5b. The delegation of governance to the voluntary sector

We have some difficulties sometimes, especially…the new ones in the city. You can advise them, you can help them, but the barrier of language, sometimes they have to come back to you all the time…it’s a kind of hard thing (refugee man, arrived in Britain in 2002)

For voluntary and community sector organizations working with refugees, the lack of funding and the need to make the best possible use of available resources increased pressure to recruit voluntary labour.[1] In the voluntary and community sector more widely, under Labour governments from 1997 there was a trend towards the replacement of a ‘volunteering ethos’ by a managerialism favouring work by paid and contracted professionals. This existed in tension with a continued reliance on volunteers, prompted both by a lack of resources and by their importance as a link to the communities organisations seek to engage. John Morison suggests a dominant approach to resolving this contradiction was to reconceptualise ‘the community as a mobilising focus for collective action in a way that links ‘the sturdy “self-reliance” of the past’ (drawing upon nostalgia for traditional working-class communities) with the ‘“active citizenry” of community action in the present’.[2] This has now been increased further through the massive cuts to funding for the voluntary and public sectors, and the ideology of the ‘Big Society’ promising voluntary action as a replacement. In the case of the refugee sector, this contributed to a situation where the wider pressures acting on refugees as clients, volunteers and staff kept the work as a whole under constant pressure and instability, and severely limited the potential for support and development.[3]

My research in Newcastle included case studies of four organizations that occupied different positions along a continuum from direct delivery of state contracts, through organizations with a more ambiguous relationship to the state, to those engaged in outright opposition to the state’s policies. Organisations are indicated by anonymized acronyms: VOL, a voluntary sector project delivering contracts for the Home Office alongside a range of other activities; COM, a community advice and signposting project established by refugees; CHUR, a church-based project delivering signposting, advice and hardship support; and CAMP, an asylum rights campaign group.  COM provides a case where a lack of preparation by the state prior to dispersal led refugees without status to actively engage with the state in an attempt to deal with hostile elements of the local population:

‘our phone used to ring even at 2am, someone [who had] just been attacked by their neighbour used to call, we had to do something, we had to…force ourselves to be known to the local authorities, I’m talking about the police, especially the police…prior to the dispersal programme the government did not prepare the region…it was like how many beds can you prepare, oh a hundred beds, phew, and people were found in an area where there were no connections, the local community were not prepared for that, and so that’s why [there were] those funny stories about asylum seekers, they have nice phones, whatever.’ (COM management committee member 1)

Yet even with this trust and willingness to engage with the state, the same project found limits to how far up the state hierarchy they were permitted access, and a lack of trust from the state to the point where Home Office representatives would not set foot in the centre:

‘we don’t deal directly with the government, the government always uses its local representation, its regional representation…and the regional representation [are] using other services to reach us. It’s very rare to have a direct link – I remember one year, I think it was 2005, there were a group of directors from the Home Office, they were touring in the different regions…they came, but they didn’t want to come in, they were just in the bus, so we had to go in the bus!’ (COM management committee member 1)

This limitation of refugees’ ‘linking’ role, to within boundaries set by the state as the ‘partner’ with greater power, was echoed in reports by refugees volunteering that indicate the disempowering impact of acting as a ‘messenger’ for the real decision-makers:

‘we don’t have any power like the government to decide on their behalf…We have no power.’ (COM management committee member 2)

‘[Being] support workers means that we’re not legal representation, and we are not the decision maker…we’re taking the client’s enquiry and everything to the Home Office, and we’re taking the Home Office decision…to the client, and basically we explain to the client what…the Home Office are saying, what’s their policy, what’s their law. And we’re sending the client’s [documents]…to the Home Office.’ (VOL volunteer 4)

Yet despite this lack of power on the part of volunteers, participants reported the practical linking roles played by VOL as reaching a point where any distinction between VOL and the state was absent in the eyes of some users:

‘I’ve found actually the role of [VOL] very, very useful, just like a bridge. You know, it’s just like the medium, whatever problem people bring in…they’ll take it on, and they’ll try, and they try to link up with anybody, with the Home Office…some people think maybe it’s the Home Office.’ (VOL volunteer 5)

A recurring theme across different projects was the importance of winning trust through dialogue and the example of organisations’ actions, in order to overcome divisions and build effective collective action. One participant from COM explained the organisation’s initial challenge of winning the trust and understanding of other refugees:

‘people used to find it strange…there were some misconceptions among the community…that [we were] getting the money from the public funds [and were making money from the project], and we had to explain all the time. But the goodness of what we are doing, beside the explanation, we were showing the work. So we were accountable for whatever work we were doing. And that made us to be strong at a certain point.’ (COM management committee member 1)

Several refugees I interviewed who were engaged in more oppositional forms of action suggested that VOL’s close relationship with the state seriously compromised that organisation’s relationship to refugees, constituting a weakening of trust between refugees and VOL as the price for the level of engagement between VOL and the state:

‘[VOL] isn’t really a group that I particularly trust…because for me it’s just another face of the Home Office.’ (Ivory Coast, arrived 2000)

Several refugees, most prominently those volunteering with VOL but extending to volunteers at other projects, reported dilemmas arising from the tension between their position as a refugee and their desire to defend the interests of other refugees, and the requirements in their organisational role to act as a bridge to the state:

‘We can’t be more supportive of clients than supportive of the Home Office, we’re supposed to be in the middle, but sometimes when you see how the Home Office is trying to make it really hard for people…it’s really hard to stay detached…knowing how hard it is for people sometimes you just say ‘Oh, forget it’ and you really try to help people…here people are just in charge of other people’s lives, because it’s so important, like one wrong move can just wreck someone’s life…you’re always under pressure and tension.’ (VOL volunteer 2)

The tension described above may be understood as arising from the attempt to ‘bridge’ between interests that stand in objective contradiction to one another, in this case the interests of refugees without status on the one hand and the interests of the British state on the other, and behind it the British capitalist class. Thus, by operating through delegated and ‘partner’ NGOs, the British state has been able to both maintain engagement of many refugees despite their deep mistrust of the state itself, and at the same time to define the acceptable limits within which refugees may organise in defence of their interests.[4] One thing that has been distinctive about the development of the refugee relations industry, when compared to earlier elements of the race relations industry, is that it has developed in a context of increasingly direct delegation of tasks by the state to voluntary organisations, enforced through mechanisms such as ‘market tendering’, ‘best value frameworks’ and ‘contractual compliance’, and with a focus on bureaucratic efficiency rather than democratic accountability.[5] There was some evidence among participants in my research that this may have transferred some of the tensions away from the organisational level, where contracts operate, but intensified tensions at the level of individual volunteers, who, by the nature of their unpaid work, are resistant to reduction of their activity to a contractual basis.


[1] WLRI. (2005). Women refugees – from volunteers to employees: a research project on paid and unpaid work in the voluntary sector and volunteering as a pathway into employment. London: Working Lives Research Institute.

[2] Morison, J. (2000). ‘The government-voluntary sector compacts: governance, governmentality, and civil society’. Journal of Law and Society, 27(1), 98-132.

[3] Evelyn Oldfield Unit. (2004). Refugee Volunteering: Integration in Action. Report of a National Conference. London.

[4] Griffiths, D., et al. (2005). Refugee Community Organisations and Dispersal: Networks, resources and social capital. Bristol: The Policy Press.

[5] Morison, J. (2000). ‘The government-voluntary sector compacts: governance, governmentality, and civil society’. Journal of Law and Society, 27(1), 98-132.

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