1 Since 2017 the organisation France Bénévolat  has been running a thematic programme entitled “Volunteering and Migrants”, which aims to “implement sustainable solutions to accompany and facilitate the integration of refugees into [society] through a volunteer assignment”.  On World Refugee Day 2020, the organisation presented video testimonials of refugees on its website, highlighting the “volunteer passport”  as a tool for the recognition of their civic commitment and non-profit work. Unemployed exiles  and those without a work permit — pending regularisation or in the process of applying for asylum  — consider volunteering as an opportunity to build a social network and gain the know-how necessary to obtain salaried employment. At the same time, they represent an attractive resource for non-profit structures that mainly rely on volunteers.
2 Based on an ethnographic survey  (see Box 1) conducted among volunteer interpreters in a non-profit organisation offering support to asylum seekers at the local level, this article examines the production of consent in the context of the process of putting asylum populations to work  in unpaid employment. In the same way that non-profit actors do not come to the assistance of the most disadvantaged for purely philanthropic reasons, exiles do not consent to carry out unpaid work without seeing some advantage to doing so. How then might we explain the manufacture of a tacit contract between these two parties on the basis of volunteer work? The aim here is not to study the way in which exiles’ volunteer work is performed; rather, it is to study the issues at stake in the process of “putting to work”, which is not always perceived as such by the actors concerned. Exiles’ motivation for performing volunteer work may be financial compensation, but also — in the case of those whose applications for refugee status have been refused — the promise of one day obtaining regularisation of their status.
3 This is called “hope labour” (Kuehn and Corrigan, 2013), which refers to an investment by the exiles, who agree to carry out work at a low price in the hope of subsequently obtaining salaried employment or access to legal status. In this regard, by choosing among the exiles those with the potential to become interpreters, to what extent do non-profit structures participate in the selection of the most “deserving” individuals — those who could be eligible for legal status and future employment? In what way does this promise of obtaining regularisation through volunteer work contribute to a “pedagogy for active and ethical citizenship” (Di Cecco, 2021: 36; Muehlebach, 2012) on the one hand, and on the other hand, to the promotion of self-discipline among interpreters and asylum populations more generally?
4 In order to offer some answers to these questions, we will mainly draw on literature from sociology of the non-profit sector and from migration studies in order to discuss the volunteer work carried out by exiles. Volunteering is a central theme in the sociology of the non-profit sector (Chauvière, 2010; Bernardeau-Moreau and Hély, 2007) and the implementation of social policies (Cottin-Marx et al., 2017; Engels, 2006). While it is usually perceived as a civic commitment or a vocation — explained as “natural” and “going without saying” — volunteer work is “always the product of an adjustment between a personal history and the organisational framework in which it takes place” (Havard Duclos and Nicourd, 2005: 62). Volunteering is therefore not only the object of pulic policy, but also an instrument within it, particularly in the non-profit sector. Simonet and Hély’s research suggests bringing “the State back into the analysis” (Evans et al., 2009) in order to consider non-profit organisations as a world of work and as “private” tools for the implementation of policies. By using this analytical framework, we can offer a critical approach to volunteering and social inclusion programmes, which are mostly seen as indisputable acts of generosity towards the most disadvantaged, but which, lest we forget, also function as instruments of control and discipline. 
5 According to research conducted by sociologists in the non-profit sector, volunteer work can be considered as labour which is performed on an unpaid or almost unpaid basis; but little attention is paid to the specificities of the practice of volunteering by exiles. Although this type of work is constantly developing and becoming institutionalised through the implementation of specific programmes, it remains largely unexplored in France. However, three doctoral theses underway are laying the groundwork for literature on this subject. Aubry (2019) is studying volunteering performed by migrant men in Switzerland; Di Cecco (2019 and 2021) is looking at volunteering programmes for asylum seekers in Italy; and Drif (2018) is analysing the role of Syrian refugee volunteers within humanitarian schemes in Lebanon. By integrating the unpaid dimension of volunteering, this paper builds on the research conducted by Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas (2013a, 2013b and 2014) on labour as a key element of “civic merit” that allows foreign nationals to gain access to legal status. The provision of interpretation services, while not part of a specific public policy, is an exemplary case study for observing the role of unpaid work in integration processes for asylum populations. Individuals in the asylum system — whether recognised as refugees, awaiting the outcome of an application for asylum or undocumented following the rejection of their application — are grouped together under multiple administrative and legal statuses and are more or less forced to work as volunteers, pending access to legal status and/or a salaried employment contract. These “beneficiaries put to work” are often rendered invisible in the non-profit space as they are mistaken for the population received by the organisation, but they contribute to converting public policy through their practices, particularly when translating accounts in asylum applications (Clappe, 2019). The aim of this article is therefore to show the ways in which non-profit organisations act as the guarantors of exiles’ “good conduct” in regularisation processes. This is done by producing certificates of volunteer work, while also participating in the recruitment, screening and selection of the individuals most likely to be employable in the labour market in the future.
