A part of society
Refugees and asylum seekers volunteering in the UK
By Ruth Wilson and Hannah Lewis
The following is an account of the methodology used for the case study research for ‘A Part of Society’ (Wilson and Lewis, 2006). For reasons of
space, we provide a short account of the methodology in the actual publication. The information here includes the published methodology, but adds more detail.
The report itself is available from: www.tandem-uk.com
This report is based on research carried out between March and November 2005 using qualitative methods. The aim of the research is to enable the successful involvement of refugees and asylum seekers as volunteers in mainstream organisations. As this is an emerging practice, a case study method was considered appropriate to capture organisational learning.
By profiling good practice and exploring challenges and possible solutions, it is hoped the report will help promote diversity in volunteering. A promotional element helped guide the research, for example, with the inclusion of photography.
Preparatory research included:
A literature review: this found that little has been written about refugee volunteering in the UK. Publications on volunteering, policy, and case study research and methodologies helped to shape research design. Those we found most useful are listed in Appendix 5 of the full report, Useful Publications. Key refugee methods publications are found below.
Focus groups: Three focus groups were held in London, Birmingham and Glasgow, involving 22 people from the refugee sector and voluntary agencies. Participants were identified through snowballing from existing contact lists and through key agencies. The groups discussed the criteria for selection of case studies, the direction and content of the report, and identified possible case studies.
Identifying case studies
We then sought to identify up to 12 case study organisations.
Selection criteria for organisations were:
; mainstream – outside of the refugee sector
; having three or more volunteers for a period of over three months ; a mixture of local and national, small and large voluntary organisations
and at least one statutory body
; geographical spread across the UK
; a range of sectors and client groups
; volunteers to include different age groups and nationalities, men and
women, asylum seekers and refugees
In practice, selection was also guided by the limited number of organisations already involving refugee volunteers. A large number of contacts helped to find possible case studies. Many organisations fell short of the criteria, often due to having too few volunteers for too short a period, or where roles were work placements or work shadowing, not volunteering. As a result, the decision was made to reduce the number of case studies from twelve to ten.
Interviews were carried out with 33 volunteers in 10 organisations, their volunteer managers and sometimes other staff and managers, and staff at intermediary organisations.
A summary of the research purpose and plan was sent to managers and volunteers prior to visiting the organisation. Volunteer managers established initial consent with volunteers. The researchers recognise the importance of trusting and positive relationships between volunteers and their managers: these helped to establish informed consent, confidentiality, and permission to withdraw. Verbal consent was then confirmed by the researchers at the time of the interview. Written consent was secured for photographs, which were taken at a separate visit.
Selection was not limited to English speakers - however all the volunteers interviewed had good English so no interpreting was needed. Notes were taken by hand during the interview and afterwards. Thus quotes are sometimes approximations.
Questions for semi-structured interviews were based on the model developed by Katherine Gaskin in ‘A Choice Blend: what organisations want from volunteers and management’. Gaskin’s model starts with the non-
volunteer and progresses to the long-term volunteer. Four stages are identified: the doubter (who is outside volunteering); the starter (who has made an enquiry or application; the doer (who has begun volunteering) and the stayer (who persists as a long-term volunteer).
As Gaskin explains, the aim of the volunteering world and the volunteering infrastructure is to aid each transition in the most positive way possible, to transform the doubter into a starter into a doer into a stayer. We adapted this framework to enable us to look at organisations as well as volunteers. We added the term ‘leaver’ because we wanted to understand what
happened when refugees and people seeking asylum finished volunteering somewhere, and we also added a ‘follow-on’ category, to include longer-
term organisational issues arising from the initial experience of involving refugees and people seeking asylum as volunteers.
Interview schedules were tailored differently for volunteers, organisations, and intermediaries – all were framed around the following categories:
Doubter: volunteers’ past experience and knowledge of volunteering; how intermediaries became involved with placing refugee volunteers.
Starter: how the volunteers and organisations found each other; promotion; recruitment procedures; induction and training.
Doer: volunteer roles; challenges and solutions; support and management.
Stayer: development of roles, policy and practice; ongoing contact and outcomes; involvement in decision-making.
Leaver: why volunteers leave and what they do next; managing endings; references.
Wider context: encouraging others to volunteer; advice for other
organisations and refugees about volunteering; impact of wider factors (national policy, funding, etc.)
Questions placed some emphasis on ‘additionality’: how refugee procedures and experiences were different or the same as those for existing ‘mainstream’ volunteers.
The above structure became a useful analytical tool, reflected in the layout of the final report. It was possible to analyse data across these categories within each case study; and to compare case studies across a single category.
