Migration and participation: How much volunteering is possible?

- Guest article by Gün Tank of the Migrationsrat Berlin e.V. -

Migrant organisations are treated as if they are the newcomers to civil society. Often it is not a choice for members and volunteers whether they want to do voluntary civic work or not. Since opportunities are either absent or designed with others in mind, involvement often becomes an immediate necessity, a compulsion. And at the same time, volunteering opens up the possibility to disregard established ways and structures and do what is really needed.

© Migrationsrat Berlin e.V.

"What is 'voluntary work' in the context of migration and where does activism begin?" was one of the guiding questions of the kick-off event in the field of action "Migration and Participation" on 18 August 2021. Hajdi Barz, managing director of RomaniPhen e.V., a feminist association of Sinti_zze and Rom_nja, Larissa Neu, managing director of the association Harmonie e.V., which was founded by (late) repatriates, and Özlem Topuz, who runs a senior citizens' recreation centre in Tempelhof-Schöneberg, discussed the difficulties of defining migrant involvement ("What is voluntary work anyway?"), but also the question of why migrant initiatives and associations are seen as competition for long-established associations or as "non-professional competition". 

"The main thing for us was what we wanted". 

Larissa Neu impressively described how (late) repatriates in Berlin came together more than twenty years ago to accompany and support others and to help them with their concerns: "Where we came from - from the former Soviet Union - there was no term for 'voluntary work', but it was clear to us that we help each other and do the necessary work. In a very similar vein, Özlem Topuz referred to the lack of terms, saying that for many, taking on civic responsibility is nothing special, but that there is often a lack of public recognition and appreciation for what is done for society as a matter of course in everyday life. Hajdi Barz also pointed out that taking things for granted can also lead to exploitative situations, for example when it is assumed that "the community" will take care of what is needed. 

"You have to be able to afford commitment" 

While volunteering is a choice for many, for others it is a must. Özlem Topuz referred to studies that show that "recognised" volunteering is mainly for people who can afford it because of age, gender, financial situation and other factors. It is not surprising, he said, that there are an above-average number of older men from the middle class, while others are often unable to take on additional recognised forms of volunteering due to other commitments (housework, education, training/career, etc.). "A woman who has been precariously employed, part-time and/or underpaid for many years will be tied to additional earnings even as a pensioner* and will not have time," Özlem Topuz said. 

"Demand what we need!" 

In order to deal with the many difficulties in recruiting volunteers, in the promotion of "new blood" and the lack of full-time flanking support for volunteers, the speakers and participants concluded by discussing what needs to improve in order to promote the participation of migrants. "A basic funding that is not tied to temporary projects would help to cover supervision, administration, management, rent and running costs and to make volunteering a real choice and not a compulsion," Hajdi Barz summarised. Sustainable work by and with volunteers also needs training and qualification opportunities that take place within migrant organisations. 

Further information on the field of action can be found here: Field of Action: Migration and Participation