Comparative analysis: Voluntary and citizens’ initiatives before and after 2015
In 2015, thousands of ordinary people in all EU Member States have spontaneously welcomed newcomers and provided emergency front-line humanitarian assistance, through food, clothing and emergency shelters. As newcomers get into asylum procedures and integration programmes, many volunteers are trying to support their long-term integration and open up the public to diversity.
People-to-people and mutual learning activities are matching immigrants to mentors and peers with similar profiles and interests, and with time, space or resources to donate. A wider range of volunteers are now working on integration to create new ways of providing information, services, training and networks in all areas of life. Most of these new initiatives are not linked up with the main integration practitioners from state agencies or integration NGOs. Whether or not innovative voluntary initiatives are effective for integration and can become a structural part of the integration offer for all newcomers across Europe is therefore a critical question.
The European Website on Integration is providing the first-of-its-kind analysis, including a country-by-country overview, of the new voluntary initiatives, that emerged in all EU Member States. New initiatives are mapped, compared to the few long-standing voluntary initiatives and analysed for their innovation, added value and potential impact on integration. This analysis also looks at the involvement of new partners, such as businesses, students and the creative/tech industry. In the light of preliminary studies conducted in Germany, the issue of (improved) effectiveness, particularly through cooperation with integration practitioners, is addressed.
Volunteers have always made a significant contribution to migrant integration by developing immigrants’ local skills and personal networks, as well as by filling gaps in state services. In the past, high numbers of volunteers were seen in times of large humanitarian arrivals: Vietnamese Boat People in France in the 1980s, former Yugoslavia refugees in Austria and Germany in the 1990s and most recently, Africans and Middle-Easterners in Southern Europe (Malta in 2008, Bulgaria in 2013 and now Italy and Greece).
Integration volunteering is most common in Northern Europe, where volunteering levels are generally high and one or two humanitarian charities per country is based on large networks of volunteers committed specifically to migrant integration and refugee reception. The phenomenon is slowly growing in Southern European countries, mostly thanks to the mobilisation of existing networks of humanitarian and religious charities. In Southern and Central Europe, where integration and social support is often limited, volunteer-based initiatives are also expanding. In the Czech Republic for example, around 10 immigrant-serving NGOs work with a total of around 500 volunteers per year, through programmes that are more and more professionalised over time.
Overall, volunteer-based integration activities are extensive in the several EU Member States. Caritas, Doctors of the World and Red Cross propose such activities in several countries such as Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden. Specific Refugee Councils - Flanders in Belgium, Denmark, or Netherlands, for example - and Immigrant-lead NGOs - in France and Luxembourg – also work with volunteers. These actors are often present at- or running the major reception and integration centres, and therefore, able to reach large numbers of newcomers, mostly through the asylum process. They can develop a wide range of volunteer activities targeting diverse groups, in and outside centres.
Before 2015, the vast majority of volunteers in Europe were recruited through traditional channels. Apart from the Danish Refugee Council’s Frivillignet, Sweden’s national Language Friends scheme and the Skåne region’s platform, hardly any web-portals existed for volunteers to discover and sign up for integration activities. Similarly, except for a database of all associations in Italy and analyses in France, Germany, Netherlands and Sweden, available voluntary initiatives have rarely been compiled nationwide.
Content of long-standing voluntary initiatives
Mentorship schemes train and coordinate volunteer mentors and usually match them with immigrants living in their local area and who have the same profession or interests. Although most are still relatively new, structural mentoring schemes are present in a handful of EU Member States:
- Denmark. KVInfo women’s network has set up 3200+ mentor processes since 2003.
- Germany.Local mentorship schemes, often with immigrant mentors serving as intercultural mediators, have been developed for work and education. The largest – the nationwide health MiMi Programme – started in 2003.
- Sweden. More effective schemes have been developed for language training and social orientation since 2006 with Refugee Guides or Language Friends which is now represented in half of municipalities (for example in Norrtälje/Stockholm). Red Cross also has a Buddy Sweden scheme. In 2010, newcomer vocational and introduction schemes were introduced but were later abolished.
