Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Political Motivations for Volunteering for Refugees: Mainly Absent at the Start, Mostly Present Thereafter


Maikel Meijeren
PhD candidate, Radboud University’s Department of Sociology


Time to read

3 Minutes

Guest post by Maikel Meijeren. Maikel is a PhD candidate at Radboud University’s Department of Sociology in the project Volunteering for helping refugees in the Netherlands: Building a common identity. He has a specific focus on the key role that volunteers have in helping refugees connect to local societies.

a woman speaking on the phone sitting next to a young girl
Volunteering for refugees. Photo from pixabay


Humanitarian crises in Europe share the similarity that they mobilize large parts of civil society who are often triggered by the acuteness of the situation. I experienced this myself when the Dutch refugee camp Heumensoord was opened in 2021 to host refugees from Afghanistan. Local authorities were not prepared for this, but since the camp had also served as a shelter for the reception of Syrians in 2015-2016, it was quickly made ready again. However, the networks of volunteers who helped the Syrians at the time had largely disappeared. Despite that, many volunteers in and around the Dutch city of Nijmegen mobilized and volunteered under the formal auspice of an organization, or more privately via informal ways. It is no coincidence that Nijmegen responded so quickly to the Afghans who fled and also had a refugee camp earlier. Nijmegen, located on the river Waal, is a politically very left-leaning city. It has been called ‘Havana on the Waal’ and it has many residents who are concerned about the fate of refugees and, consequently, started volunteering. In doing so, these volunteers for refugees can fulfil an important bridge function between the host society and refugees. From the side of the host society, volunteers make the first contact with refugees. They can help introduce refugees into the community. Vice versa, for refugees, volunteers represent the host society and its requirements.

There is thus more than enough relevance to delve deeper into the motives for volunteering for refugees, and political motives in particular. Political motives are namely relatively unimportant to start volunteering for refugees (see also the work from Nina Eliasoph, Liisa Malkki and Elisa Sandri), but become important as a motivator to continue volunteering (see also the work from Donatella della Porta and Elias Steinhilper and Sophie Hinger). The question is: what lies behind this remarkable reversal? 

Three reasons explain how volunteers for refugees gradually become ‘politicized’ during their voluntary work. The first one relates to situations where volunteers face adversity and hostility towards their engagement and, consequently, politicize their motivations. There is namely a growing tendency of hostility and criminalization towards volunteers’ acts in Europe (see also the work from Donatella della Porta and Elias Steinhilper). These tendencies challenge the neutral stance of volunteers, who have previously perceived their activities as non-political. It leads to a moral question (also justifiably raised in the work from Pierre Monforte and Gaja Maestri): ‘how can volunteers remain neutral in the face of adversity?’ A volunteer said in the work of Elisa Sandri that “it gets very difficult not to realize that this type of caring becomes politically motivated. So this side of things made me feel more politically motivated”.

A second reason are the interactions in the ‘spaces of encounter’ between volunteers (among themselves) and with refugees. In a nutshell, the mechanism is that those involved are shaped by interactions with others during their involvement (see for instance the work from Larissa Fleischmann and Elias Steinhilper). Working with and being surrounded by like-minded people who have similar thoughts on migration ensures that volunteers' motivations are re-evaluated. It is in these spaces that volunteers develop critical arguments against restrictive migration policies (see also the work of Pierre Monforte and Gaja Maestri and Sophie Hinger).

The last reason is the political context what this type of volunteer work is surrounded with. This works twofold: volunteers are namely influenced by political factors at the organizational level and the societal level. To begin with the first, and with an example from my own country: one of the Netherlands largest refugee organizations VluchtelingenWerk (Refugee Work) demands for change to Dutch asylum policies by successfully challenging various political decisions through the courts. Such successful attempts receive a lot of media attention. Straightforwardly, the organization themselves is also paying a lot of attention to it via their media channels. It is therefore inevitable that the sum of all these parts also fuels the political consciousness of volunteers from VluchtelingenWerk, who may consequently view their volunteering in function of political change.

Similarly, the European context of increasingly restrictive immigration policies and the subject of migration as dominant issue of political conflict also influences the political awareness of volunteers. In the Dutch case, the inhuman circumstances in Ter Apel received lots of (international) media attention. This societal context may also contribute to volunteers seeing their volunteering through the eye of political change.       

The foregoing illustrates that volunteers for refugees find themselves as actors in a political arena. Sometimes at the center, when they face adversity from their engagement, and sometimes more peripheral when the politicization is more indirect. In the midst of all these forces, one thing becomes crystal clear: it becomes very difficult for volunteers not to see their voluntary acts in light of political considerations and political change. Not surprisingly, political motives often naturally gain importance the longer volunteers work on behalf of refugees.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

M. Meijeren. (2023) Political Motivations for Volunteering for Refugees: Mainly Absent at the Start, Mostly Present Thereafter. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/04/political-motivations-volunteering-refugees-mainly. Accessed on: 04/12/2023

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