An asylum seeker is someone who has moved to a foreign country and whose request or application for asylum is being processed. Whereas a refugee is someone who fled persecution or conflict, and is granted the right to reside in a foreign country. Starting from the year 2001 the Finnish government has been accepting 750 refugees annually – the figure has been raised to 1050 in 2014 and 2015. Though asylum seekers are not lawful residents, while waiting for their application to be processed they have the right to volunteer and get employed after three or six months (http://www.migri.fi).
Two volunteer coordinators have been interviewed to share their views on volunteering among immigrants in general and asylum seekers and refugees in particular. These two coordinators, with their colleagues, organize volunteer work in the social and health care sectors in the metropolitan area of Helsinki. According to them, asylum seekers and refugees don’t necessarily need to have special skills – even those who don’t speak neither Finnish nor English are welcome to volunteer. What is required of them is: motivation, willingness to work with staff and clients, and compassion for clients.
Mostly asylum seekers come for screening interviews with the help of staff of reception centers. Whereas refugees get information about volunteering opportunities through websites, social media and mainly by word of mouth. Prospective volunteers who fulfill the above stated requirements would get orientation and in some cases trainings, and then they would be given an assignment suitable for their conditions. Those who do not speak neither Finnish nor English are assigned to work with or under the supervision of their compatriots who speak Finnish or English. Volunteers with no language skills are assigned to do basic tasks like carrying lunch trays, in the cafeterias of seniors’ service centers, to the tables of seniors with rolling walkers; taking the weak and elderly out for a walk, or pushing the wheelchairs of care home residents for fresh air; and helping in painting and renovation works.
The coordinators believe that for volunteer organizations having refugee and asylum seeker volunteers serves multiple purposes: expediting their social and economic integration (coming into contact with Finns on a regular basis is the best language “class”); getting a helping hand in areas that don’t need professional skills; having migrant volunteers would also help in enhancing and enriching the cultural awareness of clients and staff. They also believe that it is not only the wish to improve their language skills and give back to society that motivate asylum seekers and refugees to volunteer, but also the prospect that volunteering could be a door of opportunity to secure employment. Though volunteering is primarily about giving back to society and getting various rewards in return, in some rare cases it could help to secure employment in the organization they volunteered for. Those who volunteered for long period of time have managed to develop networks that could facilitate their social and economic inclusion into the society.
One of the coordinators thinks that unlike other European countries the social and healthcare sector in Finland is too professional to involve volunteers in large number and in various positions – the believe that each and every activity in the social and healthcare sector should be carried out by professionals has limited volunteering opportunities. Given the big size of the social and healthcare sector, one can see that the number of refugee, asylum seeker and immigrant volunteers is very small. Extra effort must be made to reach out and give more volunteering opportunities to these groups as volunteering provides multifaceted benefits that positively affect their lives in a new country.
The coordinators mentioned that having refugee and asylum seeker volunteers has challenges like punctuality (life for most of them is not absolutely ruled by the clock); high turnover rate; in some cases, it’s a burden to the staff dealing with people who have no or little language skills and Finnish work experience. Some organizations, because of tax laws, have ceased giving free lunch, even for volunteers in seniors’ cafeterias and care homes. Free lunch, depending on the work situation, should be taken as a good incentive. The organizations the coordinators work for do not reimburse travel costs of volunteers. Reimbursing travel expenses of asylum seekers and unemployed refugees ought to be considered by volunteer organizations or reception centers of asylum seekers.
As refugees and asylum seekers may not know much about volunteering and its multifaceted benefits, all possible measures that promote volunteering among refugees and asylum seekers should be taken. Young asylum seekers have crossed into Finland in large numbers than ever before – according to reports about 84 % of the 32 476 asylum seekers who arrived in 2015 are under the age of 34. Taking steps that promote the social and economic inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers into Finnish society would avoid unnecessary and heavy social and economic costs.
Text: Yeteshawork Berhanu
Yeteshawork Berhanu is doing a study on volunteering among immigrants in the metropolitan area of Helsinki: the role of volunteering in promoting social and economic integration of immigrants into Finnish society; the challenges and opportunities of volunteering. yeteshawork.berhanu(at)kansalaisareena.fi
Caption: Demonstration in support of asylum seekers at the railway square of Helsinki, 11.3.2017. Photo: Risto Valkama.