6 In general, interpreters struggle to find their place in the literature on migration policies and to be recognised as professionals in their own right in the medico-social field (Tabouri, 2009; Chambon and Carbonel, 2015). However, they play an essential intermediary role in the implementation of asylum policies, in the same way as non-profit actors (D’Halluin-Mabillot, 2012), officers of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) (Akoka, 2020) and judges of the Cour nationale du droit d’asile (French Court of asylum — CNDA) (Fassin and Kobelinsky, 2012). Pian (2017) studies the volunteer careers of exiles who work as interpreters in non-profit organisations, highlighting three types of motive for getting involved in this profession that were corroborated by our observations. These include: 1) the desire to improve French language fluency; 2) to break from isolation and idleness (to fill the waiting time); and 3) to repay the help received by working.
7 While these motives were present among our respondents, the approach and the thesis adopted in this article will be different. Here, volunteering is considered less in terms of a logic of commitment and secondary socialisation (Pian, 2017: 353), and more as employment — on an unpaid or almost unpaid basis — that responds to multiple injunctions in relation to activation and regularisation. To this end, we first present the rationale at work for the recruitment of volunteer interpreters within the non-profit organisation surveyed. We look at the way in which this produces a screening process between the exiles considered to be the most “deserving” and the others. In contrast to research in which volunteering is seen as a means of opening up employment opportunities, this article shows that it is the condition of employability of exiles that determines their recruitment as volunteers, rather than the other way round. Next, we look at the manufacture of a tacit contract between exiles-interpreters and non-profit actors, which aims to put the former to work on a volunteer basis, in the hope of obtaining regularisation. It appears that it is not so much the commitment to volunteer work itself as the clientelist relationship between the two parties that determines whether or not a residence permit is obtained.
Created in the 1980s, this structure functions essentially through private donations, the investment of three salaried employees, and approximately sixty volunteers — ten of whom are interpreters. It offers legal advice and individual appointments to draft appeals to the CNDA and for oral preparation before the court hearing.
After a six-month internship in the organisation in 2014, I joined as a volunteer. This allowed me to conduct participant observations and semi-structured interviews (n=20) with employees, volunteers and interpreters over a period of two years. I regularly exchanged with interpreters at Solidarité Asile in order to conduct a longitudinal survey of developments in their path towards regularisation.
To ensure the anonymity of respondents, their names have been changed.
Recruitment of Volunteer Interpreters: Selection of the “Most Deserving” Exiles?
8 The recruitment of interpreters is key for non-profit organisations, allowing them to control the meaning of the service relationship and to regulate the social relationship between volunteers and the public. These institutions endeavour to create the “right distance” between volunteer interpreters and asylum seekers through a dual process: they implement “outreach procedures” (Simonet, 2010: 160) imported from the United States (in other words, they recruit volunteers from the “communities” of origin of the organisation’s beneficiaries) and they also define specific selection criteria in order to maintain the boundary between volunteers and beneficiaries. After presenting the specific nature of volunteer interpretation and the profiles of our respondents, we look at the ways that the selection of interpreters by co-optation contributes to the recruitment (rather than the production) of a migrant elite awaiting the regularisation necessary for salaried employment. We also consider the extent to which volunteer interpreters constitute a group of workers caught between rationales of allegiance and resistance within quasi-clientelist relationships.
Researching Volunteer Interpretation
9 The reliance on volunteer interpretation exists in a particular context. Recent years have seen increasing privatisation of the funding of non-profit organisations (Prouteau and Tchernonog, 2017) and those providing assistance and support to foreign nationals, whose activities are at the heart of asylum policies, struggle to hire employees. Public subsidies from local authorities have decreased and are gradually being replaced by private funding, whether in the form of donations or membership fees. These structures regularly launch campaigns to raise funds and recruit volunteers. Although volunteering is a personal commitment (Vermeersch, 2004; Havard Duclos and Nicourd, 2005), the growing number of skills and responsibilities required for certain activities seems to point to its increasing institutionalisation (Bernardeau-Moreau and Hély, 2007). Volunteers are more often assigned tasks rather than positions, as part of “a gradual shift from occasional, ‘spare-time volunteering’, complementary to salaried employment, to formalised, structural volunteering, on which the success of migrant integration policies depends to a large extent” (Bourgois and Lièvre, 2019: 198). It is no longer a question of assigning occupational and logistical tasks to volunteers, as was previously the case, but rather of assigning longer-term support missions. This especially applies to translation and interpretation activities in the non-profit sector. Organisations that employ salaried interpreters in the medico-social field have been campaigning for the recognition of their status as professional interpreters, in order to improve working conditions and standardise practices (Chambon and Carbonel, 2015). Medical and social interpretation charters  define the profession of interpreter through essential duties and ethical rules of impartiality and confidentiality. For example, in order to be recruited by OFPRA, interpreters must declare “the relationships they have or have had with asylum seekers or protected persons, whether these are employment-related, non-profit, or family ties”.  This requirement for neutrality and transparency in translation is particularly present at OFPRA and in organisations that manage accommodation facilities for asylum seekers, and it is part of the development of a technical conception of interpretation that emerged in the 1980s. Conversely, some local and activist organisations offer a broader and more social vision of the activity, in which interpreters are mediators who can play a role in the social support of asylum seekers (Trucco, 2020). In general, they are volunteers who have been through the asylum process and are now recognised as refugees by the migration authorities, or they have had their asylum applications rejected and are seeking a residence permit. All Solidarité Asile’s interpreters are former asylum seekers who do not translate “word for word” and who, through their attitudes and missions, promote mediation and act as a relay between applicants and asylum institutions. They accompany people throughout administrative procedures and take part in the drafting of asylum appeals to the CNDA.  The table below gives a general overview of the sociological profile of the main interpreters surveyed.
