Issue 67 - Article 7

The humanitarian impulse: alive and well among the citizens of Europe

September 15, 2016
John Borton
Depot for donated material for refugees at Röszke, Hungary, set up UNHCR and staffed by volunteers.
12 min read

In December 2015, a British firefighter was volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos with the Swedish volunteer group Lighthouse Relief, operating a search and rescue and medical services team based at Korakas lighthouse on the island’s north shore. Visiting Molyvos to buy medical supplies, he went to a restaurant to eat and found himself sitting next to a man wearing a Red Cross shirt. ‘Are you working for the Red Cross?’ he asked. ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘Well, where are all the rest of you?’ asked the volunteer. ‘We don’t need more of us here because you volunteers are doing such a good job’ came the reply. Even if meant to be humorous, the reply contained a telling truth, for a remarkable feature of the humanitarian response to the movement of refugees and vulnerable migrants in Europe has been the scale and range of the response by volunteers and civil society groups.

Greek fishermen have rescued or assisted thousands of refugees and vulnerable migrants travelling in overloaded and unseaworthy boats and inflatable dinghies. Local people in Greece, Italy, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and other countries along the main transit routes have provided water, food, shelter, shoes, clothing and other forms of assistance to people walking past their homes or gathered in their hundreds at railway stations in Budapest, Vienna, Hamburg and other cities. Across Europe, tens of thousands of people have contributed their time to collect and sort donated clothes and shoes, load and despatch trucks and organise fundraising events. Thousands have taken extended breaks from their jobs to work in search and rescue teams, manage transit camps, run field kitchens, provide legal advice and offer accommodation and support to refugees and asylum-seekers.

Based on private research, including interviews with ten selected volunteers, this article provides a preliminary indication of the scale and characteristics of the volunteer response, identifies the events and motivations that contributed to it and briefly reflects on the ‘volunteer phenomenon’ and its potential implications for humanitarian action.

Assessing the scale of the overall volunteer response

A Provisional Inventory compiled as part of the research for this article has identified 216 volunteer groups across Europe as having participated in, or contributed to, the response. Of these, 180 were formed during 2015 or early 2016. This list, drawn from the Inventory, is indicative of the range of groups involved:

  • Berlin Refugee Help: providing support to arriving refugees including language phrasebooks for use by refugees and by German volunteers.
  • Bezirk Jennersdorf – Flüchtlingshilfe: an Austrian group coordinating aid to refugees at Jennersdorf near Austria’s border with Hungary.
  • Dirty Girls of Lesvos: providing industrial-scale laundry services for refugees (blankets, bedding etc.) on Lesvos and mainland Greece.
  • East Midlands Solidarity: a British group (with subgroups in Derbyshire, Leicester and Nottingham) providing clothes, supplies and funding to refugees and vulnerable migrants in northern France, Greece and Syria.
  • Information Point for Refugee Legal Information Volunteers: an information-sharing forum for lawyers and legally trained volunteers providing legal services to refugees.
  • ProActiva Open Arms: a Barcelona-based group that provided search and rescue services around Lesvos in 2015, and is in the process of expanding its work to the central Mediterranean.
  • Rastplatz Project: a Swiss group providing food and general support to refugees along the Balkans route; it also runs the main food kitchen in Dunkirk.
  • Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP): a UK-based group undertaking censuses and surveys to support policy-making, starting with a major survey in Calais in February 2016.
  • Sitchting Bootvluchteling/Boat Refugee Foundation: a Dutch group providing search and rescue services, supplies and a medical mission on Lesvos, Leros, Kos and Samos, and in Athens and on the Greek mainland.
  • Urgence Réfugiés Calais, Lille et environs: collecting material donations (food, clothing, building materials, fire extinguishers, carpets) as well as funds for refugees in Calais, Dunkirk and Lille.

