CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 It is April 2018. In the city centre of Bologna, there are many passers-by, often in a hurry. Nevertheless, several people take the time to stop and look at a black man in his thirties sweeping the pavement. He is not wearing professional clothing, so he is not a waste collector. A small sign at his feet confirms this impression. It reads:


“Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to integrate in your city in an honest way, without begging! From now on, I will make sure that your pavements are clean. I only ask you for a contribution of fifty cents for my work. Bags, brooms, shovels and other cleaning materials are welcome. Thank you.”

3 The man, named John, is a Nigerian asylum seeker. As a resident in an accommodation centre in the city, he decided to go to this area every morning to do cleaning. By undertaking these activities without the certainty of being able to earn money from them, it seems that John was trying to distance himself from the stigma of the foreign beggar, in order to reappropriate a positive image that evokes the public service of city cleaning and the figure of the good worker. John’s case is not unique: it is not uncommon to find, in Bologna as other Italian cities, foreign, black men, often asylum seekers, sweeping streets and pavements to highlight their will to integrate.

4 The idea of linking migrant’s civic merit to their availability to clean up public spaces without payment, or for a small fee, is not new in the Italian context. It is part of a specific national imaginary, marked by the dissemination of volunteer programmes for asylum seekers. [1] In 2014, the Ministry of the Interior launched a scheme to combat the supposed “inactivity” of this category of foreigners. Prefectures and local authorities were encouraged to promote the involvement of asylum seekers who are part of the reception system in “activities of public interest for local authorities”. [2] The latter responded to this invitation positively: volunteer programmes spread rapidly across the peninsula.

5 These programmes are either managed by associations or directly by municipal authorities and are mainly aimed at the maintenance of green spaces and the cleaning of streets and pavements, like the tasks performed by John in Bologna. However, while John’s initiative was autonomous, and had the potential to earn remuneration, the voluntary activities studied in this article are by definition unpaid. In addition, they are not the result of an independent decision, but of external pressure - or even injunctions — by caseworkers and public authorities directed at migrants to make themselves useful to the host community. [3] As Leo, an Ivorian asylum seeker living in an accommodation centre in Trento, explained: “It is not obligatory, you decide, but they are the ones who suggest it.” He went on to add, “They make you do these things because you are part of the reception system. Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist”. [4]

6 These volunteer programmes reflect the emergence of a new figure of the deserving, integrated and grateful migrant, who is committed and available to work for the public interest at the heart of the “humanitarian reason” for asylum (Fassin, 2010). In this article, I first show that this figure of merit extends and complicates the various “tests” (D’Halluin-Mabillot, 2012) to which asylum seekers are subjected, which are not only linked to vulnerability, but also to civic integration. [5] I then study the form that Italian “asylum volunteering” takes in practice, shaped, on the one hand, by the dynamics of increasing precariousness within the reception system, and, on the other, by the desire to make volunteer commitment visible outside the accommodation centres, in the public spaces of the cities of settlement. Finally, I analyse the gaps and room for manoeuvre that exist between the display of integration and civic value conveyed by volunteer programmes and the concrete practices of asylum seekers. The study of the tactics used to reappropriate, distance and circumvent unpaid activities reveals that the emergence of this figure of the deserving migrant, while creating competition and distinction between asylum seekers, is not immune to criticism and challenge of varying degrees of visibility. [6]

This article is based on doctoral research carried out between 2016 and 2020 on volunteer programmes for asylum seekers in Italy. The study draws on observations made in four cities (Bologna, Modena, Naples, Trento), in accommodation centres for men asylum seekers and at the sites of voluntary work. In the few cases where the activities were not exclusively reserved for migrants, I joined as a volunteer in order to carry out participant observation. In addition, I conducted eighty-one interviews with asylum seekers or former asylum seekers, most of whom were volunteers, and the majority of whom were men (forty-five); caseworkers working in accommodation centres (seventeen); and institutional officials from volunteer programmes, the asylum system, and local associations (nineteen). Finally, I undertook a review of the national and local press.
Although no statistical study on volunteer programmes is available as yet, it is nevertheless possible to draw on official documents which, without providing an exhaustive quantitative overview, contain elements on the scale of the phenomenon. A report published by the Ministry of the Interior reveals that, in relation to the period from November 2014 to June 2017, 135 protocols were signed by fifty-three different prefectures. [7] In terms of the number of volunteers involved, the only data available are those compiled by the Emilia-Romagna region, located in the north-central of the peninsula and whose capital is Bologna. A report published in 2016 on the first year of the scheme’s operation indicated the number of asylum seekers involved in these unpaid activities as approximately 1,100 individuals, i.e. 14% of the people placed in the accommodation centres in the region.

Asylum Put to Work: Vulnerability, Integration and Merit

7 Historically, asylum policies were constructed on the basis of an essentialist dichotomy (Akoka, 2020) contrasting the refugee’s “morally legitimate suffering body” (Ticktin, 2011) with the “economic migrant” or “false refugee”, seen as an imposter. Within this constricted framework, which informs our legal, academic, media and political categories (Lendaro, 2019), vulnerability is established as a fundamental criterion of legitimacy, while other selection criteria (holding a work contract, language proficiency, family ties in the country of settlement, etc.) appear to be formally unrelated to the humanitarian governance of asylum.

8 In an important article on the legal incorporation of immigrants in Europe and the United States, Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas (2014) pointed out that frameworks of deservingness based on vulnerability and those based on economic performance and civic integration are in fact often permeable and subject to reciprocal influences. This becomes evident when looking at the individual trajectories of foreigners and the multiple tactics they implement in order to obtain the right to stay, making use of different legal regimes and grounds for admission (Engbersen, 1999; Veron, 2010). The hybridisation of migratory legitimacy frameworks can also emerge at the institutional level and in the injunctions that public policy and social work officials express in relation to immigrant populations. The integrationist measures developed within the Italian reception system are part of this dimension and show that vulnerability is far from being the only element of the selection and hierarchisation that characterise asylum policies. On the contrary, it is increasingly closely tied to a series of expectations around individual autonomy and the will to integrate, shaping a form of “asylum by merit” (Thibault, 2012).

