Volunteering for and by migrants

Image shows migrants working for a social project.
Image: Adobe Stock / Drazen

Geographers at FAU investigate how volunteering can contribute to successful integration in rural areas

Who undertakes voluntary work aimed at encouraging the integration of migrants in rural areas? What contribution do the migrants themselves make towards a lively volunteering culture in rural areas? Which measures can be introduced to ensure a wide range of voluntary activities remain in place over the long term? These are the questions geographers from FAU pursued in the research project EMILIE. It is hoped that the results of the study funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture can be integrated into political action strategies.

Accepting large numbers of refugees from Ukraine or immigrants from other states has shown that helping new arrivals integrate into and participate in society is an ongoing task for society. “Volunteers have an important role to play, especially in rural areas,” explains Dr. Stefan Kordel from the Institute of Geography at FAU. “The number of people dedicated to helping migrants is declining, however.”

Korbel is the principal investigator in the research project EMILIE, funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture from May 2021 to April 2024. The aim of the study was on the one hand to investigate the circumstances of people who committed to helping migrants and refugees in rural areas and their reasons for doing so. “On the other hand, we also wanted to find out how the migrants themselves become involved in their new homes and what experiences they make along the way,” explains Kordel. Interviews were held with volunteers in four rural districts in Germany: Bernkastel-Wittlich (Rhineland-Palatinate), Dithmarschen (Schleswig-Holstein), Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Bavaria) und Salzlandkreis (Saxony Anhalt).

Level of engagement highest in senior citizens, well-educated people and those who have moved to the area

The first project phase involved interviewing 53 people who are committed to helping migrants. “These people tend to be elderly, female, well-educated and have moved to the region themselves from other regions within Germany at some time in the past,” explains project member Dr. Tobias Weidinger. When asked about their motivation for volunteering, those surveyed often cited curiosity about other people, interest in intercultural exchanges, an altruistic attitude, awareness of their own privileged situation or experiences drawn from their own understanding of socialization, for example their upbringing.

The relationships between the volunteers and the target group are generally characterized by empathy and mutual appreciation, according to Weidinger. “How the relationship develops depends to a great extent on the amount of time spent together. What starts out as a group of helpers often leads to a closer and more caring relationship, with those involved sometimes becoming good acquaintances or even friends.” Difficulties arise, however, if volunteers feel overwhelmed or if opinions differ when it comes to issues of closeness and distance. It is not uncommon for the voluntary work to be met with misunderstanding or rejection within the local population, which can lead to volunteers giving up.

New arrivals who become involved in volunteering tend to be younger, male and well-educated

In the second phase, the researchers spoke to 72 people who had migrated to Germany in recent years from 29 different countries and who were involved in volunteering, for example as sports coaches, in the PTA at elementary school or in helping other migrants. “Volunteers with a migrant background tend to be younger, male and are also well-educated,” explains Tobias Weidinger. “The interviews showed that voluntary work, as practiced in Germany, either does not exist or is not permitted in their countries of origin, or often focuses on the extended family, neighborhood or religious community.”

Their reasons for becoming involved in the rural communities where they have now settled are similar to those in phase one, but they are also motivated by concerns particular to migrants, for example the wish to improve their own integration and participation in society through their engagement or to show solidarity with other recent migrants. According to project leader Stefan Kordel, “Migrants use volunteering as a way to make the most of abilities and talents that would otherwise be neglected or ignored. This includes, for example, the ability to speak more than one language, as well as IT skills or a professional background as a teacher or event manager.”

Engagement as a driver of rural development

“Practicing German, making new contacts and gaining local knowledge are very beneficial to social inclusion,” Kordel explains. “Engagement not only has a positive effect on the individuals themselves, but also on the participation of the people they care for and on the development of rural communities. Clubs and societies can be kept alive, ideally new clubs or societies can be formed, interaction is encouraged between new groups of people, and a stronger sense of community develops.”

Based on the results of the project EMILIE (which stands for Voluntary work for and with migrants in rural communities: social circumstances, potential and activation strategies), the researchers derived recommendations for action in the fields of politics, administration and civil society aimed at sustainably strengthening voluntary work. Examples include lowering hurdles to becoming involved in the first place, for example by providing information in several languages, simplifying the registration process, providing advice for volunteers and checking talents using the services of agencies for volunteers; providing rooms where people can come together to share experiences; reliable funding and compensation for any expenses incurred; communication with offices and authorities based on mutual trust; and last but not least lightening the load for volunteers, for example by digitalizing administrative procedures.

Further information: 
Dr. Stefan Kordel
Institute of Geography
Phone: + 49 9131 85 23097