- Austria. Mentoring for Migrants has matched over 1000 pairs since 2008 in a project initiated by the Federal Economic Chamber and now organised with the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF) and the Labour Market Service (AMS).
- Estonia. Johannes Mihkelson Centre (JMC), inspired by Finnish practices, started training and coordinating mentors for refugees in 2008.
- Finland. Womento has provided peer coaches for educated migrant women since 2012.
- Netherlands.Local, often intercultural, schemes exist for immigrant youth - K!X Works-, mothers - Me & Society Rotterdam -, and professionals - The Other Network.
- Portugal. Mentoring Program for Migrants, inspired by Denmark’s KVInfo Network, was piloted in 2012 and expanded nationwide in 2014. It now counts on a network of 500+ mentors with diverse profiles.
Peer-to-peer mentoring is regularly used in education, especially for homework, exams and transitions within school and into work. Many of these programmes are starting to target immigrants as mentees. As revealed in SIRIUS Network’s policy brief and handbook, only immigrant-run education initiatives also target immigrants, particularly well-educated and members of the 2nd generation, as mentors.
Employment mentoring has developed at a small-scale across Europe, often targeting young adults and focusing on their motivation and professional contacts and ‘soft skills’ (see chapter 6 of Third EC Handbook). One of the few available evaluations suggests that volunteer mentorship schemes for employment must be part of a broader labour market programme, closely linked to the profession and targeting newcomers with high levels of work experience and education.
Family bonds can be (re)created by volunteers willing to act as family mentors, particularly for separated families. For unaccompanied minors who need legal representatives, several humanitarian and state actors offer some sort of training and support. Children living without their parents or extended family also need emotional support and guidance to feel welcome in their home. Volunteers act as extended family for individual families or children thanks to a few practices across Europe. The ‘Connecting People’ project has been initiated in 2001 by asylkoordination Austria in Vienna and quickly spread to Graz and Munich. The Finnish Grandparents association has since 2003 matched dozens of retirees as ‘foster grandparents’ to children without grandparents in order to orient them in life and to activities, and better understand each other’s cultures.
Even rarer in Europe, volunteers can accompany newcomers through the bureaucratic process of registration and settlement. It is the case for UK’s one-on-one refugee mentoring Time Together. In this role, volunteers act as intercultural mediators and interpreters, where their background and language skills allow, as well as a guides who identify and help newcomers navigate the relevant state and local services that address their individual needs and interests.
People-to-people learning and leisure
These volunteer-based initiatives provide informal learning or leisure activities between non-immigrant organisers and groups of (mostly) newcomer adults or children. They can be found all across Europe, including in new destination countries, such as Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece and Italy. Most learning activities are unidirectional, with non-immigrants teaching immigrants. Learning is mostly focused on informal or non-formal learning of the local language and general socio-cultural lessons about their new country. Such initiatives can be found in:
- Finland where Let’s Read Together has since 2004 convened 80 free weekly study groups with 400 leaders (mostly retirees and former teachers) and 1600 students (originally young mothers but now a diverse, mostly working-age, group);
- Ireland whereFailte Isteach (‘Welcome’) was piloted by Third Age in 2006 in a small rural area and launched nationwide in 2008. 750 volunteer tutors (usually retirees) conduct free conversational English classes based on learners’ individual interests and orient 2,000 newcomers annually to their local community;
- Luxembourg where ASTI has collaborated on the design of several low-barrier language teaching methods targeting different types of learners;
- Netherlands wherelocal volunteer language teachers are offered training, materials and information through umbrella networks like the Dutch Refugee Council (7,500 volunteers), Het begint met taal (‘It begins with language’) (8,000 volunteers) and Utrecht’s Taal doet meer (‘Language does more’);
- Sweden where Berattarministeriet’s 300 volunteers and three centres around Stockholm aim to improve children’s writing skills through creative storytelling.
- United Kingdom where Refugee Action has worked with volunteers for 30+ years in six major urban areas to build refugees’ contacts, language skills and practical problem-solving skills.