9 These expectations are omnipresent in ordinary interactions between caseworkers and residents in the accommodation centres studied. The objective of filling the waiting time to which migrants are subjected is often combined with the implementation of measures aimed at “combating welfare dependency”, “developing a sense of belonging” to the local community, or “teaching autonomy”, as a social worker employed in an accommodation centre in Naples said:


Maybe in their culture and country of origin, people always have to be told what to do, whereas in Italy things work differently, you need to be autonomous. [...] Our objective is to make them autonomous. If we don’t educate them to be autonomous and to get moving on their own, they’ll stay for six months in the accommodation centre, and then what will they do?” (Interview conducted in Naples, June 2018)

11 Standard moral evaluations made by caseworkers are thus no longer limited to the credibility of asylum seekers’ accounts and the attitudes they adopt towards social workers, characterised to a greater or lesser extent by confrontation (Kobelinsky, 2007), but also concern the dynamism and will to integrate they are required to express on a daily basis (Casati, 2018; Pasquetti, 2016), by learning the Italian language, enrolling in school, attending training courses, or participating in volunteer programmes.

12 While encouragement to participate in integration schemes is aimed at all residents of accommodation centres, they seem to be expressed more strongly when caseworkers are faced with asylum seekers whose past history is not seen to be strong (credible and coherent) enough or serious enough to fall within the parameters regulating access to refugee status. A caseworker in Bologna explained, for example:


Either you rely on vulnerability, if you are a mother for example, or else you have to strengthen your case. If your account is weak, volunteering can play a role, to say: ‘Don’t interrupt this process’.” (Interview conducted in Bologna, March 2018)

14 In order to convince members of the Asylum Commissions not to reject the application for international protection, asylum seekers who are considered not to be sufficiently vulnerable are encouraged to make an extra effort, by showing strong involvement in the local community of settlement.

15 In a context where vulnerability is a criterion for transient and partial deservingness (Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas, 2014), which must be complemented and reinforced by proof of individual autonomy and civic value, pressure to become a deserving migrant reaches beyond the walls of the accommodation centres to official bodies such as the Asylum Commission [8] and into public spaces. These expected performances are manifested in the genuine “integration efforts” undertaken by asylum seekers, of which volunteering, with its unpaid and public nature, is a paradigmatic form.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Italy’s governance of migration was dominated by a utilitarian rationality (Morice, 2001), whose main tools were the quota system based on the sector of employment (and nationality) of foreigners, mass regularisations (sanatorie) reserved for salaried workers only (and often limited to certain types of jobs), and the imposition of a very strong link between the employment contract and the residence permit (Bonizzoni, 2018). [9] At the end of the 2000s, this regime underwent a profound transformation, and salaried work lost some of its centrality as the main justification for admitting newcomers to residency (Colucci, 2018). [10] A new regime, built mainly around the asylum application and the system of accommodation centres, then appeared.
A foreign national applying for asylum in Italy can wait up to two years to find out whether they will be entitled to international protection. [11] In the event of appeals (which are very frequent, due to high rates of rejections), the waiting period can be even longer, sometimes up to four or five years. During this time and from the moment they enter the country, in contrast to the French context, nearly all asylum seekers are placed in the national accommodation system. Such centres can be seen as a particular form of “constrained accommodation” (Bernardot, 2007), characterised by the confinement and segregation of residents, a strong disciplinary dimension, and dynamics of infantilisation (Pinelli, 2017; Sorgoni, 2011). The personnel of the centres impose compliance with a set of rules aimed at governing daily life, the modalities and times of access to and exit from the centres, and acceptable behaviour (prohibition of alcohol consumption, limits on the possibility of inviting outsiders, etc.). Violation of the rules gives rise to punishment, ranging from the suspension of pocket money [12] to expulsion from the centre. The loss of a place in the accommodation centre is the penalty for any absence exceeding two days, which severely limits the mobility of these people inside the national territory.

Dependency of Asylum Seekers and Making Unpaid Work Visible

16 Brahima, an Ivorian asylum seeker, was considered a model migrant by the employees of the centre where he lived. Upon his arrival in Italy, he immediately started studying Italian and enrolled in courses to obtain a general education certificate. He rarely challenged the authority and decisions of social workers, and never refused to participate in the many volunteer programmes offered to him, to the extent that he said during an interview: “I’ve never been paid for work carried out in Italy.” Despite his efforts, a year and a half after the asylum procedure began, the Asylum Commission decided to reject his application. Brahima’s adherence to the framework imposed by social workers gave way to heavy disappointment, which led him to re-interpret his past volunteer commitment as the result of a constrained choice: “They make us into volunteers, unpaid workers. To take advantage of us, that’s really what it’s about!” To illustrate this statement, he gave a concrete example:


I worked in a restaurant, but my six-month residence permit[13] expired. And the restaurant owner asked me to apply for a renewal or to obtain a receipt of application for residence to start working again. But [the caseworkers] didn’t do it, because they didn’t even want me to work. First Marco [the president of association managing the centre] told me: ‘If you work there and your salary reaches 1,000 euros, you will have to leave the centre’. I said: ‘OK, no problem, I understand’. They took too long, they didn’t do it quickly. It wasn’t until two weeks later that they produced the receipt and the [the owner of the restaurant] told me that they had already hired someone else. So, I stayed at home, depending on the pocket money they gave me, seventy-five euros. But seventy-five euros a month doesn’t go anywhere. And we depend on that.” (Interview conducted in October 2018)

18 Brahima’s account provides a good illustration of the ambivalence of the reception system towards asylum seekers’ work: access to certain types of work, that which is paid and associated with individual benefits, is restricted by a range of formal and informal mechanisms. In contrast, activities such as volunteering, associated with civic merit and integration, are encouraged, given visibility and publicised.

