Volunteers help a Syrian refugee ashore on Lesvos, Greece. Volunteers help a Syrian refugee ashore on Lesvos, Greece. Photo credit: ©UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Europe’s humanitarian response to refugee and migrant flows: volunteerism thrives as the international system falls short
by Pam DeLargy September 2016

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, many without even basic shelter. These people were emphatically not ‘participating’ in the planning for their well-being or being ‘empowered’ in their relationships with local authorities. Child refugees travelling alone were left to fend for themselves in Athens, Paris, Rome and Calais, exploited and abused. Across Europe, the birthplace of modern humanitarianism, women who had suffered egregious sexual exploitation and violence in Libya were labelled economic migrants, not refugees, and thus deemed not eligible for either asylum or humanitarian assistance. Although some European states offered asylum and a future to those arriving, many others did not.

Europe’s actual humanitarian response must be judged a failure in many respects; basic needs have not been met and vulnerable people have not been protected. The lack of agreement about ‘burden-sharing’ in the region, rising xenophobia and Islamophobia, fear of terrorism and the demonisation of refugees and migrants have all played a role in creating this chaotic situation. 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.

A sudden surge – but a predictable one

The numbers were big, and sudden, but not entirely unpredictable: there had been a steady movement of refugees and migrants into Europe for decades, but from summer 2015 the numbers taking the Balkan route increased dramatically. Over a million people sought refuge in just a few months. Yet this should not have been a complete surprise. Flight to Europe, after all, is linked to humanitarian challenges elsewhere. Insufficient funding for the Syrian regional humanitarian appeal meant a loss of services for more and more Syrians in the region. Combined with restrictions on employment and the depletion of savings, this prompted many to look for a more secure future elsewhere. Afghans, cut off from traditional routes east due to the draconian sea interception policies adopted by Australia, joined Syrians on the Balkan route to Europe. Lack of employment and educational possibilities for urban Eritrean refugees in Sudan and Sudanese refugees in Egypt led young people to risk the route through Libya to Italy. War in Yemen pushed long-settled Somali refugees back across the Red Sea to became part of the flow of people from the Horn of Africa to Libya and Italy. Thus, the flight to European shores reflected not only the pull of greater long-term security in Europe, but also the failure of the international humanitarian community to meet basic needs in other places.

State responses

European governments varied widely in their willingness to provide humanitarian support. Many simply failed to respond, whether out of inexperience, lack of resources (Greece) or outright hostility to the refugees (sometimes on religious or cultural grounds). Some states even exacerbated the crisis by purposely making movement as difficult as possible by closing borders or forcing people to walk long distances (when it would have been relatively simple to provide transport) or by punishing refugees with detention, family separation and sometimes physical violence. In short, state responses often made the humanitarian situation worse, either as a reflexive hostile response to what was seen as an ‘invasion’ or as a policy justified as a deterrent to new arrivals. In fact, deterrence has been a persistent theme in European policy discussions. Politicians across the continent have defended all manner of security responses as deterrents, including suggesting that expanding maritime search and rescue operations would only encourage more people to come. The refusal to provide basic humanitarian support to refugees and to have them suffer on the streets has even been claimed as a ‘humanitarian’ policy since it might prevent more people from risking their lives on dangerous sea crossings.

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. Earlier movements on almost all routes were composed of young men, with few families, but this changed quickly on the Balkan route in the summer of 2015 when women and children joined. More recently, the Libya–Italy route has seen a dramatic increase in young women, and the numbers of unaccompanied children have also increased substantially. Not knowing who was where and not predicting 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. In many humanitarian settings, people flee seeking safety and arrive somewhere where they stay for a while (even for years), and basic services can be established and humanitarian assistance delivered in a relatively stable setting. Humanitarian agencies are very familiar with the delivery of camp-based services, but the refugees arriving in Europe have been extremely mobile, and often determined to keep moving to a particular further destination. Humanitarian responders – established humanitarian groups as well as volunteers – had little experience designing responses for transient populations. Traditional humanitarian actors also had limited experience in the European context and no presence in affected areas. The international humanitarian system, largely designed to deal with displacement in other, poorer regions, was blindsided by the sudden arrival of a million refugees into Europe.

