Refugees and the future of humanitarian aid

With no long-term solution to the refugee crisis in sight, collective grassroots action is filling the void left by impotent governments.

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Credit: Abdulazez Dukhan

It doesn’t take long for suffering and disaster to become normalised. Back in 2015, when the refugee crisis was escalating across Europe, the news was dominated with desperate stories of migrant boats sinking in the Mediterranean, and of thousands of people trekking huge distances across the continent in search of a new home, far away from the war, famine and drought they were leaving behind.

Turn on the news today, and it is hard to find the same level of coverage about the plight of refugees in Europe, despite the crisis deepening since it caught the public’s attention two years ago. Earlier this month it was reported that well over 2,000 people have died trying to reach Europe from Africa so far this year, with 82,000 migrants arriving in Italy in the first six months of 2017, a 19% increase on the same period last year.

Despite this, the attention heaped on the issue by the mainstream media has dissipated, as concern has given way to acceptance of the new normal. The same is true in the position taken by some European governments, which have hardened their stance by minimising their provision for refugees.

In March, the UK parliament voted with the government in opposing the Dubs amendment, which would have forced councils to reveal how many unaccompanied child refugees they had the capacity to take. Supporters of the amendment shouted “shame” as the vote was read out in parliament.

The reticence of politicians to offer comprehensive, meaningful solutions has left the burden firmly with charities and other INGOs (international non-governmental organisations), which are increasingly struggling to deal with the scale of the refugee crisis.

In January the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), a UN-backed programme for dealing with the fallout from the Syrian civil war, appealed for $4.6bn in additional funding “to continue vital work in addressing the growing needs of refugees from Syria and communities hosting them in neighbouring countries”. In April it reported that only $433m of the amount requested – or 9% – had been received. Many NGOs have simply pulled out of crisis-hit areas due to lack of funding.

A new way

Filling the void is a new grassroots approach to humanitarian aid. Bypassing old models and slow, inefficient governments, the approach is exemplified by Help Refugees, a UK-based charity that began life in 2015 as a small group of volunteers who went to the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in northern France to offer assistance.

Today Help Refugees supports 80 projects across France, Greece, Italy, the UK, Iraq, Syria, Serbia and Lebanon – often taking the place of much more established and better-known charities. At the heart of its strategy is an extremely flexible, open approach to collaboration which sees the charity work with other, unaffiliated volunteers and organisations on the ground, wherever they may be.

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Credit: Help Refugees

This sets Help Refugees apart from larger INGOs with more cumbersome bureaucratic structures and siloed operations. The organisation uses crowdfunding campaigns to raise money quickly and social media to coordinate with other volunteers around the world, while its flat management structure enables it to respond to emergencies at speed and deploy resources as needed.

Head of projects Nico Stevens spends around half her time in London and the other half in the field. She explains that the structure of Help Refugees helps it to avoid the “many layers of sign-off” that other charities may have.

“The people who are making the decisions at Help Refugees are the same people who are on the ground,” she says. “Decisions can be made flexibly and quickly, and it doesn’t have to go through 15 levels of head offices.”

She recounts how a representative of a major charity approached her recently while she was working on the Greek island of Chios to ask if Help Refugees could step in to fund its work on the island, which was being scaled back due to lack of resources. Help Refugees’s access to a potentially limitless army of grassroots volunteers is now the envy of traditional INGOs.

“We are pretty much the first responders to any emergency or crisis because our network reports back to us and we believe very strongly in not having the bureaucratic red tape that INGOs have,” says Stevens.

“We’ve really fought our way into this world and we now see ourselves as a bridge between the informal sector and the formal sector. People who have been in the sector for years and years have really incredible advice and knowledge that we can learn from, but they don’t have the same access to the informal sector that we have.”

Stevens believes that Help Refugees must persevere and continue to grow its network as the migration challenge develops. Having just returned from Calais, she remarks that the situation has changed little from 2015, despite the French authorities formally clearing the Jungle last October. New refugee camps have simply sprung up in its place, she notes, and there are still hundreds of unaccompanied children in the Calais area.

With no globally coordinated, long-term solution in sight, the workload of Help Refugees looks set to increase exponentially for the foreseeable future. Some politicians may have hardened their hearts in response to the crisis, but grassroots activists grow more and more organised by the day.

“The global response to migration needs to change – we’ve really seen that in the European crisis, where the remit and mandate of INGOs and governmental bodies are not fit to deal with the crisis,” says Stevens. “It really does leave it up to the amazing individuals who are totally led by their compassion to stand up and make a difference.”

To access the Help Refugees fundraising page click here

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