Access to Employment for Residents of Accommodation Centres: An Obstructed Right

19 In contrast to the situation in France, where asylum seekers are de facto forbidden to work, [14] the Italian legislative framework allows the right to work two months after filing an asylum application. Residents try to seize this opportunity very quickly, to the extent that employment often emerges alongside the residence permit as one of the main concerns marking their daily lives. Looking for a job is not only a way of relieving the waiting period, but above all a material necessity. Indeed, the small allowance associated with the asylum application (two and a half euros per day) makes it necessary to seek additional income: this allows them to make purchases without depending on caseworkers, to put money aside in anticipation of leaving the accommodation structure, or to send money to family and friends in the country of origin.

20 However, although nothing legally prevents residents from signing a contract and working, there are nevertheless several obstacles to their entry into the formal labour market. Firstly, asylum seekers may be situated in areas where the “match” between job supply and demand is particularly complex, due to the isolation of centres or their location in certain regions where there are few employment opportunities. Limits on mobility that accompany assignment to a centre thus often lead to situations of prolonged exclusion from the workforce. Secondly, it is important to emphasise that the right to work is only possible two months after the submission of modello C3 (C3 form), which marks the beginning of the asylum procedure. However, this form is sometimes filled in and sent to the relevant authorities long after the migrant’s arrival in the reception centre, which has the effect of postponing for several months the possibility of working on a regular basis in the city of settlement.

21 Once the form has been registered, the migrant formally receives the status of asylum seeker and therefore has to obtain the residence permit reserved for this category (permesso di soggiorno per richiesta asilo) from the local Questura. [15] This residence permit, which is valid for six months and is renewable throughout the duration of the procedure, allows for the signing of work contracts and is generally an indispensable identification document in the context of several bureaucratic procedures. However, the practices of the Questura offices are far from what is provided for by the law, since residence permits for asylum applications are issued or renewed with significant delays, which can sometimes exceed the duration of validity of the document itself: it is therefore not uncommon for asylum seekers to receive their residence permit when it has already expired. During this period, residents of the centres should have a document proving receipt of their application, replacing the temporary residence permit. However, these receipts are often not accepted by employers, who do not consider them sufficient to conclude a contractual relationship. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for asylum seekers to find themselves without any residence permit or receipt due to the regular malfunctioning of the Questura. This quasi-documented status (Giudici, 2013) produces a paradoxical situation for these migrants who, while theoretically belonging to a protected legal category related to the pending asylum application, are without a material proof of their status, and therefore cannot engage in an employment relationship.

22 A final element that shapes the integration of asylum seekers into the world of work is the link between their status as residents of accommodation centres and the condition of “economic vulnerability”. Italian legislation establishes that the right to accommodation for asylum seekers is conditional on not having personal resources. To this end, it stipulates the obligation for centre residents to communicate their individual economic resources, and sets a ceiling of approximately 6,000 euros of annual income (including allowances), beyond which the right to accommodation is automatically lost. This rule is often applied in an arbitrary and restrictive manner by associations running accommodation centres: they set limits on a monthly basis, which may be less than 500 euros per month. When an employment contract signed by asylum seekers exceeds these limits, social workers often — although not systematically — intervene directly with employers in order to interrupt the employment relationship, or to propose that it be transformed into an internship (paid approximately 400 euros per month).

23 This is often perceived and denounced by residents of the accommodation centres as an act of injustice and malpractice, as Samake, for example, asserted in the interview he gave in September 2018. This Malian asylum seeker living in the city of Modena told me that he had taken part in a vocational training course a year earlier, during which he had had the opportunity to learn to drive forklift trucks in a warehouse. The trainer seemed to appreciate Samake’s skills, to the point that at the end of the course he offered him a fixed-term contract. However, the managers of the accommodation centre interfered:


At first they said to me: ‘When you finish your training, you may be given a fixed-term contract, but you’ve got obligations you have to respect. You mustn’t choose a full-time contract, you should work for four or five hours a day. That way you’ll be paid 450 euros per month, so you will stay in the [accommodation centre] structure’. [...] Well, I don’t care what they say, I’m an adult, I had to decide what to do. [...] I signed a three-month contract. So, our manager — a woman — came to see me one day, where I live [...]. She said: ‘Samake, you signed a fixed-term contract, a full-time contract, so you must be earning more than 1,000 euros. You are not allowed to stay. [...] The Questura and the prefecture will send you a letter asking you to leave the [reception] centre, are you aware of that? I said: “Yes, I know, I agree’. [...] In the end, she decided to let me stay in the centre for the three months [provided for in the contract]. When I’ve finished these three months with the [temporary employment] agency, if they renew the contract, I will have to leave the centre.” (Interview conducted in Modena, September 2018)

25 Samake’s story, like Brahima’s above, highlights the ambivalence of the requirement of economic vulnerability. It constitutes a criterion for access to the accommodation centre system, but it also emerges as a condition for remaining there. The result is a process of making asylum seekers economically dependent (dependency that is also status-related, temporal and spatial), which often tends to exacerbate the precariousness of their situations. The institutional will to promote the autonomy of residents of accommodation centres is thus revealed as a contradictory injunction, which makes the mechanisms of dispossession and domination invisible, while promoting the development of types of work that are unpaid or poorly paid.