Mixed leisure activities generally aim to activate immigrants’ social and cultural resources, provide orientation and try to build intercultural competence and relationships. These activities are very diverse based on volunteers’ and immigrants’ talents and interests, and include sports, arts, crafts, etc. For example, the Danish Refugee Council can cite initiatives as diverse as Network-families, Mentornet, Boys clubs, Girls clubs, Mind your own business and the DFUNK youth-to-youth leisure activities. Orientations targeting the general public (as opposed to those targeting the newcomers) help non-immigrants meet new neighbours and discover immigrant-dense neighbourhoods for themselves, as potential customers and myth-busters.
Food is one of the most used common denominators and an equaliser between newcomers and long-settled residents: recipes travel easily across borders and language barriers, and make immigrants’ skills and contributions visible to the general public. In Bulgaria, one can find cooking classes at Multi-Kulti Kitchen, while in the Czech Republic, nationals can dine with a ‘Next door family’. The latter project spread over several countries.
Sport is another major area for mixed leisure activity, particularly for youth. In several EU countries, including Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Italy, volunteers do not only organise the activities but they also develop intercultural competences and friendships with participants. Based on more than 60 examples, a recent report on social inclusion through sport identified best practices for the design, implementation and measurement of such activities. Factors of success include ownership for the programmes, opportunities for inter-cultural learning and the development of pathways into volunteering and skills acquisition.
The cultural sector also mobilises large numbers of volunteers for intercultural performances and interactions. The Luxembourg’s annual festival of migrations, cultures and citizenship is a good example.
Awareness-raising through immigrant volunteering and civic engagement
A few established initiatives target immigrant volunteers themselves not only to orient them and activate their skills – as with leisure and mentoring activities – but also to improve public opinion and policies on integration. Large volunteer networks have worked to inform or mobilise immigrants to participate in elections. In Finland, award-winning iCount project reached 10-15,000 people thanks to its 80 volunteers. Other examples can be found in public volunteering actions in the Czech Republic and Italy. There is also an increasing number of immigrant-run organisations in Greece while in the UK, initiatives such as Citizens UK, Hope Not Hate or Student Action on Refugees build bridges.
Although few countries encourage immigrant-run voluntary initiatives through targeted funding, grants and support for immigrant associations are made available by the Finnish Refugee Council, Portugal’s GATAI and the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society.
Potentials and challenges of long-standing initiatives
Scale and resources are critical for impact
Most long-standing volunteer-based initiatives are local and ad hoc social activities such as meetings, events and mentoring. They are highly dependent on national or EU funding and rarely scientifically evaluated for their effectiveness. These schemes are often small-scale, far below the potential level of demand. Structural schemes, with sufficient volunteers to meet demand, require resources and coordination for outreach to potential volunteers and beneficiaries, as well as training, tools and support for the mentoring process.
People-to-people initiatives are a source of innovative integration practices
The major added value of the people-to-people approach of most existing initiatives is that these learning and leisure activities are more accessible and innovative than generic integration programmes. These activities usually take place in free time (weekends and evenings) and in immigrant neighbourhoods or reception centres. This is the case for Bulgaria’s award-winning Refugee Project and Refugee Camp Play School, as well as Denmark’s Red Cross homework cafes. Innovative teaching methods are easier to pilot and implement through the wider variety of practitioners involved in people-to-people activities, in comparison to the standard integration programme. Moreover, one side-benefit for volunteers (often retirees) is that their professional experience and knowledge of their local area is recognised and utilised for the benefit of the whole community.
The scope of immigrant contributions needs widening
Immigrants themselves have been a key source of volunteering, as highlighted by the 2012 EWSI Special Feature. European surveys already suggested in their 2002/03 and 2008/2009 rounds that immigrants may be as likely to volunteer as non-immigrants in the same country; though not always through conventional organisations. On one hand, they are more likely to be engaged in immigrant-run initiatives, which are often small-scale, little known and thus unconnected to state integration policies and institutions. And on the other hand, immigrants are usually under-represented among volunteers and mentors in mainstream voluntary integration initiatives, unless the organisers explicitly use an empowerment approach (see chapter 3 of Third EC Handbook) and value immigrants’ unique skills, for example as intercultural mediators. Change, however, is underway in countries that have seen high numbers of humanitarian arrivals recently. Here, many refugees and other long-settled migrants joined voluntary efforts, to help and contribute with their language and intercultural skills. Some of these initiatives, such as the Support Group Network in Sweden, are refugee-run. It provides integration support and psycho-social care for asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants in the Vastra Gotaland region since September 2014.