It is a common, if rather crude, practice within the humanitarian sector to gauge the size and scale of a humanitarian programme or organisation by its overall budget and staff numbers. However, for most of the groups listed in the Provisional Inventory such measures are not meaningful. Even where expenditure data is readily available, most of the  goods and services provided are privately donated and so do not have a measured monetary value. Volunteers give their time gratis, either funding themselves or through crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, JustGiving and MyDonate. Moreover, actual time inputs vary widely – from evening and weekend contributions by home-based volunteers to full-time contributions of 12 months or more in directly operational roles in other countries. Whilst sorting clothes and loading trucks are essentially low-skilled tasks, a significant number of doctors, lawyers, logisticians, accountants and other professionals have contributed their specialist skills to volunteer groups.

Events and motivations contributing to the scale of the volunteer response

Against the backdrop of growing numbers of refugees and vulnerable migrants arriving in Europe through 2015, and the associated media coverage, especially from July onwards, particular events stimulated the interest of those who became volunteers and spurred them into action.

The most influential event was undoubtedly the publication and global dissemination of images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body was washed ashore on 2 September near Bodrum in Turkey following the sinking of the dinghy in which his family were trying to cross to the Greek island of Kos. It is no coincidence that many groups in the Provisional Inventory were set up during September 2015. Some volunteers also refer to the earlier drowning of over 1,200 migrants and refugees in the central Mediterranean in a single week in April 2015.

As well as such tragic events, it appears that the use of pejorative terms by politicians also spurred people into taking voluntary action. On 30 July, when asked about the refugee and migrant situation in Calais, which was causing travel delays for British tourists, British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of a ‘swarm’ of people wanting to come to the UK. Over the following 24 hours the Facebook group Calais People to People Solidarity – Action from the UK increased its followers from around 100 to 600. According to the administrator of the group, ‘David Cameron was responsible for an explosion of interest by British people wanting to help the camp residents in Calais’. Also apparent from the testimonies of volunteers is the critical role of social media in facilitating and expanding the volunteer response. Immediately following Cameron’s ‘swarms’ comment, a young English woman, Jaz O’Hara, her brother and two friends living in Tunbridge, Kent, decided to drive an hour and a half to Calais to see the refugee and migrant camp for themselves. At that point Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Médecins du Monde (MDM) were providing limited medical services to camp residents, and a very small number of volunteer groups were struggling to provide other forms of assistance. Conditions were appalling, but Jaz and her friends were given a hospitable welcome by camp residents. Returning home they established CalAid, a grassroots group providing food and clothing to the camp. Jaz wrote an informative, passionate Facebook post to her friends on 6 August that went viral and, in the space of just a few days, was shared over 60,000 times. Within days, vanloads of clothes had been donated and £132,000 raised – some of which was used by her brother to make a documentary film of the camp. Subsequently the group formed another grassroots organisation, The WorldWide Tribe, to raise awareness of migration and displacement issues.

A similar story was repeated in London towards the end of August when three well-connected friends, Lliana Bird (a DJ with Radio X), Dawn O’Porter (a writer and TV presenter) and Josie Naughton (a former manager with the band Coldplay), launched a social media campaign #helpcalais to raise funds and collect goods to take to Calais on a truck scheduled to depart on 17 September. The public response was huge and, following the death of Alan Kurdi, became overwhelming. Soon #helpcalais became Help Refugees. As well as sending several trucks to Calais, Help Refugees helped lead efforts to improve the logistical operations of the volunteer groups working in Calais and replace tents in the camp with insulated shelters, and began supporting volunteer groups in Idomeni, Lesvos and other Greek islands. The founders’ connections, combined with innovative approaches to donations using online purchasing of pre-selected goods (sleeping bags, jackets, shoes) provided by a commercial company, which then delivers directly to the warehouse in Calais, has enabled Help Refugees to raise over £2 million in funding and provide £1m of new donated goods. The group has also provided significant funding and support to other volunteer groups working in France and Greece, including MDM.