Table 1: Presentation of Respondents
Table 1: Presentation of Respondents
10 Solidarité Asile’s interpreters have several things in common. They are young men from relatively privileged social backgrounds who have been denied refugee status and who have volunteered with Solidarité Asile for several years. In addition to their command of French and other languages spoken in their country of origin, nearly all of them have a level of education equivalent to a high school diploma. In their country of origin, they have more “access to use of the official language, written or spoken, while also speaking the dialect (still used in most private and even public situations), which makes them suitable for the function of intermediary” (Bourdieu, 1982: 30). They also have legal knowledge of asylum law and the law relating to foreign nationals in general. They know how the support system for asylum seekers works, and understand local level institutions. This enables them to give advice and inform newcomers about their rights. Assiatou is the only woman, and the least qualified interpreter I met in the structure. She was approached by the president of the organisation to meet a specific need for mediation in order to create a safe, single-gender space that would facilitate exchanges between the organisation and exiled women who are victims of violence. Assiatou’s presence helps to reassure asylum seekers who have to expose fragments of their intimate lives when writing their biographical accounts. She also supports the volunteers who ask her to interpret when dealing with issues related to prostitution, female genital mutilation, and sexual orientation.
Recruiting Employable Exiles with a Potential for Regularisation
11 According to the organisation’s official discourse, there are two ways of becoming an interpreter. Individuals can offer their services, in which case the offer of volunteer work appears as a response to a request for employment (Simonet, 2010); or a member of the organisation can identify a particular person and ask them to take on a mission. This happens especially when a person has command of a so-called “rare” language, spoken by few people but present among asylum seekers. 
12 In theory, anyone can apply to become an interpreter; in practice, recruitment takes place informally. It is possible to get onto the list of interpreters and never be called to work. An address book lists interpreters by name, language and length of service. Dominique, a retired man who has been volunteering with the organisation for a number of years, described the process to me:
“When we look for interpreters in a specific language, we take the list, we might have five or six, we start with the one with whom we have the best contact and the best experiences.” (Interview with Dominique, retired and a volunteer at Solidarité Asile, conducted on 14/02/2018)
14 Our observations showed that in practice this list is for information purposes only, since volunteers know in advance who to call for appointments with applicants. They choose them according to their habits and preferences, based on a personal logic that underpins recruitment by co-optation. For each language, there is a contact person who has managed to carve out a place for themself, by making themself available and indispensable to the structure. This is the case of Goran, who is the interpreter for Armenian exiles at Solidarité Asile. He has been closely involved in the organisation for five years and puts as much effort into individual appointments as into reception duties. He told me how he had become the main Armenian interpreter, “benefiting” from the support of David, one of the three employees at Solidarité Asile after having been introduced by the previous Armenian interpreter:
“Little by little, I met other Armenians, for example the previous translator. He was leaving because he had found a job, he got legal status, so I replaced him a bit. And then, David [an employee at the organisation] asked me to come with him to write the accounts for asylum applications. To begin with, I had my first appointment with him and then I gradually started to get appointments to do translations. Then he saw that I was good at it, so he trusted me.” (Interview with Goran, volunteer interpreter at Solidarité Asile, conducted on 10/01/2017)
16 As in Assiatou’s case, one of the three employees asked Goran to become a volunteer in order to replace an interpreter who was leaving. These selective recruitments — linked to identities, affinities, and long-standing acquaintances — are based on a strong “personalisation” of working relationships and contribute to greater reliability of the recruited individuals (Jounin, 2009). While asylum experience and knowledge of the legal procedures are essential technical criteria for becoming an interpreter, caseworkers are careful not to call on people who are themselves in the middle of the asylum application process. David, one of the organisation’s employees, considered that this was mainly a matter of confidentiality:
“How can asylum seekers trust interpreters who are themselves applying for asylum and who can have access to their case files? Often, interpreters are people we have known for a long time who are at a very advanced stage of the process, applying for a residence permit or, if possible, with refugee status, student status, or something else, but who are no longer applying for asylum.” (Interview with David, employee of Solidarité Asile, conducted on 24/04/2018)
18 Indeed, members of Solidarité Asile considered it essential to recruit trustworthy people who had been accompanied by the organisation throughout the administrative procedures, in order to ensure that the missions assigned to them are respected. The issue of administrative status is a key criterion for selection to limit the confusion of roles and the proximity that the interpreter is likely to have with the asylum seeker. Some might take advantage of this privileged situation to manipulate the claimant’s story in exchange for financial remuneration. In the past, the organisation discovered that some asylum seekers presented themselves in the company of interpreters who were also the providers of the account to be transmitted to the decision-making bodies. Since then, it has been vigilant and keeps an updated list of interpreters to avoid.