“Working for the Municipal Authorities” or the Volunteering Display

26 While access to employment is severely limited in (and by) the reception system, the participation of asylum seekers in employment schemes, training programmes and civic service is often encouraged, or even required, to the extent that in some accommodation centres residents are forced to take part in such activities, failing which they lose their right to reception. These practices are justified in the name of integration, future employment and the fight against “undeclared work”. In this regard, Sonia, the head of an association running several accommodation centres in Naples, said:


[Asylum seekers] send almost half of their pocket money home [to the country of origin], and it becomes a vicious circle, they only focus on activities that give them an immediate economic return [...]. We don’t support work, rather we support integration and training. Many people engage in undeclared work on the markets, in shops or textile workshops [...]. We seek to provide a positive alternative: reception should be a period when you can invest in yourself [...]. For those who continue to do undeclared work over a long period, without taking part in trainings and courses, there’s the way out. [The stay in the centre] is for training and integration, otherwise what we do could be considered as the hospitality industry.” (Interview conducted in Naples, May 2018)

28 Apart from the low-paid activities linked to employment schemes, jobs assigned to asylum seekers under the reception system are mainly unpaid. There are two main types of work: domestic work and voluntary work. The first relates to chores in accommodation centres, which are organised according to the rota put in place by the caseworkers and non-compliance carries the threat of punishment (withdrawal of pocket money, ban on leaving the centre, warning letter). The second, voluntary work, mainly takes place outside centres, in particular in parks, squares and streets that migrants are invited to clean and maintain on a volunteer basis. These are activities typically associated with the principle of public utility; in this respect, it is worth noting that some asylum seekers refer to voluntary work as “work for the Mayor” or “for the Comune” (the municipality). Unlike domestic work, this unpaid work is staged in various ways, in order to make migrants’ efforts visible to Italian citizens, thus showing the figure of the deserving asylum seeker in public spaces.

29 The Bologna SiCura volunteer programme, [16] implemented in the summer of 2018, provides a good illustration of this aspect. The programme involved around thirty asylum seekers (all but three of whom were men) collecting rubbish and sweeping the ground in a large municipal park near Bologna railway station, as well as in two busy squares in the city centre. A volunteer association commissioned by the municipality provided a short training course on the maintenance of green spaces, supplied the volunteers with yellow vests (marked “Urban regeneration” in capital letters) and organised the cleaning work. Volunteers were divided into groups and moved from one site to another according to a pattern that reflected the organisers’ desire not to let their unpaid commitment go unnoticed. In the park, for example, the activities were scheduled on Friday and Saturday mornings, coinciding exactly with the large weekly flea market that brings together hundreds of people living in Bologna.

30 The presence of asylum seekers in this public space is therefore regulated by a series of elements aimed at making their bodies and civic performance visible: the fluorescent yellow outfit, the activities carried out at times when there are many people passing through, but also the high level of publicity given to Bologna SiCura in the municipality’s information bodies [17] and in the local press. [18] Thanks to these various visibility mechanisms, the “display of integration” [19] of asylum seekers can be staged. The volunteers themselves also seem to take up the discourse on integration and civic value suggested by the institutions. Although they often stress that they participate in the programme because “there are no jobs”, they also underline the unpaid and voluntary nature of the activities carried out. [20] While, at first sight, their comments seem to reflect a form of incorporation of dominating imperatives, the subsequent fragility and reversibility of their commitment reveals gaps between the model of the deserving migrant and the actual practices implemented by actors who are confronted with it on a daily basis.

31 A month after the end of the first Bologna SiCura project, I met Diakite, one of the asylum seekers who volunteered in the park. He told me that the volunteer programme was supposed to resume in a few weeks, but he added that the volunteers “are upset because they haven’t been paid”. Diakite then explained to me that Daniel, the president of the volunteer association, had repeatedly told them that these activities were unpaid; however, “he hinted that the municipality could give you something in return, maybe help you get a job.” Another promise was also made:


Daniel also said that the certificate of participation in voluntary work would be helpful in relation to the [Asylum] Commission. But two guys had their claims rejected anyway.” (Informal discussion, September 2018)

33 At the beginning of August, the team of volunteers went to ask for payment for cleaning the park, without success. Then several volunteers were refused asylum and some of the team decided to migrate to other cities or countries. However, others continued to protest and managed to negotiate a payment of forty euros. When the association proposed to resume volunteering in September, all former volunteers refused.

34 The case of Bologna SiCura shows that, in the name of civic merit, volunteering contributes to reinforcing the dynamics of hierarchisation and selection of immigrants settled in Italian cities. At the same time, this programme shows that asylum seekers do not subscribe unconditionally to volunteer commitment or to the representation it embodies. On the contrary, they construct a relationship with volunteering which, far from being a vocation, appears unstable and precarious. This partial adherence suggests, beneath the surface, forms of challenge and opposition to certain features of the figure of the deserving migrant.

Migrants Forced into Voluntary Work? Partial Adherence and Volunteer Tactics

35 The acceptance of voluntary work, which is strongly intertwined with the power relations that shape the condition of residents of accommodation centres, should not be mistaken for an act of full consent. [21] As the example of Bologna SiCura shows, foreign volunteers often try to use unpaid labour for their own purposes, while distancing themselves from the moral injunctions issued to them. Although asylum seekers cannot ignore these pressures, they are not only subjected to them; instead, participants create partly autonomous and unforeseen room for manoeuvre and construction of meaning. Their commitment is therefore neither totally free nor entirely constrained: it is shaped both by a subjective relationship that seems to reflect partial adherence and by practices from the realm of tactics.

36 This semantic choice owes much to the vocabulary developed by Certeau (2005: 58-60), who famously defined the concept of strategy, as “organised by the postulate of power”, and the concept of tactics, as “determined by the absence of power”. The use of this semantic distinction is particularly common in migration studies, when describing the resourcefulness of migrants in dealing with border controls (Tyszler, 2018) and restrictive policies on entry and residence in the country of arrival (Le Courant, 2010). The relationship between the tactics of migratory mobility (Veron, 2018) on the one hand, and the tactical uses of voluntary work on the other, is not only at the level of analogy: rather I propose to analyse the latter in the continuity of the former. Indeed, the acceptance of volunteering is part of the wider “diversified modalities of investment in — or deflection of — institutional arrangements” (ibid.) that govern the mobility and settlement of asylum seekers, making voluntary work one of the many tests along their migratory path.

