunteers are satisfied with their experience at the ASRC and feel supported. For most their satisfaction increased over time due to feeling a sense of contribution, value and connectedness. In cases of reported decreased satisfaction, factors include growth, the high level of commitment required, feeling undervalued, and experiencing vicarious trauma. Most volunteers indicate interest in further involvement with the ASRC.
This research was undertaken as part of a pro-bono consultancy for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Volunteer Program. The research team was Tess Altman (lead researcher) and Fran Demetriou (researcher). Grateful thanks to the ASRC Volunteer Program (Lindsay Haines and Namrata Mundkur) for their input.
Top Image Credit: Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Volunteer Information Night, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2014. 4159.0—General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4159.0Main%20Features152014.
Altman, T. and Demetriou, F. 2016. Volunteers at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Report for the ASRC’s Volunteer Program. Retrieved from https://www.asrc.org.au/resources/asrc-papers/.
Behnia, B. 2007. An Exploratory Study of Befriending Programs with Refugees: The Perspective of Volunteer Organizations. Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies 5(3): 1-19.
Lange, C., Kamalkhani, Z. and Baldassar, L. 2007. Afghan Hazara Refugees in Australia: Constructing Australian Citizens. Social Identities 13(1): 31-50.
Markus, A. 2015. Mapping Social Cohesion National Report. Melbourne: Scanlon Foundation. Retrieved from http://scanlonfoundation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2015-Mapping-Social-Cohesion-Report.pdf.
Oppenheimer, M. and Warburton, J. 2014. Volunteering in Australia. Annandale: The Federation Press.
Refugee Council of Australia. 2017. 2017-2018 Federal Budget: What it means for refugees and people seeking humanitarian protection. Retrieved from http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/publications/2017-2018-federal-budget/.
Sawtell, J., Dickson-Swift, V. and Verrinder, G. 2010. “It’s not all tied up with bureaucrats and funding”: Autonomous volunteer participation in the rural resettlement of refugees. Australian Journal of Social Issues 45(4): 543-558.
Wilson, E. 2011. Much to be Proud of, Much to be Done: Faith-based Organizations and the Politics of Asylum in Australia. Journal of Refugee Studies 24(3): 548-564.
Tess Altman is a PhD Candidate in social anthropology at University College London. She has previously conducted research on volunteers in New Zealand, Europe and Australia and worked in multicultural policy and volunteer management.