19 Developing selection criteria for the recruitment of interpreters enables organisations to work with competent individuals while retaining full control over the management of volunteers. By giving preference to exiles who have completed the asylum procedure, organisations construct a boundary between volunteers and the populations they receive, while giving interpreters a place in the social matrix of work. Usually, interpreters are individuals who have already demonstrated their “employability” (Gazier, 2012) and who are known for their loyalty and capacity to work by carrying out occasional services or more specific undeclared work. With a long-standing presence in the non-profit sector and on French territory, they can mobilise a large network of collaborators. For those who do not have legal status, this also provides them with the possibility of obtaining regularisation. In this way, the non-profit structures are involved less in the production than in the recruitment of a migrant elite, available and waiting to be able to “rent out their services” as a salaried labour force. The condition of employability of exiles therefore determines their recruitment as volunteers in the non-profit sector, rather than the other way round. This contrasts with its typical depiction in activation policies, where volunteering is considered as a stepping stone to employment (Thierry, 2007; Handy and Greenspan, 2009; Manço and Gatugu, 2018; Greenspan et al., 2018).
A World of Work Caught between Allegiances and Resistance
20 The recruitment of volunteer interpreters contributes to the creation of an intermediary body, caught between rationales of allegiance and resistance to institutions and asylum seekers. Interpreters are not simply representatives of the populations to whom they provide services. Instead, they constitute a world of distinct assistants, living off this in-between position. They experience constant conflicts of loyalty that are reflected in their dual role as agents of the state and agents of the public. The selection process gives rise to power relations between the exiled beneficiaries while contributing to a sense among interpreters of having been chosen, thus enabling the organisation to ensure interpreters’ long-term commitment.
21 These phenomena of differentiation and preference between exiles constitute a fertile ground for the development of clientelist-type relationships  within the organisation (Jobert, 1983). The creation of a situation of dependence enables the institution to ensure the exiles’ commitment to volunteer work in return for specific favours useful for their survival. This “power of demand” (Simonet, 2010), which is specific to asymmetrical relations and co-optation, partly explains why our respondents did not decline the offer of commitment that was made to them.  It is even stronger when exercised by a person with power over another in a precarious situation, as was the case with Jean, a rejected asylum seeker, who had been hoping to regularise his situation for almost ten years:
“People in the organisation helped me a lot with the procedures. I said to myself, given that I don’t have the right to work, why not? Because in my life, people have often held out a hand to me, so why not hold out my hand to others.” (Interview with Jean, volunteer interpreter at Solidarité Asile, conducted on 2/11/2017)
23 Jean’s remarks demonstrate the normative dimension of commitment. To be effective, it must take the form of a selfless gesture: a helping hand and non-work. His discourse corresponds to social behaviour that is expected, with varying degrees of awareness of the actors concerned, expressed through the register of gratitude and reciprocity. The metaphor used by Jean of the held-out hand expresses the existence of a moral contract that must be honoured to return the favour. Sociologists studying non-profit work show how the “ethics of community responsibility” (Simonet-Cusset, 2002) and the norm of social utility are at the basis of justifications for the involvement of volunteers, but also how they are at the core of the process of recognition of the non-profit sector by public authorities. The non-profit sector is supposed to be the ultimate space for the fulfilment of individuals in search of meaning and motivation, expressed as social utility offered to others. Thus, for exiles forced into inactivity, volunteering appears to be a way of making oneself useful to society while repaying the help received according to a rationale of gift and counter-gift.
24 While needs and constraints push asylum populations into volunteer work, the payment of an allowance put in place by organisations also contribute to the process of putting to work. Solidarité Asile’s interpreters obtain some benefits that are useful to their administrative and financial survival.  This, in turn, places them in a privileged position compared to others. Specifically, they receive a financial allowance of approximately 10 euros per hour when they translate discussions between the non-profit actor and the applicant during appointments to draft the account for the asylum application. Although this is not a salary, it is a form of compensation that enables the organisation to supervise and control the interpreters’ practice as volunteers. Interpreters must adopt a working attitude, arrive on time for appointments, respect the rules of interaction between organisation members and asylum seekers — all while remaining neutral in their positioning. The payment of this financial compensation gives recognition interpreters’ work, while also authorising the organisation to evaluate their work and to control the room for manoeuvre that they can allow themselves. Indeed, interpreters must not take the place of the volunteer in charge of writing the account; nor must they take advantage of their skills and status to peddle accounts that would be most likely to succeed with the authorities in charge of granting refugee status.
25 This financial allowance establishes a working relationship which is relatively formalised between exile interpreters, other volunteers, and the population supported by the structure. It materialises the change in status of the beneficiaries who are now volunteers in the service of asylum policies. Sometimes, this gives rise to jealousy. For example, Tély, a former Lingala interpreter of Congolese nationality, said on several occasions he had been called a “snitch” by asylum seekers:
“At that time, I got called a ‘snitch’ a lot because I didn’t sound like most Congolese people. It’s because I didn’t hang out much with that crowd. The more you mix with white people, the more you are frowned on. That’s why I stopped working as a volunteer at Solidarité Asile because I was also pressured and threatened. For example, I interview someone. All I do is translate but the person waits for you and says, ‘Oh, you’re the one who ‘screwed up’ my applicatio’. I say, ‘No, all I do is translate. I only say what you said’.” (Interview with Tély, former volunteer interpreter at Solidarité Asile, conducted on 4/10/2017)
27 The move to the other side of the desk, and the application of institutional rules while interpreting, puts volunteer exiles in a delicate position. This change in status is not always viewed favourably by their compatriots, who may put pressure on the interpreter to obtain preferential treatment, especially when writing their accounts. To protect themselves from this, the volunteers deploy various strategies to distinguish and distance themselves from the institutions or the community group, which may, on rare occasions, as in the case of Tély, lead to the complete termination of the volunteer activity.
