The UK has a strong tradition of volunteering and providing your time to help others in whatever way you can, can be life-changing for the people (or animals!) you are helping. Whether you’re helping on the front-line or offering skills and advice from afar, volunteering makes a huge difference for individuals in great need.
Having a society that is actively caring is – of course – something to be proud of and research shows that it can help us personally too. Volunteering in whatever sector you choose can really increase self-confidence, provide a sense of accomplishment, pride and identity, give you a chance to connect and meet new like-minded people and on a more practical level, provides an opportunity to develop new skills and knowledge. And of course, it’s good for the soul! I personally can relate to this. Even from an early age I’ve always been a huge animal lover and both at home and while travelling I’ve also volunteered now and again, mostly being drawn to elephant orphanages, turtle conservation and dog rescues (and eventually adopted a gorgeous Greek stray who was found starving on an Athens rubbish tip).
I also know of people who volunteered in the recent refugee crisis in Europe, and they’re not alone. Many people volunteered in the crisis which began with people fleeing the war in Syria. Europe’s southern borders are still at the forefront of the refugee crisis, often receiving thousands of refugees each week and volunteers have offered their services in the camps in many ways, from entertaining children with theatre performances to distributing food and giving valuable medical advice.
Volunteering in the camps is very rewarding (and it was for the people I know that volunteered there). It can also be very challenging both emotionally and in numerous other ways, and if unprepared or unsupported, helping can sometimes become more of a hindrance and even dangerous for both the volunteers and the refugees, even with the best intentions. Refugees are also sadly very vulnerable to exploitation. Criminals often operate in areas where volunteers are helping and people-smuggling, which is potentially life-threatening for the refugees, is rife.
Interaction with volunteers is influential and can have unwitting real-world consequences, so volunteers can help migrants and refugees avoid harm by following the correct procedures, signposting them to specialist services when they ask for advice and considering appropriate ways of support that do not lead them towards taking dangerous risks to cross land or sea borders.
It’s also best to volunteer through an organisation which can provide access to a support network of practical advice and emotional support, as of course when you volunteer safely you’re in a better position to help others. When researching volunteering opportunities, ask your chosen organisation for information on ways of working, an induction, and what to do if things go wrong as you’ll need to be prepared for any worse case scenarios. Last but not least, use social media responsibly and don’t take photos of refugees or unaccompanied children.
So to recap, if you are thinking of volunteering in the Refugee camps, here are some tips on how to do so in the safest way possible…
- Volunteer through an organisation that provides access to a support network or practical advice and emotional support.
- Ask this organisation for information on ways of working and what to do if things go wrong.
- Advice given to refugees needs to come from specialist services. If appropriate, signpost refugees and migrants to legally qualified people who can offer specialist immigration advice.
- Refugees can be easily exploited by criminal gangs. So volunteers should support refugees in ways that do not lead them towards taking dangerous risks (i.e. with people smuggling gangs) e.g. Use social media responsibly – don’t take photos of refugees or unaccompanied children.
This is why NCVO is working in partnership with the government offering guidance on how to volunteer safely. As independent travellers are statistically very likely to also volunteer, especially overseas, we’ve created a video featuring people who have first-hand experience of volunteering in the European refugee camps…
Meet the volunteers
Francisco “Chez” Dunfernando
“Artivist”, musician and clown, Chez, has been collaborating with Performers Without Borders for 5 years and working part-time as a massage therapist and Yoga practitioner. Bristol-based Chez has spent the last few years touring the globe with the volunteering group who work towards giving vulnerable children the opportunity to explore their potential. Their mission is to, through teaching performance skills, develop an individual’s learning, creativity and team working skills. They also want to build confidence, develop empowerment and overcome social barriers. Chez has travelled from street children projects in Calcutta to children’s homes in Kenya and also spent time in the Calais refugee camp which was also known as ‘The Jungle’.
Kirsty Fraser hails from the Malvern Hills and lectures about social care at Worcester University. She also volunteers for the charitable organisation People in Motion who provide support and aid to displaced people. Their current efforts are focused on the refugee crisis and they’re sending aid and volunteer support throughout Europe and beyond to help people on their journey to a safer life. She has volunteered in the refugee camp in Calais a number of times.
Thinking of volunteering in the refugee camps? If so, there are important things to consider. NCVO have created six factsheets, working with the government and with experienced organisations and volunteers who have worked in camps throughout Europe, to help volunteers and organisations prepare for these challenges. Download these factsheets now.