The Danish government have clear rules set out for the acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers into the country, with the integration process being administered in a clear and straight-forward process (see previous articles in this blog series). However, many cases fall into a grey area of laws and regulations, leaving people in need of help that the government might not be able to provide – this is where Danish volunteer initiatives are stepping to help secure social protection for refugees and asylum seekers.
This article explores the initiatives Refugees Welcome and Student Refugees, which provide volunteer help in different aspects of social protection (These initiatives were selected on a random basis, to present two very different approaches to volunteer work with refugees and asylum seekers). As they are not government funded or integrated into the formal social protection system of Denmark, they provide insight into how support can be provided to vulnerable citizens using alternative, community driven initiatives that focus on key livelihood dimensions.
Additionally, these initiatives serve as small-scale approaches for potential scale-up into formal social protection programmes, as well as models that can be emulated in countries facing an influx of migrants and low government capacity to meet the resultant challenges. More so, they highlight the benefits of mobilising local people as peer-to-peer volunteers for the successful integration of refugees and asylum seekers, which is essential, beyond the provision of access to basic services.
Juridical advice and political advocacy by Refugees Welcome
The small humanitarian organisation, Refugees Welcome does not provide any direct social assistance to refugees (Refugees Welcome, 2019a), however, the volunteers ensure that refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark receive the social protection they are entitled to, by giving juridical advice and lobbying for their interests. The latter consists of sharing the experiences of refugees’ to draw local people’s attention in the public discourse (Refugees Welcome, 2019d).
Established in 2010, 15 volunteers provide weekly personal advice in the community centre, Trampoline House, in the capital Copenhagen (Refugees Welcome, 2019b; Trampoline House, 2019). Besides this, they offer consulting and help via email, telephone, or Facebook-chat on questions regarding asylum, family reunification, permanent and humanitarian residence permits, and application for Danish citizenship (Refugees Welcome, 2019b).
Besides this direct communication, the organisation also offers leaflets and step-by-step guides, available in many languages (Refugees Welcome, 2019c). In case refugees or asylum seekers need to submit official applications or complaints, the volunteers of Refugees Welcome also function as pro bono lawyers in managing these cases (Refugees Welcome, 2019b).
Such efforts ensure that refugees and asylum seekers receive the social protection they are entitled to in Denmark. This also compliments social integration, as this vulnerable population group are aware that experts in the Danish society are willing to help out and fight for their rights.
The organisation ensures a high level of competency and correct judicial advice and counselling by only accepting volunteers with a relevant education, such as Global Refugee Studies or law – additionally, these selected applicants need to participate in an extra educational workshop before being allowed to work with refugees and asylum seekers (Refugees Welcome, 2019b).
DIY labour market intervention by Student Refugees
Social protection includes policies and programs aimed at promoting employment, which has proven effects on labour markets (see McCord, 2018). For young refugees, help in accessing relevant education to expand their skills and prepare themselves for the Danish labour market is essential to their successful integration. Danish students are well poised to support refugees and asylum seekers in accessing institutions of secondary education.
Accordingly, in 2015, students at Roskilde University initiated a series of presentations and events to inform refugees interested in studies about possibilities available to them. Simultaneously, the Student House in Copenhagen commenced a Mentor Programme for refugee students (Student Refugees, 2019b).
These two projects eventually merged and gained financial support to establish a Buddy Programme and an information portal (ibid.). This demonstrates that volunteer-driven social protection initiatives, led by private individuals, can expand to involve public and private foundations and investors that are driven to provide refugees with additional support to what official state-driven labour market interventions offer.
The information portal offers relevant links, information and advice as “[the Danish] migration and refugee laws are subject to constant changes” (Student Refugees, 2019a) the regulations and requirements might seem like too great an obstacle for refugees to start or continue studies in their area of interest or expertise.
As a first step, the Student Refugees website offers an overview of the Danish Education System, information on how to access higher education based on refugee status, and guidance through the application process and its requirements (accessible: https://studentrefugees.dk/en/).
In cases where more personalised help and advice is needed, Student Refugees offers a bi-weekly “Application Café”, which provides personal assistance in exploring opportunities to study at a Danish university, support in the application process, and along the way (Student Refugees, 2019c).
Equally, the “Buddy Programme” provides support in a more personal way: If accepted into a higher education programme, interested refugee students are paired with students from the same institutions who help the refugee student to get a good start by introducing him/her to the campus, social activities, the Danish academic culture, and in finding a student job (Student Refugees, 2019d).
In contrast to Refugees Welcome’s volunteers, who are expected to have a certain education, any student (local or international) of a Danish university is able to join Refugee Student’s projects in helping fellow students.
Student Refugees aims at filling the gap of often non-personal administrative procedures and support for accessing and starting a higher education, by providing peer-to-peer support and social protection. Such efforts are critical in supporting the entry and participation of refugees in the labour market by receiving guidance in accessing and completing a university education.
Peer-to-peer support to complement state social protection
These two examples of volunteer driven social protection projects for refugees suggest two things: The Danish government’s social protection, although well designed, does not include the capacity to support all refugees on a comprehensive individual basis, as they come from very different countries and have different backgrounds in regards to education, job marked eligibility, residence status etc.
Therefore, the state is not able to provide tailored support that addresses these particularities. Accordingly, volunteer, peer-to-peer organisations play a key role in supporting refugee wellbeing and inclusion, ensuring they access their legal entitlements, are welcomed into the Danish society, and enjoy a greater likelihood of successful labour market inclusion.