28 The discursive registers that frame the processes of putting to work are not greeted in the same way by exiles, depending on their administrative status and their relationship to work. While individuals with a legal status can more easily extricate themselves from the social constraints that underlie volunteering, those in the most precarious situations — especially those seeking regularisation who have been denied asylum — are more likely to give their allegiance to institutions, in the hope of being rewarded with a residence permit. Volunteers’ commitment thus appears to be a way for them to establish themselves as “good citizens” (Yap et al., 2011) by proving their merit through their cultural integration, by adhering to the “culture of volunteering” (Handy and Greenspan, 2009: 976), and through the fact that their labour force is economically useful to French society. Are we witnessing a revival of the rationale of the “bad poor” and the “deserving poor” adapted to asylum populations, with the notions of effort and reward disseminated by the non-profit sector? We shall now discuss the role played by the promise behind unpaid work (Morice, 1999; Chauvin, 2009; Simonet, 2020) — whether it is access to salaried employment for those in a regular situation or to regularisation in the case of rejected asylum seekers — in the discipline of the exiles.
Volunteer Interpretation, a Labour of Hope? The Role of Promise in Exiles’ Commitment
29 Although the implementation of criteria to select interpreters contributes to the management of the beneficiary populations, the context of institutional dependence in which exiles find themselves constitutes a much more significant form of power. Odillon Barrot’s speech on the definition of refugees during the July Monarchy parliamentary debates illustrates this: “Consider that in relation to those who receive assistance, you do not need to be armed with any kind of exorbitant power; they are dependent on you; they are governed by the most imperious of laws, that of necessity” (Noiriel, 2012: 50). Yet, material necessity alone cannot explain exiles’ relative commitment to volunteering over longer or shorter periods of time. The most disadvantaged groups always have a minimum capacity for negotiation and resistance. We should therefore study the intersection between two coherent rationales that form the basis of a tacit contract, full of promises and hopes, and binding volunteer interpreters to the organisation. While non-profit actors seek interpreters’ support and loyalty through selective and preferential recruitment, the latter find in this privileged relationship the ad hoc payments and protections necessary for their financial and administrative survival. While individuals with legal status consider volunteer work to be a temporary substitute for salaried employment, rejected asylum seekers tend to develop regularisation strategies in order to obtain proof of their integration. It should be noted, however, that these uses of volunteer work are not mutually exclusive. For interpreters waiting for regularisation, volunteer work is also a way of getting around the ban on working imposed on them.
A Financial Contribution as a Substitute for Salaried Employment
30 As a result of private donations and occasional grants, non-profit structures can pay an allowance to interpreters based on attendance and travel time. They are paid by the hour or by the number of words in the case of written translation. The issue of remuneration for interpreters is regularly discussed within the non-profit sector, as it raises questions about labour law relating to foreign nationals and the absurdity of certain situations encountered by organisations. Most of the people who work as interpreters are unpaid because of their administrative status. Whether they have a pending asylum application or they are seeking to obtain legal status, they do not have the right to work. Non-profit structures must therefore circumvent this constraint in order to integrate, on the margins of the labour market, those who are not authorised to work. In such cases, they decide either to provide financial assistance to asylum seekers so that they can afford the services of an interpreter as part of the material assistance in the asylum procedure, or to give the money directly to the interpreters. Solidarité Asile has chosen this second option in order. According to David, an employee of the organisation, this is to avoid “the interpreter asking the asylum seeker for payment and demanding that the person to whom he is providing services pay him something out of his own pocket”.  The silence surrounding financial allowances associated with exiles’ volunteer work can be explained partly on legal grounds, but also by the ideology on which the notion of commitment is built, thought of as spontaneous and voluntary. In this sense, just as a promise finds its strength in the fact that it cannot be verified, volunteering cannot be effective if it is paid, at the risk of becoming a job like any other. This is why monetary payment has to take on the appearance of “hidden remuneration” (Di Cecco, 2021: 330), like a variable reward left to the discretion of the person paying it (Morice, 1999: 110).
31 Administrative status is therefore a fundamental variable to assess volunteer interpreters’ condition of dependency on employers in the non-profit sector. Exiles waiting for regularisation are forced to develop a series of tactics to get around the ban on working. Most of them navigate between undeclared work, unpaid work and compensated volunteer work. This is, for example, the case of Goran, an Armenian interpreter, who makes himself available every day for the organisation, looking for the smallest task to do. He is present for all reception duties helping exiles and taking part in every activity on an unpaid basis, in order to be sure to carry out translations that will be compensated. Thus, compensated volunteering rarely exists without an unpaid counterpart that constitutes a prerequisite for obtaining financial rewards. While it is difficult for the most precarious exiles to evade this obligation, interpreters with regular status have more resources at their disposal to extricate themselves from this instrumental approach in that their security is less dependent on clientelist relationships with the structure. Although they do not have a full-time salaried job, they can intervene on an ad hoc basis when needed at the request of a member of the organisation. Assiatou, an interpreter for languages spoken in Guinea Conakry, is in this situation. The compensation paid by the organisation is a financial supplement to her precarious job. Her work as a substitute cleaning lady is her only income and does not allow her to support her family. It is imperative for her to obtain a decent salary quickly so that she does not remain in this situation for long. She does not hesitate to make this known:
“I want to continue working with David [the organisation’s employee], but there are very few employees there. They don’t have money. If I work there, it’s without a salary, so it’s not possible, I’m young.” (Interview with Assiatou, volunteer interpreter at Solidarité Asile, conducted on 7/06/2018)
33 In the same way, Fodé — a Guinean rejected asylum seeker who now holds a residence permit — occasionally works for the organisation as a Soussou interpreter. For a long period of time, he worked with the self-employed status of micro-entrepreneur, delivering meals to homes for the companies Uber and Deliveroo. Following a serious road accident, he can no longer perform his tasks. Since he is not entitled to receive sickness benefits because of his self-employed status, he has no income. To compensate for the loss of his job, a volunteer from the organisation who knows him well suggested that he should work more regularly at the organisation to earn some money to live on. Volunteer interpretation thus appears to be a complement to employment for former asylum seekers with legal status who have no choice other than working for little money, as there is no better option. Depending on exiles’ individual situation, volunteer work can be a way of “making ends meet”, as well as a “substitute for employment” (Simonet, 2010).