Following the large-scale humanitarian arrivals in 2015, many more people volunteered to support refugees and integration in all countries affected, from the major frontline to transit to destination countries, with limited mobilisation in countries experiencing few arrivals or transits. With greater diversity in terms of age, profile and geographical location, these new volunteers are somewhat different from the traditional integration volunteers. However, generally speaking, practitioners observed an over-representation of young people and students, tech/creative types and many immigrants themselves. Their more rapid and informal initiatives have mostly concentrated efforts on arrival and reception, through the provision of transit, shelters, food, clothing and other donations. Small-scale donations were easier for the system to handle than the large number of volunteers willing to donate their time. As a result, some existing initiatives and NGOs opened up their services and platforms to include more volunteers. This happened less among governments at local/regional and even less at national level. Countries with large long-established volunteer networks were better able to train and incorporate this massive supply of volunteers; though even the best resourced had to turn many away.
New levels of commitment, new types of activities
Figures are starting to emerge on this surge in voluntary engagement, even if this assessment is difficult due to the fluid nature of many of the activities and of the situation itself. A survey among 2.300 volunteers in Germany showed that the most common activities in 2015 were language teaching (45%), support in contact with authorities (nearly 40%), distribution of donations (30%), transport services (>25%), family care (> 20%) and children care (>15%). 40% of respondents claimed that they, apart from new initiatives, also supported mainstream NGOs and their activities. Only less than 5% provided voluntary support requiring a professional background, such as legal advice, social counselling or medical or psychological support. The study reveals the tremendous mobilising effect of the recent humanitarian arrivals, with two thirds of respondents saying that their engagement started during 2015, and only 15% before 2014. The increased commitment goes along with more time dedicated to voluntary work, as more than half of the respondents were involved in activities for more than 5 hours per week, and about a quarter even for more than 10 hours per week.
New initiatives specially targeted at refugees and relying on large numbers of volunteers have been identified in nearly all EU countries, except for Ireland and Cyprus. In many cases, these volunteers turned to the new ‘Refugees Welcome’ citizens’ platform that has emerged in many countries and served as an umbrella name for a variety of activities and initiatives. Refugees Welcome has created a cross-border platform and is now represented in nearly half of EU Member States.
In addition to this European platform, other initiatives are run in:
- Austria: Train of Hope
- Belgium: Citizens’ Platform for support to refugees
- Bulgaria: Friends of the Refugees
- Croatia: Welcome Refugee Support Initiative
- Czech Republic: I’m helping Refugees in the Balkans
- Denmark: Friendly Neighbour
- Estonia: Tolerant Estonia
- Finland: Refugees Welcome Finland
- France: Help the refugees and SINGA
- Hungary: MigSzol Migrant Solidarity Group
- Latvia: I want to help refugees
- Lithuania: I welcome refugees
- Luxembourg: Mothers for refugees
- Portugal: Platform to support refugees
- Slovakia: Who will help
- Slovenia: Anti-racist front without borders
- Spain: Citizen’s Agreement for an Inclusive Barcelona
- United Kingdom: Help Refugees
In order to analyse and compare these ‘refugee welcome’ initiatives across Europe, in 2017, the I Get You campaign will present 9 national reports and one European report on best practices, based on a mapping of almost 300 initiatives.
