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Researchers work with refugees and migrants to change policy and practice

18th December 2023

By Professor Matt Baillie Smith, Dean of Research Culture and Co-Director of the Centre for Global Development at Northumbria University.

The life experiences and challenges facing refugees and migrants across the globe are key areas of research expertise at Northumbria.

Academics with specialist knowledge in humanitarian crises, volunteering and livelihoods are working with international organisations and groups of refugees and migrants to deliver research which improves understanding and promotes changes in policy and practice.

Volunteering among young refugees

Reliance on volunteering was evident in Uganda where partner universities in the UK and Uganda carried out research involving over 3,000 young refugees. We mapped the kinds of voluntary labour these young refugees are involved in and explored the relationships between their volunteering activity, development of skills and their employability.

We found high rates of participation in volunteering work among communities of young refugees facing considerable daily challenges. However, the findings also reveal barriers to participation and how Covid-19 reduced volunteering opportunities — exacerbating existing inequalities.

Caption: This photo shows a young refugee who gained entrepreneurial skills as a volunteer. She then started her own business in Nakivale refugee settlement, Uganda, in order to improve her standards of living. Photo by Issa Bagarira, Refugee Youth Volunteering Uganda (RYVU) research project.

For many, volunteering also becomes a source of livelihood because of the precarious living conditions.

Refugee experiences in the UK

Devastating global conflict has been a key factor in the number of people seeking refuge in countries across the globe. Researchers are working to document the treatment in the UK and Europe and highlight the rights of those fleeing uncertainty — many of whom find their arrival in the UK is far from the end of their struggles.

Dr Sarah Hughes is working on British Academy-funded research, which explores what it’s like to be a new refugee in the UK. Working with third-sector organisations supporting forced migrants in detention centres, dispersal accommodation and those who were recently granted leave to remain, Dr Hughes has gained insights into navigating a system that allows just 28 days for refugees to access the essential services they need to begin rebuilding their lives.

“I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with new refugees, as well as representatives from local authorities and charities in the north of England. Their comments reveal how this 28-day period often results in homelessness, labour exploitation and financial destitution,” explains Dr Hughes.

Policymaking for refugees

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the related displacement of millions of people, also prompted a range of responses from the public and policymakers, including the removal of many barriers to travel to and settle in certain countries.

Professor Kathryn Cassidy and her team’s work with the academic thinktank, UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE), is analysing responses to the displacement of people from Ukraine in three countries — UK, Poland and Romania — working with policymakers, organisations from the voluntary and community sector, host communities and people from Ukraine.

Professor Cassidy says: “We are already seeing that the involvement of many individuals, organisations and institutions — in providing temporary protection across and within both EU member states and the UK — has led to very variable experiences for those who have left Ukraine. Responses to accommodate people from Ukraine are counter to policymaking in a number of European countries in recent years, which has broadly sought to strengthen measures to exclude those seeking sanctuary.”

This research calls for a need to review policies and support for refugees and migrants.

Engagement across communities

Finally, resilience and innovation in the face of marginalisation are also key themes in the work of Dr Sarah Peck, an Early Career Research Fellow at Northumbria. Supported by The Leverhulme Trust, Dr Peck is collaborating with three diaspora groups based in the UK to explore and document how they have engaged in different forms of social, political and community development in Britain and their countries of heritage from the 1970s to the present day.

Dr Peck explains: “Diaspora groups have been heavily involved in many different forms of development in Britain, their countries of heritage and globally, including struggles against racism and inequality, campaigns for workers’ rights and advocating for social and environmental justice. This engagement is shaped by historical and contemporary relations, the changing nature of civic space in Britain as well as everyday experiences and perspectives.”


* Originally published online as part of a Media Planet Refugees & Migration campaign and in print with the New Scientist.

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