Abstract: "Doing Something to Fight Injustice": Voluntarism and Refugee Resettlement As Political Engagement (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

"Doing Something to Fight Injustice": Voluntarism and Refugee Resettlement As Political Engagement

Saturday, January 19, 2019: 5:30 PM
Union Square 20 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Kathryn Libal, PhD, Director, Human Rights Institute & Associate Professor, Social Work, University of Connecticut, Hartford, CT
Grace Felten, MSW, Doctoral Student / Research Assistant, University of Connecticut, Hartford, CT
Scott Harding, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Connecticut
Background and Purpose

While the protection of refugees is fundamental to international human rights law, rising xenophobia and nationalism in Europe and the United States have undermined historic commitments to refugees and immigrants.  Through use of presidential executive orders and administrative rule changes, the Trump administration has hastily restructured the U.S. refugee resettlement program, severely limited the number of refugees annually admitted to the United States, and cut funds to many voluntary agencies and non-profits who have long sustained the work of resettlement at local and state levels.  These changes come as the number of refugees and forced migrants fleeing war, religious persecution, and human rights violations has reached unprecedented levels and as the United Nations has issued an urgent call for global responsibility sharing to address forced migration. It is in this context that we conducted interviews with more refugee resettlement workers and volunteers participating in “community” or “private” sponsorship programs for refugees in the Northeast. The project seeks to understand what meaning volunteers ascribe to their work with newcomer refugees and how engaging in efforts to help integrate refugees into communities transforms their understandings of community organizing and political engagement.   


Participants in the study were drawn from local voluntary agencies contracting with the federal government to deliver services to refugees and volunteers participating in community sponsorship programs, in which volunteers provide primary support for refugees. This presentation is based on analysis of 30 qualitative interviews and participant observation of community meetings in several Northeastern states over nine months. Verbatim transcripts were uploaded into NVivo10 and coded using an iterative process that led to the development of several themes; for this presentation we focus on one theme discussed below.


This presentation examines the theme of increasing politicization of voluntarism and the way that the work of volunteering is regarded by many as a form of political resistance to xenophobia and anti-immigrant trends. One effect of rising levels of voluntarism has been increased citizen mobilization and engagement in communities hosting refugees, leading to new forms of lateral organizing across geographic locales.  In the past community “co-sponsorship” or other voluntarist approaches to refugee resettlement have been critiqued for neoliberal underpinnings.  Yet in this political moment such efforts have become part of a broader movement to challenge policies that exclude those fleeing violence and persecution. 

Conclusions and Implications

While citizen-refugee solidarity action in the United States often remains latent, our research reveals how refugee resettlement work is understood by U.S. community members as both “humanitarian” in nature and as a political act of resistance.  We discuss the implications for social work macro practice and policy advocacy, highlighting the importance of supporting horizontal, community-level responses across state contexts to support refugees and migrants as a strategy to combat fragmentary national approaches and exclusionary policies.