37 By extending a set of mobility and settlement tactics, participation in volunteer programmes becomes a way of negotiating resources and rights, spaces and forms of recognition within the particular “migration industry” that is the reception system (Schapendonk, 2018). While the subjective motives for participation and the modalities of investment are linked to a multiplicity of specific factors, ranging from past individual trajectories to the contexts of recruitment into voluntary work, it is nevertheless possible to identify certain recurrent and transversal arguments used by asylum seekers to legitimise volunteer commitment.

Asserting Oneself as a Volunteer Worker to Reject Stigma


“Today I’m accompanying Veronica, a member of the association that organises voluntary activities — including cleaning a park and pavements in a suburb of Bologna. Under normal circumstances, cleaning is carried out by a team of two asylum seekers, but this morning one of them said he would be late. When I arrive with Veronica, only Francis, a Nigerian man living in a local accommodation centre, is there and he is already wearing an orange vest bearing the emblem of the Bologna municipality, Volontariato per i beni comuni [Volunteering for the common good]. Under the astonished gaze of Veronica, who is only in charge of supervision, I offer to help John. A few minutes later, while we are cleaning and chatting, John’s mobile rings. He answers, and cuts it short: ‘Sorry, I’m working now, I’ll call you later’.” (Extract from fieldwork notes, Bologna, June 2019)

39 On several occasions, I witnessed similar situations in the different cities studied: volunteer asylum seekers who received calls but did not pick up the phone, exclaiming aloud that they were busy, while others, like John, answered quickly to tell the caller that they were working. These episodes contribute to framing voluntary work as a form of identity-related work: in reaction to multiple processes of denial of recognition, asylum seekers sometimes engage in voluntary work to affirm themselves as workers. Such self-affirmation is paradoxical in that it is based on a form of work that is not recognised as legitimate, and it can therefore only remain incomplete (Pudal, 2012). It does, however, make it possible to construct —invariably unstable — ways of maintaining a positive self-image, which may be necessary to hold out in the precarious context characterised by generalised discredit faced by asylum seekers.

40 In many cases, the determination to keep busy and to assert oneself through voluntary work seems to be built upon and in reaction to the stigma of idleness faced by accommodation centre residents. In public debate around the Italian reception system, laziness and inactivity are embodied in a specific figure: that of the foreigner — particularly of Nigerian nationality — begging in front of supermarkets, shops or restaurants. Begging practices employed by certain migrants (mostly men), sometimes organised by informal groups who get a daily percentage of the meagre earnings, have rapidly become a negative symbol applied to the entire category of asylum seekers, who are accused of taking advantage of the system without working, and of being a troublesome element in the public space. They are also part of the security narrative around the nexus between immigration, informal practices and crime. The migrants we interviewed were familiar with this rhetoric, and sometimes adopted it themselves as illustrated by statements made by Mamadou, a resident at a Bologna accommodation centre:


Mamadou: “I love the city of Bologna, but you know, sometimes there’s just one person who ruins everyone else’s name.
Simone: “What do you mean?
Mamadou: “For example, there are people who don’t want to do anything, they just go and bother people eating [on restaurant terraces], every day. I even went to see, there are four of them, they stand at the side of the road and then they start asking for money. There are people who don’t like that.” (Interview conducted in French with Mamadou, asylum seeker living in Bologna, May 2017)

42 In representations made by Italians as well as by certain migrants, the volunteer asylum seeker who makes themselves useful to the host community without demanding any payment is the concrete negation of the image of the Nigerian beggar who refuses any kind of commitment, but asks to receive money. More precisely, the volunteer commitment, conceived as an attempt at rehabilitation, is constructed in opposition to the repellent figure (Clair, 2012) of the undeserving poor foreigner. While the effort to break away from such stigma may eventually lead to some successes on an individual level, it does not change the (stereotypical and negative) qualities generally assigned to the category of asylum seekers. On the other hand, the penetration of this repellent figure fragments this social group retrospectively, by pushing its members to measure themselves against a scale of virtue and morality that largely reflects the expectations of the majority group of nationals, and which recommends the exclusion of those elements considered not to be respectable: those who beg, those who deal, those who do not respect the rules of the centre or who engage in confrontation with social workers, or even those who do not agree to participate in voluntary work.

43 In this respect, it is possible to put forward the hypothesis that the elaboration of repellent figures and models of merit reinvigorates the group, which would otherwise be stuck in a condition of generalised and indiscriminate stigmatisation of all its members. On the other hand, without really extricating these subjects from their minority condition, the moral representations and the practices that go with them (voluntary work, begging) tend to produce a centre and a periphery within the category of asylum seekers. Once these positive and negative poles have been established (Althabe, 1993), classification struggles can be developed.

Volunteer Commitment: between Emulation, Competition and Distinction

44 Adherence to voluntary work should also be understood in this context: in addition to the injunctions of caseworkers and institutional representatives, there is the - often indirect - pressure of peers, which reinforces processes of emulation. The testimony of Boukari, an asylum seeker living in the city of Trento, illustrates this aspect. When I asked him, during an informal conversation, why he volunteered to clean the city’s pavements, he explained: “I had friends who were doing that, while I was doing nothing. I couldn’t stand it, so I accepted... rather than doing nothing every day, I decided to do that.” [22] Similarly, Abdoulaye, a volunteer in Bologna, said that there were many individual motives for volunteering, but that, in general, “There are quite a lot of people who think: ‘If everyone else does [volunteering] and I don’t, what will the association think?’” [23]

45 This statement shows, on the one hand, that the mechanisms of emulation and competition are reinforced by the situations of co-presence inherent in the confined space of the accommodation centre, and on the other hand, that they often develop with reference to expectations of actors who hold resources and power in relation to asylum seekers. In a context marked by the scarcity and selectivity of available resources (Vacchiano, 2011), the possibility of forging privileged relationships with the individuals regulating their distribution is a powerful competitive lever: in order to (hope to) be transferred to a better accommodation structure, to have access to an internship, to have solid legal support throughout the asylum application process, it becomes important to show the will to collaborate, and not to give a bad image of oneself (Novak, 2021).

