Co-optation, resistance, and subversion: migrant support organisations under welfare pluralism

Over the last few decades, successive governments have increasingly outsourced welfare state service provision to the third sector. This shift took on new significance under the ‘Big Society’, as the third sector is now expected to provide services without financial support from the state.   This ‘welfare pluralism’ has generated a great deal of controversy. On the one hand, it can be argued that these organizations are providing badly needed services upon which vulnerable people depend. On the other hand, especially post-austerity, these services are provided at no cost to the state, arguably insulating the government, and the more affluent members of the public, from the consequences of service cuts. While many of these criticisms can be applied to third sector groups supporting migrants, the situation is complicated by the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, and by the active role many migrants take in these organisations. During my PhD research, I worked with 7 migrant support groups, and interviewed volunteers and staff members at several more such groups. I found that migrant support organisations may simultaneously be co-opted by the neoliberal state while also contesting and subverting exclusionary discourses and policies around migration, citizenship, and belonging.

In the UK, the outsourcing of welfare state service provision to the third sector first began under the Thatcher government; according to Crowson:“[i]n real terms central government grants to voluntary organisations increased from £93 million in 1979/1980 to £292 million in 1987/1988”. It was assumed that service delivery through the third sector would be more efficient and less costly. In addition, it was hoped that the shift would encourage individual voluntarism and philanthropy. This can be understood as a form of neoliberal governmentality, that individuals should internalize a sense of responsibility for their ‘neighbour’s’ well-being, thereby mitigating the worst effects of neoliberal restructuring without requiring state intervention. New Labour continued this expansion of the third sector, as part of their call foractive citizenship.’ The Coalition government went even further in this devolution of services, under the rubric of the ‘Big Society’. The Big Society was underpinned by a state/community dichotomy, which posited that community spirit and self-sufficiency were allowed to wither under New Labour, replaced by ‘big government’.  Instead, communities must be empowered to care for themselves, without state interference, or support. According to the Cameron government, a self-sufficient community did not require government funding, and indeed, such funding was seen as interfering with the development of community empowerment. The Big Society was therefore a significant furtherance of neoliberal restructuring: not only had the state outsourced service provision, in keeping with the idea that private actors are more ‘efficient’, but they had also eschewed financial responsibility for these services.

There has been a great deal of criticism of third sector provision of welfare state services. In particular, concerns have been raised about the universality of provision; accountability of service providers to users; and the extent to which charities have become co-opted in neoliberal disciplining of the poor and vulnerable. It has also been argued that in providing services, especially in the absence of any state funding, charities are effectively ‘letting the government off the hook’, shielding the state, and wider society, from the consequences of neoliberal restructuring. Heide Castañeda discussing Medibüro, a German charity that provides medical care to undocumented migrants, argues that while Medibüro staff and volunteers see themselves as challenging xenophobic state policies around health care provision, “an equally persuasive argument is that they essentially protect national institutions by shouldering the costs so that the state is not encouraged to change anything.” However, these questions take on added complexity when we explore third sector service provision to migrants in the UK context. Given the government’s avowed intention to create a hostile environment for migrants, it is not clear that the withdrawal of the third sector from service provision would result in greater state involvement.

Third sector organisations supporting migrant access to the welfare state

During my PhD, I worked with several organisations that provided some kind of service to migrants. These can be divided into two types: drop-ins and advice designed to facilitate access to welfare state services to which migrants were legally entitled; and direct provision of funds and other support to destitute asylum-seekers and other precarious migrants.  With regard to the first kind of activities, this usually involved informing people of their entitlements, helping them to fill out complicated forms, providing advice in languages other than English, and occasionally, providing volunteer interpreters to accompany people to JobCentre and NHS appointments. One group, for example, offered an advice service in Arabic. An employee, Donna, who is a migrant herself, explained in her interview why this was important:

We’ve got an Arabic specific worker, and what we find is, the majority of people who come through the door are Arabic speakers. So we’ve got Libyans, Syrians, that need generalist advice, but with an Arabic speaking advice worker, rather than through an interpreter. Because, the response that we’ve had is, when it’s done through an interpreter, it complicates the advice, because you’ve then got to go through three different people. So having an Arabic speaking qualified advice worker always helps.