Putting to Work on a Volunteer Basis through the Promise of Regularisation
“When you apply for a residence permit to obtain regularisation, it is expected that you demonstrate your integration, your capacity to obtain resources, your command of the language, and so on. And the fact that you have been made a volunteer can lead to [the exiles] being known to the prefecture as volunteers, which is a bonus. Then there’s the money, which does count for something, but it’s mainly the fact of being a volunteer, they think it will help them. A lot of rejected asylum seekers come to us afterwards and say ‘I’d like to be an interpreter’.” (Interview with David, employee of Solidarité Asile, conducted on 24/04/2018)
35 This interview excerpt shows us the central place held by volunteer work in the long process of regularisation of rejected asylum seekers. There is no indication in the law on foreign nationals suggesting that carrying out such work is a criterion for obtaining a residence permit. Each situation is interpreted differently, on a case-by-case basis, depending on the officer in charge of the application (Spire, 2005 and 2008), and only the prefecture has the discretionary power to assess it. An application can therefore be strengthened if it includes certificates of volunteer work as well as statements confirming the person’s integration. Since it moved from the domestic sphere to that of public interest, volunteering appears to have become “a legitimate vehicle for citizenship much more than an instrument for improving the supply and delivery of services” (Lesemann, 2002: 25). At the intersection of economic performance and cultural integration, volunteer work is a key element of “civic merit” (Chauvin et al., 2013a), and is seen as a way for individuals in an irregular situation to appear “less illegal” (Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas, 2014). This idea is even more present in the minds of exiles as it is maintained by actors in the non-profit sector and by those who successfully obtain regularisation after a number of years of volunteer work.
36 Several volunteers at Solidarité Asile, such as Tély and Goran, are success stories in that they were able to access legal status after their asylum applications were rejected. Tély believes that his involvement with organisations enabled him to build up an important relational network and privileged contacts with local elected officials and people holding strategic positions. As an interpreter, he accompanied several asylum seekers to the prefecture and to lawyers’ offices. At the same time, he received training in the medical field thanks to the support of numerous organisations, despite his irregular situation. Through repeated meetings with key players in the field of the law on foreign nationals, Tély was able to have his civic commitment recognised in order to prove his full integration in France and thus obtain a “private and family life” residence permit:
“During my time as a volunteer with Solidarité Asile, I accompanied people to a lawyer’s office. We didn’t know each other and then when I received an order to leave French territory I went to see her. [...] I also received the support of a member of parliament, a minister under François Hollande. It was the president of an organisation where I worked who introduced me to her. [...] She wrote me a letter of support and to ensure that there was a follow-up, she asked her deputy to find out whether it could work. Her deputy also wrote me a letter of support. The Emmaüs organisation [where Tély also worked] also supported me.” (Interview with Tély, former volunteer interpreter at Solidarité Asile, conducted on 14/09/2017)
38 It was therefore through multiple volunteer experiences — at Solidarité Asile, in an anti-discrimination organisation and at Emmaüs — that Tély found the support he needed to obtain legal status. This was also the case for Goran, who, from his first steps as an interpreter, benefited from the legal advice of David, the organisation’s employee. After the failure of his asylum application in 2015, Goran discussed with his “employer” various possibilities that would allow him to accumulate evidence of good behaviour: maintaining a strong involvement in organisations, going back to university, looking for an employment offer, etc. David also advised him to keep a low profile and wait until he had accumulated sufficient resources before coming out of the “undocumented closet” (Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas, 2014) by applying for a residence permit at the prefecture. Exiles, like welfare recipients, know that the public disclosure of one’s irregular situation can be understood as an act of resistance against legal subordination (Villazor, 2013). As a result, the more applications they file, the more it can work against them. Waiting is seen as “an indicator of perseverance” (Auyero and Ollion, 2019), showing officials that the status they are seeking is deserved. After five years of volunteer work and dedication to the organisation, Goran was finally granted an employee’s residence permit following an employment offer.