46 In the construction of the subjective relationship with volunteering, emerging distinctions relate not only to whether an individual engages in it or not, rather other lines of demarcation can be drawn by the volunteers, based on the nature of the unpaid activity carried out, the meaning given to it and its perceived usefulness. Yao, a young asylum seeker living near Trento, emphasised this aspect by comparing the volunteering he carried out — “social” volunteering that could open up paths to emancipation — and the volunteering performed by “others”, which he considered to be akin to slavery:


I was very often involved in social work, with schools where I went to tell my story. Sometimes it was important, when I had to explain the reasons why someone leaves their country to come here. [...] So, I didn’t do the kind of voluntary work that involved cleaning the streets, heavy voluntary work. [...] If I have to do voluntary work, I have to like it, I have to enjoy it. If they say that I should volunteer to thank this country that received me [and that] I have to contribute in some way to the country that feeds me every day [...], then volunteering becomes an act of force, an obligation. So, it’s not volunteering anymore, it’s slavery. That’s what it is. Luckily, I didn’t do that kind of volunteering. I don’t know why others did it.” (Interview conducted in Trento, March 2018)

48 The opposition established by Yao implies a hierarchisation of volunteering programmes and generates an individual sense of pride and, at the same time, a deprecating view of the unpaid activities massively assigned to the rest of the group of asylum seekers. In general, the distinctions made between the different forms of volunteering can be analysed as moments of negotiation of the boundaries of invisible work, negotiation around the legitimacy of the activity, but also around the value of the person performing it. Distinction, competition and the struggle for recognition are thus intertwined within the interactional process that constructs adherence to volunteering. An extract from my fieldwork notes illustrates this dimension:


“Sitting in a room in a large accommodation centre, I am talking to Adama, an asylum seeker living in the centre, who arrived in Italy a year and seven months ago. He tells me that he took part in a volunteer programme in a bicycle repair shop, but that he then stopped doing voluntary work. The discussion continues until the arrival of Aboubakar, another asylum seeker who also lives in the centre and whom Adama knows well. As soon as Aboubakar enters the room, Adama exclaims, loudly and teasingly: ‘Ah, there he is, he didn’t do volontariato, solo mangiare e basta [he only eats and that’s all]!’ Aboubakar gets angry and reacts: ‘That’s not true, I did cooking!’ [24] Adama insists, laughing: ‘Cooking is not volunteering’, but Aboubakar does not give in: ‘It is. It’s not paid’.” (Extract from fieldwork notes Trento, April 2018)

50 For Adama, the “internal” and non-public nature of Aboubakar’s unpaid work is enough to negate its status as voluntary work, [25] which means that he can portray the asylum seeker as lazy (“solo mangiare e basta”). Aboubakar thus finds himself in the position of having to defend himself, by pointing out that the catering service legitimately comes under the category of voluntary work, on the grounds that it was unpaid. This exchange shows the extent to which the stigma of inactivity can be mobilised to enhance one’s own status while discrediting another member of the group: the stigma of inactivity thus functions as an instrument of injunction to perform voluntary work, used not only by promoters of the programmes, but sometimes also between asylum seekers in a competitive situation.

Mitigating Racist Hostility

51 Beyond the dynamics described above, another motive frequently comes up in the accounts of the asylum seekers interviewed: the desire to “create links” with the inhabitants of the town or village where the accommodation centre is located. Participation in voluntary work can also be seen as a relational investment with regard to the world outside the centre, in order to increase chances of getting a job, accommodation or a supportive network of friends. The observation may seem trivial: the search for networks of individuals who are already settled, holding useful information and resources for integration into the emigration context, is undoubtedly a common element in most migratory experiences. However, the forms, possibilities and limits of these sociabilities are always governed by specific frameworks, shaped by material conditions, as well as by collective feelings (Ahmed, 2004) of proximity (resemblance, empathy) or foreignness (otherness, repulsion) that regulate relations between groups.

52 Most of the asylum seekers interviewed said that they were experiencing a condition of isolation. This isolation is not only the result of the uprooting process associated with transnational migration. On the one hand, it is linked to the specific dispersal policies in the Italian asylum system, which prevent alternative settlement arrangements; on the other hand, it develops in interactions with the majority group marked by everyday racism (Essed, 1991) and by dynamics of contempt (Honneth, 1996) which strongly delimit the spaces and situations to which migrants can have access without running risks (of being humiliated, assaulted, etc.). Beyond the wounds they produce, racist mistrust and aversion also cause a distancing, which appears to asylum seekers as an immediate obstacle to their desired integration in areas such as the labour market, urban public spaces, and places of leisure. Volunteering thus becomes a way of getting around the “relational obstructions” experienced (Palomares, 2008). The testimony of Malick, a resident of an accommodation centre in Bologna, provides a good illustration of this dimension:


Sometimes you see people who are not busy, you just ask for two minutes to [get directions], they ignore you completely, they say ‘I don’t know’. I think it’s a problem to be so closed [in on themselves], some of them are racists [...]. So, it gets to us, but we let go. And apart from that, the work [...]. We learn the language, finish [studying], some learn trades [...]. Despite all this, [we are obliged to] look for work. What do they offer us? Here, work is not easy, but there’s a way of working, it’s voluntary. They say: tirocinio [internship] or lavoro volontario [voluntary work]. [...] There’s no work, you can only do voluntary work and tirocinio, because they don’t have to pay you for that. And that’s what’s wrong. Someone who works, who does you a favour, should at least be paid! [...] So we’ve understood that voluntary work doesn’t do us any good, but we’re obliged to accept a lot of things, so we also end up accepting that.” (Interview conducted in French in Bologna, August 2017)

54 In Malick’s account, volunteering appears as a temporary substitute for employment in a hostile context. As a result, it is seen as a personal investment by default, a commitment that is always reversible. Indeed, in asylum seekers’ “invisible careers” (Daniels, 1988), entry into the world of employment most often leads to an interruption in volunteer commitment: the volunteer experience is therefore prior to and incompatible with paid work. This is a radical departure from a hegemonic narrative of volunteering, in which it is seen as a complementary activity to paid work, taking place during the “free time” left after carrying out professional activity. But Malick’s testimony also moves away from representations of the deserving migrant, denying any association between civic value and volunteering, and denouncing the latter as an imposed obligation.