To an extent, it can be argued that in undertaking these activities, said groups are effectively allowing the government to withdraw from providing these services, or providing these services in a way which is accessible, e.g., supplying interpreters. One integration support service I observed, for example, not only supported European migrants in accessing social citizenship, but also explained how council tax worked. In this case, the absence of government integration support might have actually cost the state revenue.   Similarly, several women I met during my PhD fieldwork reported having trouble accessing the NHS due to language barriers and a lack of interpreters. At times, this meant that GP appointments ran very long, as they struggled to communicate; in this situation, volunteer interpreters are, again, saving the NHS money.   While providing services to vulnerable people, therefore, these organisations are also shielding the government from the financial consequences of their funding cuts.

However, it is highly unlikely that, should these organisations withdraw, the state would be forced to step in. As noted above, the UK government has committed itself to creating a ‘hostile’ environment for ‘undeserving migrants’. Furthermore the obstacles many migrants face in accessing services are not a coincidence. Instead, the lack of state support for new migrants reflects a wider discourse in which the ‘good’ migrant is he who is self-sufficient, and can consequently negotiate the NHS without support, and of course, does not claim any benefits.   In providing this support, then, third sector organisations can be read as challenging this discourse, acting from the basis that access to welfare state services should not depend on proving one’s ‘self-sufficiency’.

Third sector organisations providing material support

Some of the organisations with whom I worked provide direct financial and other support, such as accommodation, to destitute asylum-seekers. One group, for example, gave 60 people £15/week, ran a night shelter, and housed some destitute asylum-seekers. None of these groups receive government funding to provide these services, and again, it could be argued that they are acting in accordance with the ‘Big Society’ narrative. These groups are taking responsibility for destitute asylum-seekers, allowing the government to withdraw support. However, there is little question that the government would step in should these charities cease to provide financial aid to asylum-seekers. Most of these’ charities service users are ‘failed’ asylum-seekers, and the government policy of rendering these people destitute must be understood as an attempt to literally ‘starve them out’ of the UK. In providing these services, then, these third sector organisations are giving destitute asylum-seekers the material support they need to stay in the UK and continue fighting for the right to remain. Furthermore, these charities are contesting the discourses that constructs ‘failed’ asylum-seekers as not ‘belonging’. Indeed, participants who depended (or had depended) on these charities spoke of them as being like ‘family’ and that these services gave them a sense of belonging:

So I just live where close my mothers and my daddies are here, no they are white but they love me… How is sweet people, they know your birthday. They give you a cake and a card, just imagine. Then you can’t quit that town, you just be with them (Hope, refugee).

Finally, many of the key activists and volunteers in both kinds of organisations are migrants themselves. Iris, for example, is a refugee from Zimbabwe who co-founded an advocacy group for migrant women, regularly accompanies migrants to the JobCentre to help them navigate the benefits system, and started a mother-and-baby drop-in where migrant women can practise English and learn about the British school system.  By offering support to other migrants, Iris and other migrants are constituting themselves as political subjects, and challenging the tendency among some charities to construct migrants as victims in need of assistance.

Consequently, while third sector provision of support and services to migrants raises many of the same problems and contradictions of welfare pluralism more generally, it is important to recognise that migrants and their allies in these organisations have also been able to contest anti-migrant discourses and policies. In particular, even as welfare pluralism can be understood as an important element of ‘roll-out neoliberalism’, migrant third sector groups are challenging neoliberal discourses and policies that associate ‘belonging’ with self-sufficiency and economic productivity, and claiming citizenship for those migrants excluded by these discourses and policies.

Gwen photo 3
Gwyneth Lonergan is a research assistant at the University of Sheffield. She recently completed a PhD at the University of Manchester, researching migrant women’s activism in Manchester and Sheffield.

Please note that the views held by the author are their own and are not representative of the institution(s) to which they belong.




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