In September 2015 several thousand refugees and vulnerable migrants arrived in Belgium. The Belgian government imposed limits on the daily number of asylum request registrations, leaving asylum-seekers sleeping outside without any support and in legal limbo. This ‘pre-registration period’ between the arrival of the asylum-seekers and their submission of an asylum request generally lasted for between two and ten days. A camp rapidly developed in Maximillian Park in central Brussels, growing quickly to around 1,200 people; meanwhile, a citizen platform was formed calling on the Belgian population to support asylum-seekers forced to live on the street, and to put pressure on the government to relax its stance.
The response was remarkable. The Citizen Platform to Support Refugees Facebook page attracted 30,000 followers in its first month, and hundreds of volunteers came forward to provide support to residents of the Maximillian Park camp. On average 300 volunteers were present in the camp on weekdays and 500 over the weekends. Several humanitarian NGOs were also present: Médecins du Monde (MDM) supported volunteers in the provision of medical assistance, Oxfam provided advice on sorting and organising the distribution of donated clothes and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (Belgium) focused on providing logistical support for shelter, water and sanitation.
Coordination with these NGO actors was a key concern within the Citizen Platform. In many cases a designated NGO would carry out a short assessment and follow-up decisions would be taken by the Citizen Platform. In terms of organisation, the Citizen Platform comprised a General Assembly bringing together working groups on topics such as finance, communications and advocacy. Representatives of each working group met once a week with a central coordination group, and volunteers responsible for the day-to-day running of the camp held daily coordination meetings. The camp in Maximillian Park operated for a month until the Belgian government gave in to pressure and opened a new accommodation centre in Brussels, at which point the camp was closed.
The Civil Society Networking Project
The Brussels experience demonstrated that a collaborative approach between citizens’ groups and NGOs is possible and could provide an effective response for people in need. Each considered the other as a valid actor, which had not always been the case in the past. In addition, the Citizen Platform showed that it could mobilise public opinion and bring pressure to bear on the government to change its policy. For its part, MSF viewed such civil society initiatives as a way of developing new forms of operational response and creating new alliances with citizens (potentially across Europe) to oppose restrictive state policies.
To understand where and how these groups of volunteers are working, and how MSF could better cooperate with them, MSF Belgium launched a ‘Civil Society Networking Project’. The main aim was to improve the relationship with civil society and to see how a large NGO such as MSF could support these groups with logistical and technical help. The first phase of work aimed at understanding the different profiles, perspectives, needs and relationships among the large number of volunteer groups established in Europe. With the support of MSF Belgium, four activists from the Citizen Platform travelled around Europe for four and a half months, engaging with a wide range of citizen initiatives. Two main types of civil society initiatives were identified: operational initiatives working directly with refugees, and information-sharing initiatives between volunteers, and between refugees and the host population.
We found that, whilst the principal strength of many civil society initiatives is their flexibility, informality, commitment and selforganisation, fragility and instability are an inherent part of their make-up – in effect two sides of the same coin. This instability derives from fluid and unpredictable staffing, in terms of the numbers of volunteers present on any given day and their lack of specific training; unpredictable and often precarious funding; and the reality of volunteering and its impact on volunteers’ physical and psychological health. Yet despite this, volunteer groups remain vital actors in the humanitarian response. Even now, a year after many of them were established – itself an indicator of their stability as a community, if not necessarily as individual entities – volunteer groups continue to play key frontline roles across Europe, from Greece to France and from Italy to Sweden. Irrespective of the advantages and disadvantages that come with their citizen and voluntary nature, helping refugees and vulnerable migrants and responding to their needs defines their outlook and actions, and is an objective they are not ready to give up on despite all the obstacles they face. Civil society initiatives have their own identity and their own particular forms of ‘stability’ and continuity, and have to be taken as such, without trying to mould them into the more conventional forms of organisation that NGOs are used to working with. The conclusion of the first phase of the project was that the unpredictability present in many volunteer groups should not be a reason for NGOs not to engage and collaborate with them, because it is an inherent part of their make-up and something which, for the most part, they are able to manage.