55 Volunteer asylum seekers find themselves fighting several battles simultaneously. They are caught up in an internal battle, made up of distinctions and hierarchies which, by dividing volunteer programmes and the very category of asylum seekers, reinforce certain tendencies towards atomisation and become obstacles to the identification and constitution of asylum seekers as a collective (Kergoat, 2001). At the same time, they wage an external struggle, against categories, classifications and majority norms, using volunteering as a kind of file to blunt the rigidities of the settlement context.


56 Volunteer programmes for asylum seekers in Italy reveal a significant transformation of the “moral economy of asylum” (Fassin and Kobelinsky, 2012), marked by the emergence of the figure of the deserving migrant at the heart of humanitarian government. Indeed, in contemporary asylum policies, the criterion of vulnerability — which was typically associated with them — is increasingly intertwined with injunctions to achieve a set of integration and civic merit performances. In the Italian context, these expected performances, involving poorly paid or unpaid forms of work, are not limited to the space of accommodation centres and asylum institutions. Through the organisation of street cleaning and green space maintenance programmes, they also enter the public space of the cities of settlement. Activities of “public interest” thus become yet another moral test imposed on a particularly stigmatised category of foreigners, who are accused of idleness and whose migratory legitimacy is constantly questioned.

57 By adopting an approach that seriously considers the material stakes and the dynamic and contextual nature of the moral economy of migration policies, I have argued that this figure of civic merit is part of a field marked by tensions and conflicts. Firstly, unpaid commitment was analysed in relation to the temporal, spatial, status-related and economic precariousness of potential volunteers residing in accommodation centres. This precariousness is reinforced by a series of mechanisms which, while limiting access to the labour market, aim to encourage participation in low-paid or unpaid activities, associated with a normative representation of the “good pathway to integration” in Italian society. Secondly, the study of modes of adherence to voluntary work showed that, although the figure of the deserving migrant imposes powerful dynamics of competition and distinction within the group of asylum seekers, it remains subject to a series of strategies aimed at circumvention and resistance. The project aimed at putting to work for free that underpins asylum volunteering is confronted with multiple tactical uses by new immigrants, who thus participate in evolving and sometimes challenging the figure of the deserving migrant.


  • [1]
    The volunteer programmes studied in this article, as well as the models of civic merit that go with them, are mainly aimed at men seeking asylum. While sharing certain common rationales, the forms of employment required of women asylum seekers and the injunctions experienced by them appear to be somewhat different, more closely linked to a victimising representation of migrant women (Pinelli, 2017) and to the “politics of the intimate” aimed at controlling their mobility and sexuality (Schmoll, 2020: 123-157). This aspect deserves a separate discussion and is beyond the scope of this article. However, women are not completely absent from these volunteer programmes. For this reason, in the original French version of this article, I used inclusive writing.
  • [2]
    See Circular No. 14290 of the Italian Ministry of Interior (27 November 2014, Volunteer activities carried out by migrants) and Legislative Decree No. 13 (17 February 2017) converted into a law on 29 March 2017.
  • [3]
    The rhetoric of social utility is deeply embedded in this type of volunteering. Indeed, the participation of asylum seekers in volunteer programmes is presented as a kind of counter-gift in consideration of the hospitality received, as I have shown in previous research (Di Cecco, 2021).
  • [4]
    Focus group conducted in Trento, April 2018.
  • [5]
    For an analysis of contemporary civic integration policies in France and Canada, 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. On the Italian context, see Carbone et al. (2018).
  • [6]
    I would like to thank Camille Schmoll and Serge Weber, as well as the two anonymous reviewers, for their valuable advice and stimulating comments. I would also like to thank participants in the seminar “Figures du travail migrant” (Figures of migrant work), organised by the Labour & Migration section of the Policy Department of Institut Convergence Migrations (2020-2021): the collective reflections developed in this framework have greatly contributed to this article.
  • [7]
    In Italy, prefectures play a crucial role in the architecture of the system of accommodation centres for asylum seekers. Although the practical management of the centres is delegated to associations and private companies, prefectures have significant management, coordination and supervision functions, and can therefore promote initiatives such as those related to volunteering.
  • [8]
    It is not uncommon for members of the Asylum Commission to ask applicants, at the time of the hearing, to show proof of their “socio-economic integration”, in the form of work contracts, Italian language certificates, certificates of participation in internships or voluntary work programmes.
  • [9]
    However, it is important to note that family reunification is, then as now, one of the main mechanisms for access to the right of residence in Italy.
  • [10]
    I am referring in particular to the significant resizing of the quota system and the sanatoria. The closure of these avenues of admission to residency and the parallel rise of asylum must be placed within a particular economic and political context, marked by a persistent economic crisis, by the increasingly central role of the European Union in the control of external borders, and by the humanitarian-security-based management of the “migration crises” of the 2010s (Campesi, 2015).
  • [11]
    A successful application provides access to refugee status (for five years) or, alternatively, to subsidiary protection (five years) or special protection (formerly humanitarian protection, for two years). The body responsible for deciding on the legitimacy of the application is the Territorial Commission for International Protection (here also called the Asylum Commission). There are currently twenty territorial commissions and twenty local sections, each with jurisdiction over a defined territorial area.
  • [12]
    Term used in Italy to indicate the allowance provided to asylum seekers, corresponding to two euros and fifty cents per day.
  • [13]
    Temporary residence permit for asylum seekers.
  • [14]
    In practice, the prohibition applies to the first six months following the registration of the application with OFPRA (French asylum agency), after which it is possible to apply for a work permit. However, obtaining such a permit is subject to the presentation of an employment offer and does not allow for a change of employer. It is interesting to note, as Kobelinsky (2010: 35) points out, that the French circular abolishing the right to work for asylum seekers for the first time (the Cresson Circular of 16 September 1991) was issued at the same time as the establishment of the national reception system, which included the creation of the CADAs (French reception centres for asylum seekers). The latter thus seem to constitute a kind of “compensation” for the ban on work.
  • [15]
    The Questura is the central police station. It deals in particular with the processing of foreign nationals’ applications in an ad hoc office, the Ufficio immigrazione, whose functions correspond to those of the reception desk for foreign nationals in the French prefectures.
  • [16]
    A play on words between “si cura” (which takes care of her) and “sicura” (safe, secure, without danger).
  • [17]
    Progetto Bologna SiCura, i richiedenti asilo per il decoro della città,, 20/07/2018.
  • [18]
    See for example the article and photo reportage, “Puliamo noi le piazze più sporche di Bologna”: 30 richiedenti asilo diventano volontari (“We are the ones cleaning up Bologna’s dirtiest squares”: 30 asylum seekers become volunteers), Repubblica Bologna, 06/07/2018.
  • [19]
    Indeed, reference to integration is constant. For example, the deputy mayor of Bologna publicly stated that the programme is not only an attempt to “improve the quality of community life and urban cleanliness”, but also aims to “integrate young men who have arrived in Bologna, [because] the risk is that they fall into the hands of organised crime and start dealing: we want to give them an alternative” (Richiedenti asilo curano piazze Bologna,, 05/07/2018).
  • [20]
    Extract from fieldwork notes, Bologna, August 2018.
  • [21]
    The expression adopted in the title of this section (migrants forced into voluntary work) is proposed by Carbone et al.
  • [22]
    Extract from fieldwork notes, Trento, April 2018.
  • [23]
    Extract from fieldwork notes, Bologna, April 2017.
  • [24]
    Here, Aboubakar refers to a volunteer programme implemented in several accommodation centres in Trento: a cooking service run by a group of asylum seekers for all residents.
  • [25]
    It is likely that this deskilling is linked, at least in part, to the substance of the activity, that of cooking, referring to domestic work which is typically assigned to women, is invisible and is not recognised as work.

