Volunteers and the chain of events

Life is an unpredictable chain of events. One thing leads to another, which leads to another, which… you get the picture. A doctoral dissertation is no different from that. You start out with one idea, you write an article, you find something which gives you a new idea, and so on. Two years ago, my promotors prof. Ilse Derluyn, prof. Ine Lietaert and I started out with an article about coping and social support. We found that avoiding stress can be a meaningful coping strategy for young refugees, and that their friends from back home are particularly meaningful providers of social support. This led us to investigate the evolution of social support networks in a second article, which in turn showed us that volunteers can have a big impact on the psychosocial well-being of our participants as well. And now we’re writing an article about the meaning of volunteer support for unaccompanied young refugees on the move in Italy, France and Belgium. Taking advantage of the multi-sited research design of the Childmove Project, Océane Uzureau and I joined forces for this study, which makes use of both of our research samples and allows us to investigate this phenomenon across countries, and from different research disciplines (did I mention our study is also longitudinal?).

As they travel through these countries, unaccompanied young refugees are exposed to a plethora of challenges and dangers with little to no assistance as they are – by definition – unaccompanied. Supposedly, there are institutions in place to protect and care for them. However, since institutional support is often bound to conditions which stand in opposition to their ambitions and restrict their mobility, these young people often rely on civil society to meet their needs. Throughout their journeys, our participants reported how volunteers helped them cope by buying train tickets, giving food and clothes, encouraging them, etc. In Brussels for example, the “Plateforme Citoyenne” has been offering accommodation to migrants passing through Belgium. Many of our participants who have been hosted by these volunteers stay in contact with them and still speak fondly of their memories with their hosts. Many are still receiving some form of support from them, even after two years. And some are actually still living with them.

These findings open up many questions: What role should civil society actors play in the care and reception of migrants and refugees? How can care institutions meet the demands of their clientele, despite the inherent conditionality of their services? How can the quality of specialized psychosocial care for a vulnerable population be safeguarded in this context? And importantly, how do the young refugees themselves experience this? The ongoing debate around these issues is much bigger than I could see in the beginning, and involves a range of issues from the political polarization of our societies to neo-liberal tendencies and the privatization of care in current nation states. In our article, we strive to contribute to the debate by answering some of these questions, and while our answers will indubitably lead us to new questions, which will lead to new insights, which… (I think you know what I mean by now), in the end we will be able to better understand volunteer support. If you would like to be part of this journey and the quest for new, relevant, and up-to-date knowledge, stay tuned to our website and keep an eye out for our soon-to-arrive newsletter with regular news from the Childmove Project!


Atac, I. (2019). Deserving Shelter: Conditional Access to Accommodation for Rejected Asylum Seekers in Austria, the Netherlands, and Sweden. J Immigr Refug Stud, 17(1), 44-60. doi:10.1080/15562948.2018.1530401 

Malte Behrendt graduated with a degree in Clinical Psychology in 2015. He trained as a psychological psychotherapist at “Zentrum Überleben” – an NGO specialized in the treatment of victims of torture. Malte Behrendt is now working as a PhD student in the ERC-funded research project “ChildMove” at Ghent University.