In general, the new volunteer networks emerging in 2015/16 involve the following range of activities:
Accessible multi-lingual information and translation
Today’s digital connectedness and the availability of social media mark a major difference between the current humanitarian arrivals and earlier episodes that saw wide-spread civil society responses. Refugees using their smartphones, or desperately trying to recharge them and connect to the internet, has become a common feature of today’s forced migration to the EU. With the help of numerous volunteers in the transit and destination countries, new initiatives aiming to improve reception by exploiting the so far underused potential of online information, orientation and translation tools. One-stop-shop multi-lingual apps were quick to emerge, either as local initiatives (e.g. Choose Your Future about Turku), or as information services covering multiple issues, (e.g. the Refugee Buddy App, by the Red Cross and other groups) on asylum procedures, facilities and news in Arabic, French and English. They were inspired by InfoAid in Hungary and the WelcomeApp in Germany. The Refugee Phrasebook is an open-source vocabulary aid set up by Berlin-based volunteers that covers basic legal and medical phrases in 28 languages. In a similar vein, the French Guide Routard for Refugees facilitates communication without interpretation through the use of graphic representation of key aspects of needs and daily life. Finnish startup Funzi provides a ‘learning package’ app on the country's everyday life, language and legal system in 6 languages.
Beyond this Web 2.0 logic, more traditional media and dissemination methods also played a role. Austria’s daily newspaper Kurier, for example, produced extra editions in refugees’ languages with basic targeted information at the height of spontaneous arrivals. Stranieriinitalia is a civil society-based online news, legal advice and practical guidance service created in Italy, while in Greece, locals, migrants and refugees manage and edit Solomon, a new online-magazine.
Established support institutions also joined and supported the wave of voluntarism: OLAI Luxembourg (the country’s reception and integration agency) enabled a volunteer-staffed hotline and the Citizen’s Agreement for an Inclusive Barcelona disseminated information on service resources and activities for refugees. This latter type of action is also seen among organisations which provide services that are, in general, not targeted to newcomers. For instance, the Amsterdam Public Library has organised pop-up libraries with children’s books for refugee children.
Short-term private housing as a stepping stone
Providing sufficient quality accommodation has been a foremost concern for many volunteers and asylum-seekers. Most vividly, the ‘couch-surfing’ initiative in Iceland mobilised over 5% of the country’s population who proposed hosting a refugee in their own homes, in order to pressure the government to open up for humanitarian migrants. Longer-term accommodation and early integration have become main concerns for platforms in countries of transit like Hungary - Bekefeszek (PeaceNest) – and Greece - Refugees Welcome. Vacant hotels and facilities have also been used both by state and civil society initiatives. In Turin for example, since 2013, the ‘Refugees and Migrants Solidarity Committee’ has occupied the former Olympic Village where volunteers provide medical, linguistic and legal care, schooling and donations.
Over time, the initial ‘emergency’ response focused on temporary shelter gave way to expanding housing from a long-term integration perspective, by matching refugees with individual hosts and providing better orientation to available support services. Germany’s Refugees Welcome provided the model, offering temporary private accommodation as well as individual social support and orientation. The ‘home exchange’ idea also informed the projects Refugee in my House, Foster Families and Refugees in Family in Italy, as well as the CALM matching platform in France. The PAR Familias network in Portugal brought hundreds of institutions together, ready to host hundreds of people. In the Netherlands, Refugee Hero advertises spare rooms and negotiates with municipalities for space in schools and other public buildings.
Better individual matchmaking for integration support, mentoring and leisure activities
Matching volunteers’ contributions with refugees’ concrete needs is a – if not the – crucial issue in managing civil society’s response to humanitarian arrivals. While social media helped organise immediate and early responses in local contexts, matching websites and volunteering databases have more systematically brought together disperse volunteering actors and opportunities. In some countries, open calls for volunteers led to the establishment of new targeted national databases, as in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Austria, or on local level e.g. in Utrecht , Vienna and Alsace. In France, Aider les réfugiés includes an interactive map with individuals and groups, and also diffuses information on the websites of major newspapers.
Awareness-raising activities to create and nurture a ‘Welcoming culture’
An entire spectrum of activities aimed at public opinion testify to a spontaneous upsurge of a ‘welcoming culture’. Solidarity demonstrations in the public space were widespread, to express support, intervene in the public debate and attract further public and media attention to voluntary initiatives. For example, in Italy a national march in solidarity with refugees took place in 35 cities, while demonstrations in the Czech Republic were aimed against xenophobia in general. Several countries like France and Luxembourg observed Circles of Silence to commemorate refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. Petitions by public intellectuals, as seen in the Czech Republic, brought in the voice of persons who can influence perceptions. The cultural sector in particular contributed to this mobilisation, with artists and cultural institutions acting as important multipliers. Concerts, like Voices for Refugees in Austria and Tolerant Estonia were able to attract huge audiences, respectively 150,000 and 7,000 people. The latter was also linked to public debates in partnership with major media. In order to give a human face to the refugee crisis and highlight the fate of individuals, the direct involvement and visibility of refugee musicians and performers has been a key element for many of the culture-led initiatives.
