Philanthropy towards asylum seekers: friend or foe?

Due attention must be given to the decision-making processes and rationales that underpin and politicise philanthropy towards asylum seekers in the UK. There is a danger that philanthropy may become complicit in sealing the borders of the state of exception in which asylum seekers are already positioned, says Emily Bowerman.

The past few weeks have seen a renewed flurry of commentaries on the UK’s ailing welfare state, on the continual shift from state funding to private funding, and philanthropy as allocators of the common good under the government’s Big Society agenda. As debates have raged about the skivers and strivers, my concern has been directed towards those within British society who have neither the right to work to support themselves nor the safety net of benefits, namely asylum seekers.

Welfare cuts have affected asylum seekers as much as, if not more than, citizens. A steady withdrawal of eligibility to public funds, the revocation of the right to work in 2002, the fall in asylum welfare in 2009 to below 70% of mainstream benefits, and the reductions in access to legal process since 2010 have led to widespread destitution among those seeking sanctuary in the UK. This is a shocking situation which has been largely ignored in a context where asylum seekers are often framed as ‘bogus’ and outside the remit of wider society. It is no overstatement to see asylum seekers in the UK as positioned in an Agambian state of exception; a metaphorical ‘camp’ whose inhabitants are both outside the law’s protection and subject to its power, physically present yet somehow considered less than human and treated in ways which would be unthinkable for those within the protective remit of citizenship.

In the absence of direct state support, the voluntary sector has stepped in to respond to the predicament of many asylum seekers, yet cuts in public funding for these agencies has led to the reduction and closure of many services. In response, private philanthropic funding has become one of the few ways of enabling essential legal work, advocacy and research. Through meeting subsistence needs it has become a lifeline for many. 

The UK philanthropic sector is broad and diverse, comprising wealthy individuals, trusts and foundations, and corporate social responsibility initiatives. While exact definitions of philanthropy are hard to come by, the term brings to mind independent, strategic and innovative giving; it conjures up images of large sums of private money invested in causes close to the donor’s heart, an image which draws praise and critique in equal measure. In its engagement with asylum seekers, philanthropy draws on a broader historical trajectory not only as a funder, but as a powerful societal actor with the capacity to foreground hidden and unpopular causes. It responds in both a humanitarian and political manner to those who are marginalised within society, and to pursue social reform and create space for alternative perspectives. Indeed, the value and impact of the philanthropic sector vis-à-vis asylum seekers, though hard to quantify, cannot be belittled. Consider, for example, the work of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the (recently closed) Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, to name but a few, not to mention the numerous other trusts, foundations and individual donors who have used their independence, wealth and positioning to engage proactively with an excluded social group which is shunned by many.

However, in spite of encouraging examples of good practice, generous initiatives and innovative thinking in this area, certain specific tensions emerge in philanthropy towards asylum seekers. These tensions require some consideration if philanthropy is to be the friend not the foe of those who are seeking protection in the UK.

A first tension appears in the way that the philanthropic sector perceives asylum seekers and fashions its responses to them. Although most philanthropic actors recognise in some way the conditions of exceptionalism facing those positioned within the asylum seeker label, some respond by working within the ‘camp’, funding humanitarian responses such as the provision of services to asylum seekers who lack access to public funds. Others take a more political stance by challenging the very structure of the ‘camp’ itself, championing the rights of asylum seekers and engaging in broader, more nuanced, migration debates. The ways in which philanthropy adopts a spectrum of humanitarian or political stances, and draws on different narratives about asylum seekers ( asylum seekers as victims, morally-deserving individuals, bearers of rights etc), have both strengths and weaknesses. If philanthropy is to benefit asylum seekers, then due attention must be given to the decision-making processes and rationales that underpin, and politicise, these narrative choices.   

A second tension lies in the nature of the particular relationship between philanthropy and asylum seekers. If the government, market and philanthropy together allocate the common good, as suggested by Theo N.M. Schuyt, then asylum seekers, barred from access to both the state and market through non-citizenship and lack of entitlement to work, find their relationship with philanthropy somewhat skewed. Philanthropy towards asylum seekers begins to bear marked resemblances to the relationship between agents of development and their objects, and between physically-encamped refugees and the humanitarian regimes which manage/care for them, both of which risk seeing asylum seekers as objects of charity instead of political actors. Without bearing in mind the well-documented disempowering consequences of imposing aid and in assuming that those without citizenship require an agency or experts to speak for them, there is a danger that philanthropy will become complicit in sealing the borders of the state of exception in which asylum seekers are already positioned.   

Thirdly, and more broadly, another tension emerges at the contextual juxtaposition of asylum seekers and philanthropy. While philanthropy arguably assumes that economic inequity is, at least in part, natural, the arrival of asylum seekers (often from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq) problematizes this assumption and draws attention to the fact that global processes which have led to the accumulation of wealth for some have simultaneously led to insecurity and impoverishment for others. Philanthropy towards asylum seekers uncomfortably directs the attention of strategic investors towards the ‘waste of globalisation’, foregrounds unsettling realities about wealth and equality, raises questions about the spatial locus of moral obligation, and arguably requires a shift from a rhetoric of benevolence towards one of beneficence.

These specific tensions in philanthropy towards asylum seekers - relating to the narratives which shape philanthropy’s perceptions of and responses to asylum seekers, the particular nature of the relationship between philanthropy and asylum seekers, and the larger underlying issues to which philanthropy towards asylum seekers points - bring a different perspective to current citizen/state-centred debates about philanthropy. They deserve more scrutiny as voluntary sector responses to asylum seekers become increasingly dependent on philanthropic funding. The Association of Charitable Foundations, which describes itself as the umbrella body for benevolent charities, recently announced the imminent creation of a new central hub to promote, encourage and equip effective philanthropy, and to serve as a platform for contemporary thinking about philanthropy across causes and sectors in the UK and overseas. Hopefully this hub will be able to address some of the critical questions emerging at the intersection of philanthropy and asylum seekers, of which there are many: what role can philanthropy play in challenging, rather than shying away from, the complexity surrounding the political and humanitarian needs of those encamped within the asylum seeker labels and other equally precarious states of limbo? How can the philanthropic sector be supported in its engagement with what it many perceive as either an irresolvable humanitarian predicament, or an inflammatory political issue? And finally, though the list could go on, how can philanthropy work not only within the current confines of the Big Society, but push its boundaries to include those who are currently positioned, with devastating consequence, outside the common good?

Having worked with asylum seekers in the voluntary sector for several years, I could cite numerous examples of charitable trusts, foundations and individuals who have engaged with these questions and taken a lead in service delivery, advocacy and research and in the pursuit of policy reform and attitudinal change. In doing so, they have been at the forefront of challenging the exclusion of those seeking protection in the UK. While retaining significant reservations about the Big Society’s ideology, and its mechanisms for ensuring the wellbeing of its residents -  especially the most marginalised and vulnerable - I remain excited by the possibilities of a philanthropic sector that rises to the challenge of addressing the complex issues outlined here, and uses its positioning and resources for the sake of those who have neither.

About the author

Emily Bowerman works in the British voluntary sector with young people affected by crisis and displacement. She has an MSc in Migration, Mobility and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is active on Twitter @BowermanEmily