39 However, this labour of hope does not always meet the exiles’ hopes. When Jean received a negative response to his asylum application, he decided to multiply his activities as a volunteer in different structures providing personal care services. Still waiting for administrative regularisation, certificates of volunteer work take centre stage in his discourse. He considers them essential to build up a “good case file” for the prefecture:
“But why don’t they want to do my certificate? Because I’m not cheating, it’s not work, it’s volunteering [laughs]. It’s just certifying that I am a volunteer. Only one social worker did it for me, she did it personally, but not on behalf of the organisation. […] I agreed to take part in this university project [an action-research project on Africa] because afterwards I can get a training completion certificate for my case file.” (Interview with Jean, volunteer interpreter at Solidarité Asile and other organisations, conducted on 2/11/2017)
41 The need for exiles to provide evidence for administrative procedures led to the development of a testimonial policy in the non-profit sector and among supporters. Although Solidarité Asile does not (yet) produce “volunteer passports” as proposed by France Bénévolat, it does provide certificates confirming an individual’s commitment during reception duties or individual interviews to underline their integration. These documents can constitute proof of the time spent in France and of the steps taken towards integration. They are requested by lawyers in particular, when the person has the possibility of receiving legal support from the moment of submitting an application for a residence permit at the prefecture or, more often, when appealing to the administrative court to contest a decision rejecting the application.
42 We also note that the academic world is not immune to this rationale. Undertaking research projects with people in precarious situations does not always allow researchers to escape from the relationships of domination and the strategic issues present on both sides. Certificates of support can sometimes become a bargaining chip for exiles’ involvement in a survey. These rationales of reciprocity are becoming important in social relations to the extent that they now form the basis of welfare policies (Morel, 2000; Chelle, 2012). An increasing number of organisations managing accommodation facilities are establishing partnerships with charitable organisations in order to promote volunteer work among the exiles accommodated. This was the case in one organisation we surveyed, where approximately “Sixty percent of asylum seekers accommodated participate in volunteer activities”.  The head of the service justified this process of putting to work, arguing that it allows for the integration of “people into a relational network, which gives them greater value and allows them to build links, relationships and solidarity”.  The signing of an agreement between this structure and Mutuelles de France-Réseau  introduces a counterpart to the support granted, since in exchange for renting fitted accommodation, asylum seekers have to provide homework support services to the students housed by this network.  The incentive dimension underlying the process of putting to work is exerted with varying degrees of constraint on the exiles depending on their resources and administrative situation. For those who have already obtained regularisation, but who are struggling to find a paid job, the pressure from non-profit organisations is less or even non-existent; whereas for those in the most precarious situations, who have neither documents nor work permits, these incentives to carry out volunteer work constitute a nudge  rationale dictated by “benevolent paternalism” (Frenkiel, 2009), as a workfare policy  (Morel, 2000; Peck, 2001; Simonet, 2018), forcing exiles to work for low pay in order to benefit from support.
43 Other examples of interpreters could provide infinite illustrations of the construction of a myth around the “working citizen”  who, as a result of their volunteer status, is more deserving than the “passive” one who refuses to work on an unpaid basis. However, in each of these situations we observe that it is not so much volunteer work that seems to have been decisive in obtaining regularisation, but rather the clientelist relationship with a non-profit actor. The support given by the structure in producing the application and the legal information provided are “occasional, local, informal protections that create loyalty and go beyond the employment contract” (Jounin, 2009: 224) and contribute to the acceptability of exiles through processes of putting to work. Thus, the situation of forced waiting in which exiles in an irregular situation are caught makes it possible to moderate their demands and discipline their behaviour. The tension between the two injunctions constraining exiles — waiting and putting to work — has the effect of producing their “integration into illegality” (Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas, 2014), in segments of invisible work on the fringes of labour law. By participating in the implementation of these two rationales, non-profit actors contribute as much to the production of consent as to the construction of exiles — not as citizens, but as “patients of the state” (Auyero, 2012).
44 Through the example of interpretation services in asylum applications, this article presents the issues currently affecting exiles’ non-profit and volunteer work. In line with the research carried out by sociologists in non-profit work, the choice was made not to question the social utility of these workers, but instead to observe the mechanisms of regulation and control produced by the non-profit sector thought of “as a social world like any other: that is, neither more nor less virtuous” (Hély, 2009). More specifically, the aim was to examine the production of consent in the creation of clientelist relationships between non-profit actors and asylum populations through the process of putting them to work as volunteers. By formulating a specific assignment, associated with the skills and know-how that constitute recruitment criteria, non-profit organisations participate in transforming volunteer work into work that is unpaid or almost unpaid. This conversion process is developed through the promotion of a “good morals” discourse concerning the benefits of volunteering in terms of professional integration and regularisation. This has an impact on the selection of exiles’ backgrounds since those who can potentially obtain legal status and be employed are recruited as volunteers by co-optation. In the same way, financial payments and promises of regularisation influence the discipline of exiles, who find themselves increasingly dependent and forced to volunteer in order to survive, as they wait for regularisation without the right to work. While work has been constructed as both an obligation and a “civic privilege” (Chauvin et al., 2013a), reserved for individuals in a regular situation, volunteer work constitutes a “second chance” shunting station between rejected asylum seekers who can potentially obtain regularisation, and others who are forced to wait their turn.