More structural campaigns targeting the public may be most successful when targeted at bridging newcomer populations with their new local neighbours, in order to counter local rumours and build up acceptance, trust and a willingness to help. For example, the Citizens UK campaign for resettlement secures pledges from local authorities to resettle 50 refugees each and for landlords to offer homes at below-market rent. In western Estonia, the NGO Pagula has worked with local communities, preparing them to receive refugees for the first time in. Other target groups for awareness-raising initiatives are pupils and teachers, as it becomes increasingly recognised that the education system is a foremost place of early encounter with the receiving society. Examples for these widespread practice can be found, inter alia, in the Czech Republic and Austria.
Fill gaps in training via adapted & accessible courses
Learning-oriented initiatives focus both on access to early language acquisition and access to professional and higher education. Alongside a groundswell of grassroots language tuition and mentoring initiatives, many established educational institutions have mobilised the means at their disposal to create additional offers for refugees. Typically, this comes as reaction to shortcomings in the existing support systems. In Sweden for example, the adult education associations created the Swedish from Day 1 programme, providing Swedish courses and practical workshops on every day social life in Sweden. They are reaching over 40,000 asylum-seekers in more than half of all municipalities, supporting people who now face longer asylum procedures and delayed state-provided integration programmes. On tertiary level, numerous universities across Europe started initiatives supporting refugee students. With the Refugees Welcome Map campaign, the European University Association (EUA) aims to showcase this commitment of higher education institutions and organisations.
E-learning and distance learning has also taken off as a response to the significant new demand for education and language learning. Such initiatives aim to lower the formal barriers for refugees to start higher education, allow them to continue studying even under conditions of insecure residence and mobility, and provide them with multilingual information and support networks. Kiron University, launched in Germany by students with crowdsource funding as well as private sponsors, now involves dozens of volunteers and professors to enable ‘undocumented study’. 1,500 prospective students have signed up for two-year-online study tracks in computer science, engineering, business & economics and social sciences. Students help each other through online and meet-up study groups and, if they pass the first online phase, benefit from spaces to study in 22 partner universities. In a similar vein, the German Refugees on Rails project helps refugees into the tech field by providing an IT programming school.
Business and tech start-up support and innovation
Business and tech start-ups have also intervened specifically to support refugee entrepreneurs. A particular feature of the reaction to the 2015/16 arrivals has been the decidedly positive attitude from the business world in major countries of destination. As a consequence, start-up initiatives for refugees tend to be business-driven, with entrepreneurs having a migrant background themselves, often in a leading role. For example, the Finnish Startup Refugees programme is driven by well-known entrepreneurs involving a network of 300 business, public and NGO partners, and is supported by 300 volunteers mapping entrepreneurial skills in reception centres, matching mentors and initiating business incubators.
2015 also saw a first interaction between the tech and integration sector. Among the cross-border initiatives, Techfugees is the foremost platform to coordinate the tech community’s response to the needs of refugees, including conferences, workshops and meetups around the world to generate tech solutions that can help refugees. Start-Up Boat has a similar orientation and facilitated the design and implementation of innovative solutions to support the situation in Greece and beyond. An analysis of the Migration Policy Institute on the new ‘Digital Humanitarianism’ concludes that the crisis galvanised tremendous technological innovation and a tech response that has been extremely fast and highly reactive, and has blurred the line between civil society and business. Much can be done by policy-makers, however, to bring together NGOs, community organisations and tech companies to maintain the momentum, better integrate innovation with mainstream services and ensure scaling of the most promising ideas. Whether the small-scale solutions will have more than limited effect or will radically change the way countries receive and integrate refugees, remains to be seen.