Based on an analysis of volunteer programmes for asylum seekers in Italy, this article examines the emergence of a new figure of the “deserving migrant”: the migrant volunteer worker, who is grateful and active, and willing to perform unpaid activities in the public interest. In the Italian context, participation in volunteer programmes is seen as proof of the merit required of some foreign populations, especially those subject to asylum policies and incorporated into the system of accommodation centres, who thus have to show not only vulnerability, but also integration and civic commitment. However, there are gaps and room for manoeuvre between the display of integration and civic value conveyed by volunteer programmes and the actual practices of volunteer asylum seekers. The study of the tactics used to reappropriate, distance and circumvent unpaid activities reveals that the emergence of this figure of the deserving migrant, while creating competition and distinction between asylum seekers, is not immune to criticism and challenge of varying degrees of visibility.

  • integration policies
  • asylum
  • volunteering
  • deserving migrant
  • public spaces

Le demandeur d’asile bénévole, nouvelle figure du « migrant méritant » ?

À partir de l’analyse des programmes de bénévolat pour demandeur·euse·s d’asile en Italie, cet article s’attache à étudier l’émergence d’une nouvelle figure du « migrant méritant » : le migrant bénévole, reconnaissant et actif, disposé à effectuer gratuitement des activités dites d’intérêt général. Dans le contexte italien, la participation aux programmes de bénévolat s’affirme comme un gage de mérite exigé à certaines populations étrangères, notamment celles gouvernées par les politiques d’asile et insérées dans le système des centres d’hébergement, qui doivent alors faire preuve non seulement de vulnérabilité, mais aussi d’intégration et d’engagement civique. Des écarts et des marges de manœuvre existent néanmoins entre le spectacle de l’intégration et de la valeur civique véhiculé par les programmes de bénévolat, et les pratiques concrètes des demandeur·euse·s d’asile bénévoles. L’étude des tactiques de réappropriation, de mise à distance et de contournement des activités non rémunérées révèle que l’émergence de cette figure de migrant méritant, tout en ayant des effets de mise en concurrence et de distinction entre les demandeur·euse·s d’asile, n’est pas à l’abri de formes plus ou moins visibles de critique et de contestation.

  • politiques d’intégration
  • asile
  • bénévolat
  • migrant méritant
  • espaces publics

El solicitante de asilo voluntario, ¿una nueva figura del «migrante meritorio»?

A partir del análisis de los programas de voluntariado para solicitantes de asilo en Italia, este artículo examina la aparición de una nueva figura del «migrante meritorio»: el migrante voluntario, agradecido y activo, dispuesto a realizar actividades gratuitas denominadas como de interés general. En el contexto italiano, la participación en programas de voluntariado se afirma como una prueba de mérito exigida a determinadas poblaciones extranjeras, especialmente aquellas gobernadas por políticas de asilo e insertas en el sistema de acogida, que deben entonces demostrar no sólo su vulnerabilidad, sino también su integración y compromiso cívico. Sin embargo, existen lagunas y márgenes de maniobra entre el espectáculo de integración y el valor cívico movilizados por los programas de voluntariado y las prácticas reales de los solicitantes de asilo que participan en estos. El estudio de las tácticas de reapropiación, de distanciamiento y de elusión de las actividades no remuneradas revela que la aparición de esta figura del migrante meritorio, aunque tiene efectos de competencia y distinción entre los solicitantes de asilo, no es inmune a formas más o menos visibles de crítica y contestación.

  • espacios públicos
  • políticas de integración
  • asilo
  • voluntariado
  • migrante meritorio
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Simone Di Cecco
Doctor in sociology of migrations, currently ATER (temporary teaching and research assistant) at the University of Paris, fellow of the Urmis laboratory, Place Paul Ricœur, 75013 Paris;
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
Katherine Booth
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 23/09/2022
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