Such spontaneous outpourings of voluntary humanitarian action took place across Europe. At the end of August 2015 in Zagreb, Croatia, a musician and his wife, Luka and Lejla Juranica, were moved by TV news coverage showing refugees and vulnerable migrants crossing into Croatia from Hungary at Roszke. They collected food and other items and, with a group of friends, drove to the border crossing, where the only support being provided was in the form of medical services from MSF. Returning to Zagreb they organised a concert called ‘Are You Syrious?’ – a name that was subsequently adopted for their grassroots organisation. Using money from the concert they took a truck with enough food for 4,000 people to Tovarnik, another entry point to Croatia from Hungary. Subsequently they established a supply station between Bapska on the border with Serbia and the camp set up by the Croatian authorities 17km away at Opatovac. No agencies were present at Bapska at that point. At the height of the flows 7,000 people a day were crossing the border. Nathan Miller, ‘The Story of “Are You Syrious?” a Refugees Aid Organisation’, 23 November 2015, 

The absence, or at the very least perceived absence, of other humanitarian actors was an important motivating force for many volunteers and voluntary groups. In early September Gabriela Andreevska, who was organising the purchase and distribution of water and food in the small town of Gevgelija in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) (just across the border from the Greek town of Idomeni), stated her motivations clearly: ‘I am doing this work because I have never been close to so many people sleeping rough in the streets on cold concrete – pregnant women and babies and sick old men – and nobody is helping them!’ ‘One Woman’s Strength Is Helping Refugees in Macedonia’, Al Jazeera English, 8 September 2015, watch?v=V79iNNmBJe8. In a similar vein the website of UK Action for Refugees, a grassroots organisation set up in 2015, states: See

‘We began as a group of like-minded individuals who realised that the governments and main NGOs seemed unable to respond to a humanitarian crisis that was happening in their own backyard. What we could never have imagined was that there were thousands of other people who felt exactly the same way, disempowered and desperate to help, but unable to figure out how. Through the power of social media we reached out and they reached back, and through our combined efforts we have been able to become an organisation that can and does make a difference.’

Some initial reflections

Faced with a dramatic increase in the number of refugees and vulnerable migrants arriving and transiting Europe during 2015 and early 2016, national authorities were either reluctant to respond or struggled to do so in ways that were timely, effective and comprehensive. The formal humanitarian system also struggled to operate effectively in a context that was legally, politically and operationally challenging. Consequently, there were significant gaps in humanitarian provision which in many areas were met, or at least partially met, by a remarkable outpouring of humanitarian support by volunteers and civil society groups. Even now, several months after the March 2016 EU–Turkey deal sharply reduced the flow of refugees and vulnerable migrants through Greece and the Balkans, volunteer groups continue to provide a wide range of services in many European countries.

Social media, notably Facebook, and free messaging services such as WhatsApp played a critical role in facilitating the ‘volunteer phenomenon’, enabling individual volunteers to link up with each other and form effective groups. These ‘new’ media also allowed volunteer groups to receive information from representatives on the ground and, coupled with their flexible, trust-based funding arrangements, enabled them to adapt rapidly to changing conditions and needs.

Much more study is needed to objectively assess the scale of the contribution and benefits provided by this ‘volunteer phenomenon’. Such research would help answer questions around the quality of services provided by volunteers, the effectiveness of their ad hoc but often creative coordination mechanisms, their ability to adequately safeguard children and vulnerable people in their care, the degree of protection afforded to refugees and migrants through the volunteer groups’ on-the-ground, round-the-clock presence, and the effectiveness of the working relationships between volunteer groups and international humanitarian agencies. Nevertheless, even before more detailed study is undertaken, it is patently clear that, in the absence of such an outpouring of popular humanitarian action, many more refugees and vulnerable migrants would have died in the Mediterranean and Aegean, on the overland routes through Greece and the Balkans and in the unregistered camps in Calais, Dunkirk and other areas of Europe. Clearly, the humanitarian impulse is still alive and well in Europe.

John Borton is a Senior Research Associate with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI. Between November 2015 and June 2016 he undertook self-funded research on the humanitarian response to the refugee and migrant flows in Europe.


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