Hellenic Red Cross volunteers bring relief items to a reception centre on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Hellenic Red Cross volunteers bring relief items to a reception centre on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Photo credit: ©Stephen Ryan/IFRC
National volunteers in an international crisis: the view from the inside
by Kate Latimir September 2016

Volunteers have been at the heart of the migration response in Greece. They are often the first faces seen by refugees on Greece’s beaches, and a reassuring presence delivering food parcels, health care, psychosocial support and family tracing services in temporary camps, informal settlements and detention centres. They are being drained emotionally, physically and personally, yet they remain dedicated to supporting these vulnerable people.

The Hellenic Red Cross (HRC) and its network of over 1,000 volunteers has been at the forefront of the refugee crisis in Europe, working tirelessly to ensure access to services and support for hundreds of thousands of migrants in and around Northern Greece, the islands (Lesvos, Kos, Samos, Chios, Rhodes, Crete) and Attica. The experience of Red Cross volunteers offers an excellent example of local people mobilising in response to a humanitarian crisis unfolding before them.

The extraordinary response of international volunteers in this crisis has rightly received much coverage. Yet research and policy focused on the crisis has yet to engage with the experiences of local volunteers. Understanding the complex motivations and specific needs of local volunteers and how they can best be supported is crucial to sustaining the response in the long term, and ensuring positive relations between Greeks and refugees. It also provides an interesting example of national humanitarian action, albeit in a developed context. As such, a number of interviews and focus group discussions were held by the British Red Cross with HRC volunteers in late May 2016, exploring the challenges they face and their reflections on the response to date.

National humanitarian action

‘We had seen scenes like this on the TV, but nothing prepares you for the reality … the mission is now in our country’ (Vagelis, HRC volunteer, Thessaloniki)

Volunteer action has been part of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement for over 150 years and is one of the seven fundamental principles that bind the National Societies, the International Committee and the Federation. The 1,000-strong HRC volunteer workforce carry out their specific roles – which range from search and rescue to first aid, family tracing support and social welfare – on a part-time basis. Many are retired or unemployed, whilst others combine their volunteer role with paid work. Unlike the profile of international volunteers involved in the refugee response, which tends to be young and mixed gender, often providing short-term assistance in-country, HRC volunteers are predominantly female, with the vast majority over the age of 40. Almost two-thirds have served in the organisation for over a decade.

The injection of international funds for the response has enabled the National Society to expand its operations, workforce and volunteer numbers, particularly among university students and young people. Gabriel, a new volunteer recruit in Lesvos, explains: ‘Last August I was on the beach with a few friends trying to assist refugees who had just arrived, but we were not prepared or trained to deal with what confronted us. We were so relieved when we saw HRC volunteers coming to support us – from that day on I wanted to volunteer for the Red Cross’. Most volunteers are positive about this expansion, although for some long-standing volunteers, with ten or more years of service, the scale, pace and staff turnover characteristic of an international response has proved challenging. Many volunteers say they are aware of the existence of other humanitarian organisations, but have little interaction with them. Volunteers commented that their focus is necessarily on the specific task at hand, and they therefore have limited understanding of external coordination mechanisms or of the entirety of the response.

Certainly, changes in the leadership and coordination of the international response are a problem for volunteers. In response to the refugee arrivals in Greece, the Red Cross Movement increased its support to the HRC, which included international emergency appeals for funding, deployment of emergency rosters to support WASH and health among other sectors, as well as the deployment of international staff to provide support in a range of areas, from cash-based responses to community engagement. As is typical in an international emergency response, the Red Cross Movement and other humanitarian agencies have experienced high turnover among staff brought in to coordinate and manage different elements of the response. Volunteers noted the difficulty in developing and maintaining relationships within the international humanitarian community as a result of this constant flux. Significantly, the arrival of international humanitarian aid workers in a developed context with high unemployment has left many Greek volunteers frustrated, particularly given the chaotic scenes that marked the initial stages of the response.

Many national volunteers who have worked principally with their local communities have found it difficult to understand the specific needs and vulnerabilities of refugees and migrants with different cultural and religious backgrounds. Due to the spontaneous nature of the response and the need for rapid expansion, many volunteers received little practical training to prepare them for working with a number of different nationalities. A majority of the volunteers interviewed cited cultural sensitivity as their main challenge, having learnt much of what not to do through trial and error. As such, there have been numerous requests for training on the ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds of refugees.

In parallel, volunteers report receiving daily requests for information on asylum from migrants, and felt ineffectual if they were unable to provide advice or refer people to an appropriate service. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides a short briefing in the initial stages of their training, many volunteers felt that they would benefit from a deeper understanding of referral mechanisms, indicating a clear desire to participate and coordinate more effectively in the overall humanitarian response.

