Refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced forced or exploitative labour have found volunteering “invaluable” in exiting these circumstances, a study has found.
Published last week by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Precarious Lives outlines harrowing experiences of forced labour and exploitation by refugees and asylum seekers in England and provides recommendations to improve their support.
“The devastating effects on individuals of years spent in precarious and sometimes forced labour, living in poverty and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment is hard to overstate,” say the report’s authors from the Universities of Salford and Leeds.
The publication, the result of a two-year research project, comes hot on the heels of a campaign launched in May by Refugee Action urging the government to change its guidance on volunteering for asylum seekers. The ‘A right to volunteer campaign’ raises awareness that refugees are allowed to volunteer in the UK, but condemns current Home Office guidelines which incorrectly advises that they can only volunteer for a registered charity or voluntary organisation, not public sector organisations, which are included in the wider definition of volunteering. Refugee Action says the guidelines also incorrectly state that refused asylum seekers can’t volunteer, something the organisation says has been verbally agreed as incorrect by the government department.
Dr Hannah Lewis, co-author of Precarious Lives who is also involved in the right to volunteer campaign, told civilsociety.co.uk that the flawed Home Office guidance has been a major barrier to the asylum seekers and refugees interviewed for the study:
“We’ve come across examples of people who have been volunteering in organisations like the NHS for example and were told that they couldn’t do that any longer. In one case it was when they had been volunteering for about six or seven months and they were told they couldn’t do that any more and it was that, actually, that led them into exploitative work.”
How volunteering helps asylum seekers and refugees
Precarious Lives collates accounts from 30 asylum seekers and refugees who have suffered in exploitative labour. It highlights the importance of volunteering to these individuals:
“Most of our interviewees were still in a cycle risking re-entry to exploitative labour. A few had begun to progress towards more secure livelihoods with the support of refugee, migrant, advice, legal, mental health and other voluntary and community service provision. These individuals considered quality volunteering placements and access to education as key to their route out of precarity,” the authors say.
Dr Lewis explained that while there is “no substitute for giving people the right to work”, volunteering offers important support and opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees:
“What volunteering does most importantly is allow people to build meaningful relationships with people from diverse backgrounds including long-term residents in the UK and other migrants. And that’s really critical for someone who has been really isolated and probably had their trust eroded considerably as a result of their experience.
“It also helps a lot with language and tacit understanding of how systems work in the UK.”
Dr Lewis is also co-author of the study A part of society: Refugees and asylum seekers volunteering in the UK which offers case studies of organisations outside of the refugee sector that are involving refugees and asylum seekers volunteering opportunities, including Oxfam and a Citizens Advice Bureau. She told civilsociety.co.uk that she is also working on a knowledge exchange project, funded by ESRC, to improve understanding and share experiences of forced labour and asylum between eight cross-sector organisations. These are: Anti-Slavery International, Refugee Action, Refugee Council, Employability Forum, Migration Yorkshire, TUC, and legal advisors from Henry Hyams, and Thompson’s solicitors.
Voluntary sector constraints
While last week’s report champions the importance of volunteering, it also highlights constraints within the voluntary sector preventing support for these vulnerable individuals, which will undoubtedly become more apparent in the knowledge exchange:
“In the statutory, voluntary and community sector we found that many agencies are not equipped to respond appropriately to forced labour among refugees and asylum seekers,” the authors say, advising of low levels of awareness of labour exploitation and its effects in some parts of the sector. “More particularly,” they advise, “asylum seeker service providers often actively avoid discussion of work experiences making detection unlikely.”
The authors recognise the limitations provided by funding constraints on the sector, but advise that it has a key role to play in reducing forced labour with the resources it does hold. The report recommends that organisations engage service users in discussion of work; continue to campaign for the right to work for asylum seekers; prioritise destitution provision for basic needs and provide information and make themselves known to potential service users.