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. After all, if an agency is dependent on, say, UK government funding, it might not be a good idea to be seen to be helping out in Calais. There was great dithering about mandates for action. The international humanitarian system – so often led by European NGOs and funded by European states and the European Union (EU) – faltered when it had to be mobilised on European territory. 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. Médecins du Monde (MDM) was the first of the big humanitarian agencies (and the only one) to establish a presence in summer 2015 in the Calais ‘jungle’, but struggled to find funding from any traditional donors. Many of the traditional agencies took time to establish programmes in Greece and still do not work in the rest of Europe. 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. You name it, volunteers have done it. In transit sites such as Budapest, volunteers greeted exhausted refugees with snacks, blankets and medical care. In Greece and Italy, fishermen rescued people from the sea and local villagers fed and clothed them. In Calais, volunteers came to help the small French community organisations that for years had been struggling to provide assistance and advocate on behalf of refugees. They not only built shelters and brought supplies, they also organised themselves into sectors – water and sanitation, shelter, health – replicating the cluster system common to emergency responses throughout the world. Volunteers began to do professional needs assessments. A team from Birmingham University, appalled at conditions in Calais, conducted a hygiene and sanitation assessment which was eventually used in the French courts to force the municipality to provide improved water and sanitation. 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 – both Greek and from elsewhere in Europe – 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. The role of volunteers in the European response deserves serious research, not only as a way to understand and improve the response but also to help in other regions where local responders are becoming more and more important components of humanitarian action.

Information, communication and social media

As usual, refugees themselves have been creative, resilient and their own best advocates and information providers. While the EU came up with plan after (mechanical) plan for the ‘fair’ relocation of refugees within EU Member States (which many members flat out rejected), states debated national immigration and asylum policies and humanitarian agencies debated their roles, refugees took action to seek their own solutions and find their own protection. They used their own means of information sharing and lesson learning to get access to basic services.

Many observers have noted the importance of mobile phones in the European migration (though too many foolishly ask whether a ‘real’ refugee would have a mobile phone, implicitly highlighting the stereotype of the deserving refugee as someone far away and very poor). Indeed, the constant sharing of information on route closures and means of transport, and the regular updates to family and friends, have been a prominent aspect of this population movement. The use of social media like Facebook and WhatsApp has been an important feature of the communication patterns among refugee groups (as well as smuggling networks). But social media has also been absolutely critical for the recruitment and organisation of volunteers. There are hundreds of Facebook sites where volunteers share information. Although some groups and governments have begun to recognise the importance of social media for reaching refugees and migrants, the main focus so far seems to be establishing campaigns to discourage people from migrating, such as the new Italian campaign featuring refugees and migrants sharing their negative experiences and disappointments about migration. Much more could be done to support refugees using social and other media.

So, what now in Europe?

Understanding more about what has happened in Europe, including the distinctive aspects of the humanitarian context, can be a start towards improving the situation. But it is clear that the problems are not primarily logistical or organisational. The primary impediment to effective humanitarian action in Europe right now is the lack of political will on the part of European governments and the inability of the EU to achieve a consensus on migration and refugee policies. The humanitarian community cannot remain isolated from the larger political debates about migration policies because these policies are largely determining the humanitarian space in Europe.

Day after day, policies adopted across Europe undermine or violate humanitarian principles. What do neutrality and impartiality mean when some people are provided with protection or assistance simply because of their nationality? Or when some are demonised and discriminated against based on their religion? What does independence mean when the Red Cross in one country is a major humanitarian responder, but in another is inhibited from assisting people labelled as ‘illegals’ or ‘alien invaders’? And what about humanitarian standards? Should it not be shocking that a displacement camp in Darfur has better sanitation, nutritional support, shelter, health care and protection programmes than the places where refugees are staying in Greece or France?

Much of Europe is focused on stopping migration and asylum-seeking, not on protecting people and ensuring human rights. The 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 by returning new arrivals to Turkey in exchange for taking selected refugees directly from Turkey. The agreement also provides for up to €3 billion for refugee support in Turkey and the elimination of visa restrictions for Turkish citizens travelling to Europe. It is so flawed that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) decided to refuse EU funding rather than compromise its positions on human rights and refugee law. Dozens of other NGOs have also condemned the agreement as a violation of non-refoulement in refugee law, and some have decided not to work in Greece given the conditions. EU initiatives with African governments after the Valletta Summit on African–European migration in late 2015 have focused on limiting migration by strengthening African border controls and security, as well as providing assistance with job creation in an attempt to discourage out-migration. Agreements with countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Niger are also worded in humanitarian language, but based on questionable assumptions about migration decision-making, at the very least. Many observers see all of 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 being allocated 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 in September, 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 the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) as Senior Advisor to the UN Special Representative for Migration. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).