45 The provision of interpretation services to asylum populations is a pertinent illustration of processes of “freeificiation” (“gratuitisation”) of work (Simonet, 2018) and the institutionalisation of volunteering since the 2000s. The study of processes aimed at putting exiles to work on a volunteer basis informs us more generally about a particular process of delegation that takes place within the borders of the state (Hamidi and Paquet, 2019). In this process, exiles are encouraged to take part in the concrete management of asylum policies in several ways: through daily interpretation services in non-profit organisations; through the translation of asylum stories; through the provision of social and legal support to the populations concerned; etc. As a result, the state implements new ways of “governing from a distance” (Epstein, 2006), using not only organisations as private tools for policy implementation, but also the populations concerned — through incentive mechanisms aimed at putting them to work. This allows the state to pursue its efforts to manage asylum populations at a low cost by circumventing public law recruitment policies and those of the civil service on the one hand, and legislation in the field of foreign labour law on the other.
46 In light of these multiple uses of volunteering, should we not consider the compensated volunteer work carried out by these exiles as worker status outside labour law that calls it into question? Far from suggesting the “withdrawal of the state” in its current forms of government and production, it seems instead that we are witnessing the “withdrawal of civil servants” (Hély, 2009; Simonet, 2018) in favour of a model in which exiles are encouraged to exercise self-government in respect of themselves and each other, through volunteer work in the field of migration policy.
This article received the support of a research grant from the Transatlantic Network on the Politicization of Europe (RESTEP).
France Bénévolat is a group of non-profit organisations created in 2003 with the aim of promoting volunteering. It obtained charitable status by under the Decree of 22 January 2010.
According to France Bénévolat’s website, under “actions and programmes”. URL: https://www.francebenevolat.org/accueil/france-b-n-volat/programmes/b-n-volat-r-fugi-s
This passport was created in 2007 by members of France Bénévolat to ensure that the skills gained during experiences as volunteers are recognised by public authorities and companies. The creation of this tool is based on the idea that volunteering is an effective means of integration for young people, job seekers and those furthest from the labour market. In 2017, it was opened to exiles.
The term “exile” will be used throughout the article to describe a population as a whole, beyond institutionalised categories (migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, undocumented migrants, etc.) and without presuming forced departure from the country of origin. With the exception of one volunteer interpreter, the vast majority of the respondents were men (see Box 1). This explains the use of the generic masculine form in the French version of this article to facilitate reading.
Following the reduction, in the 1990s, of the time-limits for processing applications from several years to six months, the Circular of 26 September 1991 effectively ended access to the labour market for asylum seekers. However, since the enactment of the Asylum and Immigration Act on 10 September 2018, under certain conditions they can apply for a work permit, six months after their application has been lodged with the Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons — OFPRA).
The ethnographic survey on which this article is based is part of a PhD in political sociology on the role of volunteer and professional interpreters, working in non-profit organisation and at OFPRA, as intermediary actors in the implementation of asylum policies.
The term “putting to work” is preferred to that of “employment” to describe the process by which populations are converted into a labour force and signal a form of coercion.
Foucault (2001: 1010) argues that “discipline is basically the mechanism of power by which we come to exert control in the social body right down to the finest elements, by which we succeed in grabbing hold of the social atoms themselves, which is to say, the individuals”.
See, in particular, the Charter on professional medical and social interpretation in France (online), signed by a dozen organisations and adopted in Strasbourg in 2012.
See, on the OFPRA website, the charter on interpretation in accordance with the Law of 29 July 2015 on the impartiality of the Office.
In France, the asylum application takes place in two stages. First, asylum seekers must produce an asylum application statement for submission to OFPRA, providing details of the persecution they suffered or are suffering in their country of origin and the risks they face in the event of return. Then, if their application is rejected by OFPRA, they can lodge an appeal with the CNDA, in which they can provide further details on the reasons for their exile.
Based on our observations at Solidarité Asile, we can see that this may include the Tigrina language, spoken mainly in the north-east of the Horn of Africa, or Dari from Afghanistan.
Jobert (1983: 544 and 550) defines clientelism as “the relationship of dependence that develops between dependents and the boss when the latter draws on his own resources to distribute goods”. It is “an instrumental relationship where the boss’s search for power meets the client’s hopes for security”.
During our survey, we did not meet any exiles who refused to volunteer as interpreters in response to a personal request. This is an interesting aspect to explore in order to further the reflection on the construction of the acceptability of populations when putting them to work.
Interpreters receive a financial allowance and have access to a network of organisations that may be necessary to obtain a residence permit. We return to this point in the second part of this article.
Interview with David, an employee of Solidarité Asile, conducted on 24/04/2018.
Interview with a social worker working for an organisation managing accommodation facilities for asylum seekers, conducted on 08/03/2012.
These comments were taken from an interview with the head of service of an organisation managing accommodation facilities. For full discussion, see: “Nous insistons sur la dimension humaine”. Interview with Rached Sfar, Écarts d’identité, 107, 2005, p. 27.
Groupe France Mutuelle is a complementary health insurance company based in several cities in France.
Which literally means to elbow someone.
Morel (2000: 13) defines workfare as “the introduction of ‘new’ obligations for welfare recipients deemed employable: the payment of an allowance is now accompanied by an obligation to work, or more broadly, a requirement to undertake preparatory measures for employment”.
On this subject, see the special issue of the Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, coordinated by Myriam Hachimi-Alaoui et al. (2020) Citizenship in times of “civic integration”: France and Canada compared, 36 (4), pp. 7-142.