Innovation and added value
Overall, the new volunteer-based initiatives are often perceived as ‘innovative’ because of their:
- large diverse volunteer base (especially from tech, creative and business);
- more transnational character than established initiatives (e.g. Refugees Welcome, tech/business start-up, mobile EU citizens volunteering in frontline/transit states);
- quick, flexible and collaborative ‘start-up’ structures allowing for own-initiatives and virtual participation;
- preference for solutions based on citizens’ participation and crowdsourcing, use of private social networks and new technology including apps and online platforms; and
- greater visibility and reach through greater focus on communication, especially social media for organising.
The major added value of these new initiatives is the increase in the number, diversity and reach of new volunteers, new organisations and new funders expressing some interest in integration. This trend can be observed across Europe, even in countries with few immigrants or a generally hostile public debate. The Croatian Are you Syrious, for example, has more than 30.000 Facebook fans, 3,000 donors and 100 active volunteers for its humanitarian help activities.
The initial phase of exchanges and immediate actions led to greater brainstorming and a new burst of activism and creativity for integration practitioners. Reporting these welcoming initiatives may have improved media coverage of refugees and integration, and reached a wider public to support integration practitioners. Most importantly, these rapid, low-cost and interactive ‘emergency’ responses helped alongside state and NGO actors to provide a response to a situation of crisis.
It is difficult to answer the critical question of whether these innovative voluntary initiatives are effective for integration and can become a structural part of the integration offer for all newcomers across Europe as, unfortunately, they were not designed in ways to robustly evaluate their impact. So far, most of these new initiatives are not linked up with the main integration practitioners, neither with state agencies responsible for integration programmes, nor the main NGO service-providers. When they do collaborate with main integration actors, it is mostly with municipalities which support them on community level. They are rarely organised nationwide and are often small-scale, far below the potential level of demand. While these structures have tried to fill gaps in NGO and state services, two recent studies on civil society actors and voluntary initiative coordination in Germany, drawing from in-depth case study interviews, suggest a dual need for organisational development and professionalization among the spontaneous initiatives, as well as for adaptation and opening of the long-standing non-profit organisations.
As the German case exemplifies, the consequences of large-scale humanitarian arrivals can lead to an overall re-alignment of roles, tasks and patterns of interaction among authorities on national and local level, established non-profit providers and strongly mobilised parts of civil society. In such a context, all actors – and not only the voluntary initiatives – have to re-define their medium- and long-term role in the integration field. The great opportunity to be seized now is translating the new, positive acknowledgement of voluntary work into sustainable governance structures, giving due respect to the grassroots contribution. The related threat, however, is that policy-makers cannot live up to the new complexity and coordination needs in the integration field, and voluntary commitment declines as a consequence.
A lack of networking and structural cooperation between new initiatives and established practitioners raises the challenge of sustainability. Many initiatives were designed without training nor involvement from policymakers, NGOs or refugees themselves but a few examples can be found across Europe where the coordination of new volunteer-based initiatives is built on existing integration policy coordination platforms:
- France: Call for ‘Solidarity Cities’ among socialist-run cities linked together through their Foreigners’ Councils and integration activities;
- Portugal: Plataforma de Apoio aos Refugiados (PAR) building on previous networking achievements of the Commissioner for Migration (ACM) and Gulbenkian Foundation;
- Spain: Red de Ciudades refugio (‘Network of Refugee Cities’) and Acord Ciutadà per una Barcelona Inclusiva (‘Citizens’ Agreement for an Inclusive Barcelona) built on existing networks between local and regional policymakers;
- United Kingdom:Cities of Sanctuary movement, inspired by similar networks in Canada and US, linked up with several longstanding citizens’ initiatives on refugees and integration.
Structural schemes, with sufficient volunteers to meet demand, require resources and coordination for outreach to potential volunteers and beneficiaries, as well as training, tools and support for the mentoring process. In the future, a second phase of redesign and piloting may lead to greater coordination among volunteers and with practitioners in order to build capacity and preparedness for refugee arrivals. In the destination countries most affected by the recent arrivals, the second phase will be marked by the move from arrival and early reception support to new roles in long-term integration, thus contributing to a more two-way approach with considerable efforts from the side of the receiving society.
Source: EWSI Editorial Team