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Volunteerism thrives as the international system falls short

Volunteerism thrives as the international system falls short

By Pamela DeLargy

In May, the World Humanitarian Summit brought governments, the UN, NGOs and the private sector together for wide-ranging discussions on how to improve humanitarian response through innovative thinking, better coordination and stronger participation. Yet even as leaders were pledging their commitment to humanitarian principles and standards, families from Aleppo were sitting in the hot sun in Greece, emphatically not ‘participating’ in the planning for their well-being or being ‘empowered’ in their relationships with local authorities. Child refugees were being left to fend for themselves in Athens, Paris, Rome and Calais, and women who had suffered egregious sexual exploitation and violence in Libya were being denied asylum and assistance. Europe’s humanitarian response to the influx of refugees and vulnerable migrants must be judged a failure; basic needs have not been met and vulnerable people have not been protected.

State responses

The lack of agreement about ‘burden-sharing’ in the region, xenophobia and Islamophobia, fear of terrorism and the demonisation of refugees and migrants have all played a role in creating this chaotic situation. Although some European states offered asylum and a future to those arriving, many others did not, while some exacerbated the crisis by making movement as difficult as possible, or even punishing refugees with detention, family separation and sometimes physical violence. Deterrence, not assistance, has been the primary goal of politicians across the continent. Meanwhile, poorer countries in regions that host the great majority of the world’s refugees are asking why they are expected to respect humanitarian standards and refugee law when wealthy Europe has chosen not to.

Humanitarian challenges

The demographics of the movement to Europe have changed constantly, along with the routes, meaning that it has not been easy to profile humanitarian needs at any one point in time. Not knowing who was where and not being able to predict migration patterns impeded humanitarian response planning, and data and information systems to track arrivals had to be developed. Another important factor has been people’s constant mobility: humanitarian agencies are familiar with the delivery of camp-based services, but have little experience designing responses for transient populations. Traditional humanitarian actors also had limited experience in the European context and no presence in affected areas. Most international humanitarian organisations had no operational agreements with European governments, no presence in refugee-affected areas, no funding lines for European activities and no ways to mobilise resources for a response in Europe. Many also feared getting involved if doing so put donor government funding at risk. Agencies with long experience negotiating humanitarian access in places like Sudan, Myanmar or Syria seemed to have no idea how to negotiate with the mayor of Calais. National and local Red Cross societies performed heroically in some countries and communities, but did nothing at all in others.

The role of volunteers

While the big agencies debated and traditional donors delayed funding, individual citizens and community groups across Europe started providing for humanitarian needs. The role of volunteers in the European response has been truly remarkable, as ‘everyday’ humanitarians responded in dozens of ways: collecting and sorting clothes or food for distribution, providing first aid, building shelters, rescuing people from the sea, cooking, setting up laundries, starting libraries and language courses, digging drainage ditches and putting in water pipes. Volunteers built shelters, brought in supplies and organised themselves into sectors – water and sanitation, shelter, health – replicating the cluster system common to emergency responses throughout the world. Many early Calais volunteers moved on to help in Greece as Syrians began arriving on the islands. They helped local communities to rescue and care for refugees for months before any of the major humanitarian agencies began to respond. Even today, volunteers bear the brunt of the humanitarian response in Greece. Thousands more are a lifeline for refugees all over Europe.

While the vitality of the humanitarian spirit in so many Europeans is reassuring, the heavy dependence on volunteers also presents challenges for humanitarian action. Although volunteers have tremendous energy and a can-do spirit, many are untrained and inexperienced; this can lead to uncoordinated and sometimes ill-advised responses and also to their own burn out. Another consequence of depending on volunteers is that where humanitarian standards are not being applied (or are not even known), humanitarian response can be compromised.

Information, communication and social media

As usual, refugees themselves have been creative, resilient and their own best advocates and information providers. Many observers have noted the importance of the mobile phone in the European migration (though too many ask whether a ‘real’ refugee would be able to afford a mobile phone). Indeed, the constant sharing of information on route closures and means of transport has been a prominent aspect of this population movement. The use of social media has been an important feature of the communication patterns among refugee groups (as well as smuggling networks). Much more could be done to support refugees using social and other media.

So, what now in Europe?

The primary impediment to effective humanitarian action in Europe isn’t logistical or organisational: it is the lack of political will to achieve a consensus on migration and refugee policies that respect humanitarian principles and the rights of refugees under international law. Much of Europe is focused on stopping migration and asylum-seeking, not on protecting people and ensuring their human rights. The European Union (EU) agreement with Turkey in March 2016, though marketed in humanitarian terms, was primarily designed to stop the inflow of refugees into EU territory through Greece. It is so flawed that Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) has refused EU funding, and dozens of other NGOs have condemned the agreement as a violation of non-refoulement. EU initiatives with African governments seek to limit migration through strengthening border controls and security, as well as providing assistance with job creation in an attempt to discourage outmigration. Many of the agreements with countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia or Niger, while worded in humanitarian language, are based on questionable assumptions about migration decision-making, at the very least. Many observers see these agreements as an attempt to pay others to stop people from moving to Europe, no matter the human rights implications. Whether motives are mixed or not, it is clear that the resources devoted to attempts to control migration – whether on security and border controls or deterrence and ‘incentivisation’ efforts – dwarf the resources devoted to actual humanitarian response.

The greater the investment in security and border controls, the more dangerous the journey to Europe becomes, and the more lives are lost. Establishing safe, regular and orderly means of seeking asylum is crucial. Acceptance of greater numbers under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) third-country resettlement programme could be part of such an effort. At the UN Refugees and Migrants Summit this week, and the subsequent Leader’s Summit on Refugees hosted by President Obama, European countries join the rest of the world in pondering how to deal with the global migration challenge, and to determine how refugees and others can be protected. Better policy based on better thinking is urgently needed.

Pamela DeLargy is on loan from UNFPA as Senior Advisor to the UN Special Representative for Migration and is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Global Affairs at LSE.

A longer version of this post is available on the Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 67.

Featured photo: volunteers help a Syrian refugee ashore on Lesvos, Greece. Photo credit: @UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis.

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