“Helping others and helping myself too” A study of irregular migrants’ experiences of doing volunteer work


Publication date



Oslo and Akershus University College

Document type


Master i sosialt arbeid


The aim of this master thesis is to explore and learn from irregular migrants’ experiences of doing volunteer work in Norway. It asks what role volunteer work play in their everyday lives and how it influences as well as being influenced by their health, well-being and ontological security. The theme springs out from a mental health project at the Health Centre for undocumented migrants where we encounter migrants who are territorially inside but legally outside. Facing extremely limited entitlements and commonly portrayed as illegal, irregular migrants are positioned at the very margins in the Norwegian society. Despite everyday vulnerability, exclusion and uncertainty, some engage in volunteer work. This thesis builds on qualitative in-debt interviews with six irregular migrants who engage or have been engaged in volunteer work. They represent a diverse group of individuals and situations. Participant observation is, in addition to literature review, also utilized thus the thesis is influenced by my position as project coordinator at the Health Centre and as an activist. Inspired by Laing’s and Gidden’s concepts of ontological (in)security and Goffman’s understanding of stigma I actively listened to and analyzed the participants’ expressions. They reported of regularly helping people in the communities, in religious- and migration networks and other irregular migrants by providing a range of different services and supports. Their motives to help others and simultaneously help themselves by escaping isolation and worries were shown to be difficult to fully realize. The material indicates that volunteer work could be what Giddens calls a protective cocoon (1991:40) to which the participants could escape and experience a sense of certainty and stability. The routinely interaction with others, recognition and utilizing of skills and recourses could increase participants’ experiences of worthiness and ontological security. On the other hand engagement in volunteer work could also challenge experienced ontological security when facing commonly asked questions which causes fear and anxiety related to both deportation and self-identity. Combating stereotypes and stigma attached to the label of “others” where commonly expressed both as a drive and a constant problem by informants in the study. Their strategies involved among others: avoiding; hiding; using small lies; explaining their lack of residency status; or emphasizing other qualities such as being a volunteer. The findings illustrate that even though it may hurt; doing volunteer work in a situation where extremely few arenas for social recognition, belonging and agency are accessible, have iv significant impacts on health and well-being and ontological security. Participants gave a range of explanations of how them, by helping others helped themselves. This thesis theme is particularly notable for social workers and health personnel who by their professionals’ codes of ethics and are obliged to care and provide services for people according to their needs and advocate for justice and equity. In a time where spheres of migration and criminal control, and social and health policies are increasingly interlinked we have to search for, learn about and approach alternative ways to facilitate possibilities for individuals to be recognized and visible as who he or she is. Oslo


Permanent URL (for citation purposes)

  • http://hdl.handle.net/10642/2254