Having worked in fire-fighting mode since the onset of the crisis, the volunteers have had little time to develop their knowledge of the wider context and skill set, which may make it harder for them to take a more active role if (or when) the international community exits. The longevity of the Red Cross volunteers’ engagement, as opposed to the temporary nature of international staff deployments and international volunteering, underscores the importance of supporting national volunteers to become more central to the response so that it can be sustained in what is now becoming a protracted crisis.

Volunteering: a bridge between different communities

‘We all live under the same sun … we need to appreciate the things we have in common’ (Pascalia, HRC volunteer in Lesvos)

A striking characteristic of the response has been the remarkable mobilisation of Greek voluntary organisations and individuals providing aid to migrants despite facing unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty themselves. The HRC reports that applications to volunteer have increased by over a third since the start of the crisis, with 350 new recruits joining the organisation. Nevertheless, the HRC’s response to the crisis has at times been perceived to be to the detriment of vulnerable Greeks. Prior to the crisis, the HRC focused on supporting local communities and the elderly through social welfare programmes, first aid and emergency response to earthquakes and wildfires. A greater focus on support for ‘outsiders’ has not always been welcome. As one HRC volunteer in Thessaloniki put it, people ‘don’t have much knowledge of the situation and assume that the refugees are carrying diseases and weapons … People are concerned’.

When asked how they deal with adverse reactions to migrants and their work, volunteers are quick to refer to a self-imposed responsibility beyond the delivery of services: that of providing a link between the migrants and their own communities. Many feel that their personal contact and experiences working with migrants have helped foster improved understanding and developed social cohesion. One 19-year-old Red Cross volunteer remarked: ‘I relate the stories I hear to my friends and family which helps build bridges and understanding. My experience has inspired others to volunteer and lessened the fear some people had of the refugees’. Volunteers’ efforts to ease anxiety and encourage relations between the host and migrant communities are recognised and promoted by the National Society. For example, HRC is currently exploring education campaigns in schools and universities as a way of encouraging a new generation into volunteerism and sensitising these groups on the situation of migrants in their country.

As the context shifts from the humanitarian needs of people on the move to the needs of people in camps and detention centres, the role of volunteers as advocates for migrants is becoming ever more important. Volunteers note that their communities are increasingly concerned about the long-term nature of the crisis, with the fate of over 53,000 refugees entangled in the wider politics surrounding the deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey+Under the deal, new migrants arriving in Greece who are found not to be in genuine need of asylum are returned to Turkey. In exchange, the EU will take a Syrian in Turkey who has been declared in need of asylum. as well as the wider socio-political crisis in Greece: ‘my neighbours are sceptical about the future – we are a poor country and there are not enough jobs. The majority want to help with what they can, but we are all uncertain about what the future holds – this situation is not sustainable’. The lack of proximity of local communities and migrants now confined to camps and detention centres, combined with the increased international funding being provided to address their long-term needs, will only serve to increase the distance between migrants and local communities, underlining the key role of volunteers in bridging this divide. Ultimately, it is clear that the humanity and solidarity expressed in the act of volunteering has a tangible impact on those receiving assistance, those providing it and society more broadly.

Volunteer support

‘There are volunteers who are unemployed and yet continue to volunteer … we see problems that are bigger than our own and we want to help’ (Dimitris, HRC volunteer, Athens)

In witnessing this crisis, many volunteers will experience significant trauma themselves. Factors such as support from field coordinators, access to adequate equipment and training, the types of roles being undertaken by volunteers (for example providing psychosocial support to migrants) and length of working hours were also cited as having a strong impact on mental wellbeing. It is therefore vital that we invest more in providing care and assisting in the recovery of volunteers to avoid burn-out and loss of capacity in the future.

This includes comparatively simple measures such as ensuring adequate funding for equipment and travel costs, or fostering a sense among volunteers that their organisation cares for their wellbeing. Due to the urgent nature of the migration response in its early phase, the HRC was initially unable to meet volunteer needs. However, with the change in context to a more static situation, greater efforts are being made to strengthen capacity across a variety of sectors, including psychosocial support, hygiene promotion and cash transfer programmes.

The international community has arguably underestimated the contribution of Greek volunteers, including within the HRC. With more deliberation, investment and utilisation of their skills, the part that national volunteers are already playing could be extended and enhanced. Recognition and greater development of their vital role in bridging the divide between migrant and host communities is essential, particularly as the context changes from people on the move to people trapped in a country crippled by mass unemployment, a failing economy and an increasingly frustrated population. It is therefore crucial that capacity strengthening support and investment in volunteers and national organisations is made now. The HRC and its volunteers will continue to play a pivotal role in supporting both the local population and migrants, long after funding has dried up and the international community has moved on.

Kate Latimir is Humanitarian Policy Adviser at the British Red Cross.