The second aspect of the Civil Society Project has involved operational support. Usually, links between NGOs and volunteer groups on the ground are absent: volunteers don’t know who to talk to within NGOs, what they can ask for or which kinds of support they can expect. To help with this, in March 2016 MSF created a Focal Point for Volunteers in Idomeni in Greece. At the time, Idomeni was the largest refugee camp in Europe; many international and Greek volunteers were involved in providing assistance, and as such it was an obvious place to strengthen cooperation. Efforts focused on supporting the volunteers logistically, and helping them share information and develop a common strategy. Although the impact of the role has not been formally evaluated, many of the NGOs and volunteer groups involved felt that it had helped improve the quality of the relationships and level of trust between the two groups of actors, and thereby contributed to improved coordination. Since the closure of the Idomeni camp in May 2016, the Civil Society Project has continued to support efforts to improve communication and trust between volunteer groups and NGOs in Greece and other countries, and to broaden the project to include volunteer groups working in destination and reception countries, including Norway and the UK.
During the period of the refugee camp in Maximillian Park and prior to the start of the Civil Society Project, some of those involved in the Citizen Platform organised a meeting to which representatives of volunteer groups in other European countries were invited. The objective was to establish links between the volunteer groups forming across Europe. A second, larger, two-day meeting was held in Berlin in February 2016 with support from the Civil Society Project. A third meeting was held in Brussels at the end of May 2016. The meeting room and facilities were provided by MSF and the schedule included an evening meeting hosted by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (EUL/NGL) group within the European Parliament. From these three meetings a group has been formed comprising 45 volunteers from 18 European countries. Currently the group operates under the name Networkin’ Europe, though this is likely to change as it finalises its communication and networking strategies. Communication within the group is principally through a closed Facebook Group, but a website is planned in the near future. The group is largely self-funded, with occasional support from MSF (Belgium).
NGOs are grappling with how best to engage and collaborate with the many volunteer and civil society groups that sprang up across Europe in 2015 and early 2016. MSF’s experience with its Civil Society Project has been positive, demonstrating the benefits of a conscious effort to engage with and support volunteer groups.
As the situation has evolved from supporting refugees and migrants in transit to one of closed borders and ‘stranded’ populations, so too have the opportunities for collaboration. Political statements and advocacy by humanitarian NGOs are not having much impact on European policies towards refugees and vulnerable migrants, and NGOs are facing challenges to their principles, for instance by requests from governments to work inside state-run camps and asylum processing facilities. In this evolving context volunteer groups offer NGOs the ability to engage with and support citizen groups grounded in their local societies. Collaborating with citizen groups enables NGOs to reach a wider public and demonstrate that not everybody is against refugees and vulnerable migrants coming to Europe.
Despite their fragility and inherent instability, volunteer groups frequently work with a longer-term perspective than is usual among humanitarian NGOs. Besides meeting basic needs, civil society groups are helping refugees to better understand and integrate into the societies they find themselves in, including through the provision of language classes and multicultural events. Volunteer groups also offer NGOs a means of aligning more closely with civil society in a context where state policies towards refugees and vulnerable migrants have, in many countries, become decidedly callous and inhumane. For their part, volunteer groups have much to learn from NGOs and the best practices that they have developed over decades.
There are of course challenges and limitations in this collaboration as each actor needs to be able to keep their identity and independence. Questions that need to be considered include how NGOs can retain their neutrality when collaborating with groups with strong political opinions; how to cope with administrative demands whilst not undermining the spontaneity of volunteer groups; how to avoid being held responsible for mistakes made by partners; and how to sustain a critical voice regarding their governments’ policies. Many of these questions are not new, either to NGOs or volunteer groups, and sharing each other’s perspectives and experience might offer a way of resolving them to the benefit of both.
Elodie Francart worked as a volunteer in the Citizens Platform. Since October 2015 she has been a member of the Civil Society Project Team and served as the Focal Point for Volunteers in Idomeni.