‘Avoiding harm’ in interviews
Monitoring data on country of origin, length of time in the UK, age, gender, and past experience were collected to ensure representation. Breadth of these factors were sought, although inclusion was also guided by the agreement of organisations and volunteers to take part. Information about nationality and past experience can be sensitive for refugees. For this reason, monitoring questions were left until the end of the interview. Furthermore, as one volunteer said of their experience of engaging with services: ‘the first thing anyone does is ask for (immigration) status’. This can be dehumanising; it is important that the experience of research does not replicate or reinforce such tendencies.
The avoidance of harm is considered a minimum requirement of ethical obligations to refugee research participants (Hynes, 2003). The researchers made efforts to make the interviews as informal as possible. Whilst often a
highly appropriate research method, interviewing may have negative connotations for people who undergo repeated interviews in the course of official processes (see also Hynes 2003, Jacob and Landau 2003).
Consideration was also given to the visibility of the research – not all
volunteers were known by their colleagues to be refugees. The question of ‘mainstreaming’ the inclusion of refugees was a concern for the research, and the organisations involved. To what extent does naming ‘refugees’ (in both research and volunteering initiatives) help or hamper longer-term inclusion? There is no single answer, but organisations showed a strong desire to differentiate profiling refugee inclusion from labelling: sensitivity to identifying legal status, ethnicity and personal details emerged in the research as an important feature of good practice in volunteering.
The project was funded by the Home Office. Association with government bodies can be a source of anxiety for refugees and asylum seekers, and those who work with them. It was therefore important to reinforce the independence of the researchers and confidentiality of participant’s data.
Checking text and photograph consent
Draft text was reviewed by the Volunteering and Asylum Project advisory group (see Appendix 2 in the report for a list of members) and other key contacts, and relevant sections were sent to all participants for checking prior to publication. This gave volunteers an opportunity to review their decision regarding anonymity – a couple decided to use their names, one
withdrew their name. It also allowed organisations and volunteers to check they were happy with quotes and make any desired alterations. It may be particularly important for asylum seekers, whose circumstances can change quickly, to have the opportunity to review consent and permission to withdraw.
Maintaining contact with organisations in this way has also allowed the researchers to stay in touch with developments in volunteering. Whilst the report reflects the research period in autumn 2005, insights into ongoing developments could prove useful for any future work stemming from the research.
The photography consent form allowed the possibility to differentiate consent for a number of possible uses: printed publications, photo exhibition, websites (related to volunteering), local and national press, CD/DVD. Precariousness of immigration status can have an impact on people’s willingness to be involved. Sometimes volunteers who had agreed
to having their photograph taken, for example, withdrew later. People living in exile may have pressing reasons for wishing to suppress exposure of their lives in the UK.
Engaging with change
During the course of the research, researchers got involved in helping organisations get in touch with useful contacts. Sometimes the result of
engagement with the research itself opened up lines of communication within organisations and among intermediaries, raising awareness of the roles and skills of refugee volunteers. Difficulties with completing Criminal Record Bureau (CRB) checks emerged as a challenge for all of those organisations requiring them and the researchers shared information about this and put some organisations in touch with others addressing this issue.
Overall, it is hoped that both the research process and the final publication will help to improve and expand the volunteering experiences of refugees.
The following are some of the publications that assisted us with methodology in particular. Please see also the appendix ‘Useful publications’ in the report itself.
Bloch, A 1999 ‘Carrying out a survey of refugees: some methodological
considerations and guidelines’ Journal of Refugee Studies 12:4
Gaskin, K. 2003 ‘A Choice Blend: What volunteers want from organisations and
management’, Institute of Volunteering Research and Volunteering Forum.
Available at www.volunteeringengland.org
Hynes, T. 2003 ‘The issue of ‘trust’ or ‘mistrust’ in research with refugees: choices,
caveats and consideration for researchers. New Issues in Refugee Research,
Working Paper No. 98. Geneva: UNHCR. Available at
Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK (ICAR) 2004 A rough guide
to navigating secondary sources of data and information on refugees and
asylum seekers in the UK, a guide produced for the Second Annual
Postgraduate Conference on Forced Migration in Coventry, 15 March 2004 by
ICAR. Available at http://www.icar.org.uk
Jacobsen, K. and Landau, L. 2003 ‘Researching refugees: some methodological and
ethical considerations in social science and forced migration’ New Issues in
Refugee Research, Working Paper No. 90 Geneva: UNHCR. Available at
Malkki, L 1995 ‘Refugees and exile: from ‘Refugee Studies’ to the national order of
things’ Annual Review of Anthropology 24, pp. 495-523
Robinson, V 2002 ‘’Doing research’ with refugees and asylum seekers’ Swansea
Geographer 37, pp. 61-67
Yin, R (2003) ‘Case Study Research – design and methods’, Sage Publications