Volunteers and Solidarity in Europe’s Refugee Response

Kavita Ramakrishnan and Ludek Stavinoha offer a critical insight into the politics of refugee-volunteer solidarity. These arguments are of interest to the Refugee Hosts project for they illuminate the diverse and complex ways in which often spontaneous, voluntary and local-level initiatives (whether they are in Europe or the Middle East) have been instrumental in challenging the perceived limitations of states and INGOs struggling to meaningfully respond to the Syrian crisis. We will be investigating such responses – and the challenges and opportunities they present – in nine local communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Follow us on Twitter, or sign up to our mailing list for updates.

This piece is a re-posting from OpenDemocracy. The original article was publish on 27 April 2017

Volunteers and Solidarity in Europe’s Refugee Response

By Kavita Ramakrishnan and Ludek Stavinoha 

Volunteers occupy a crucial but fundamentally problematic position within the global refugee response. It’s time we bring that discussion into the open.

After the US president Donald Trump signed the first executive order banning entry of people from seven majority-Muslim countries, the resistance that emerged was powerful, with lawyers providing pro-bono services and activists and ordinary individuals protesting at airports. Amidst those standing up against the blatant bigotry of this ban, one particularly remarkable connection took place.

It was between an American protesting in front of the Los Angeles airport, who had previously volunteered at the Souda refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, and his Syrian friend and refugee Mohammad, who has been stuck in Chios for over a year. The former live-streamed a video of the latter through his smartphone into a loudspeaker, and from across the world Mohammad rallied the protestors in California and led a chant of “F*ck Trump”.


Souda refugee camp, Chios (January 2017) (c) Ludek Stavinoha

This act of protest and relationship, made at a time of intense uncertainty regarding where refugees and Muslims stand in American and European societies, epitomises the many meaningful solidarities we have seen form between volunteers and refugees across different nodal points in Europe – from Calais and Paris to Athens and Chios.

The sheer number of volunteers who have dedicated time and energy from the start of the ‘crisis’ has been astounding. In Calais for instance, volunteers spearheaded different efforts, from basic needs provisioning – such as food, kitchens and housing construction – to arts initiatives such as local theatre and community gardening. There is also the massive warehouse maintained by L’Auberge des Migrants, a volunteer organisation that provides material support to refugees in and around Calais and advocates for their rights.

L’Auberge continues to survive on a rotation of volunteers – some who travel down to Calais for the weekend, while others take breaks from education and employment to dedicate a longer period of time. In Paris, volunteer organisations such as Utopia56 and Paris Refugee Ground Support continue to distribute clothing, blankets, tents, and tea in an ever-more precarious context of coercive policing and continual harassment of those sleeping on the streets.

In Chios, where thousands of refugees have been trapped since the borders to Northern Europe shut in March 2016, we have seen volunteers take on the state’s responsibilities, coordinating nightly boat landings and assisting traumatised refugees as they disembark from their dinghies.

We have also seen them fill the gaps left by humanitarian INGOs, distributing everything from tents, clothes, and food, to baby milk, sanitary pads, and diapers. They have set up projects addressing women’s safety and provided informal education for the hundreds of refugee children denied access to Greek schools. Despite their crucial role in the response, the municipal government on Chios has begun to limit the work volunteers can perform as well as their social interaction with refugees inside the camp through random curfews and arbitrary rules.

Without overstating or romanticising the role of volunteers – particularly in an informal camp like Calais where refugees built systems of support, livelihood, and urbanity by creating support, leisure and business activities – the ever-shifting nature of the ‘crisis’ has demanded a multitude of stop-gap measures which volunteers rapidly and often resourcefully provided. The individuals comprising this vast transnational volunteer network have indisputably been key to the versatility seen on the ground. For instance, volunteer ‘infrastructures’ communicate between such seemingly disparate places as the Scottish Highlands, the Basque Country, Calais and Chios, to transport much-needed clothing and supplies across borders.


Souda refugee camp, Chios (January 2017) (c) Ludek Stavinoha

But these ‘infrastructures’ also are deeply politicised, as volunteers move between camps and cities, share best practices and skills, and engage in dialogues about what their ‘help’ actually means. These dialogues, in turn, inform the everyday practices of volunteers and their engagement with refugees. Indeed, in volunteer organisational meetings, many volunteers constantly reflect on the tensions and contradictions in their work. These include the idea that they are in some ways enabling the state and institutions such as the UNHCR to take a backseat and that the food and clothing distributions deprive refugees – who are constantly made to queue – of dignity and agency, reflecting the inherent asymmetries of power between those who give and those who take.

Sometimes this politics is more radical, extending to a modern ‘underground railroad’ of sorts, where refugees who are making their way from Greece to Germany or Spain stop and rest at volunteer homes along their route. At other times, volunteers and refugees have collaborated to expose the farcical ‘winterisation’ – a term used by UNHCR to refer to their winter-proofing practices – of camps across Greece. This has implications for more than simply the border regime, as volunteers facilitate the ‘irregular’ crossing of borders and help to document the negligence and human rights breaches by local and EU authorities. Crucially, such practices also allow for a reimagining of what refugee-volunteer solidarities could entail.

While the video of Mohammad talking to protestors in Los Angeles, streamed by a volunteer who had spent time at Souda, might seem like a fleeting form of solidarity brought on by a particular political moment, these connections are what make volunteer ‘infrastructures’ both versatile and resilient. It is that humanising perspective – one built on empathy, trust, and a sense of injustice – that brings together collectives across space and time, and that embodies the possibilities of linking the political agency of both refugees and volunteers.

There are of course limitations to these more political solidarities evolving. On the one hand, refugees are denied political rights and voice, whilst volunteers have limited capacity to influence the asylum procedure or a safe passage out of Greece. And similarly, volunteers often feel constrained or co-opted by the state and the larger humanitarian actors. There are also complex internal dynamics and political struggles within volunteer organisations, which further constrain any merging of volunteering with radical politics.

Yet, the practices and experiences that we have observed on the ground suggest the need to sharpen our focus on volunteering and examine how it is both fundamentally reshaping humanitarian responses and challenging our ideas of ‘development’ in the global north. For the dire situation on the ground illustrates the potential and importance of these grassroots refugee-volunteer political solidarities to jointly resist the increasingly oppressive border regimes on both sides of the Atlantic and the racisms that underpin it.


This is a re-posting of the same article originally published on 27 April 2017 in OpenDemocracy. You can read the original article here

Featured Image: Souda Refugee Camp, Chios (Jan 2017) (c) L. Stavinoha

If you enjoyed reading this, make sure you check out these relevant pieces on the Refugee Hosts blog:

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