From Lesbos with love: a taste of voluntourism

I’ve just come back from a week in Lesbos, Greece’s third largest island and the one closest to Turkey. Lesbos has received an enormous amount of UK media coverage during August as it has become the most popular European entry point for Syrian and other refugees and the Greek government cannot cope. UNHCR estimates 4,000 refugees arrive daily making Lesbos Greece’s Lampedusa.

This was a holiday with a social cause – but I wanted to make sure that in my desire to do good, I would not do harm. In a situation where people are fleeing danger and dealing with trauma, can a tourist really be of any use?

My role at NCVO involves advising organisations on volunteering, helping them find the best ways to support their volunteers.

When the Nepal earthquake hit in April, we received countless phone calls from people who wanted to travel to Nepal and volunteer. Our advice however was to send money or donations through the Disasters Emergency Committee instead. By going to Lesbos, did I really hope to make a difference to anyone’s life?

What is voluntourism?

Voluntourism is when a holiday-maker combines being a tourist with volunteering. The travel industry has seized this with lucrative results, enticing young people on gap years to participate in self-financed projects, promising them a chance to change the world and develop new skills by giving time to communities in developing and transitional countries.

What voluntourism on Lesbos looks like

We greeted arriving refugees, distributed water and basic foodstuffs and pointed them in the right direction. In the glare of the afternoon sun drivers gave families lifts up and down the windy roads to and from the beaches. It was impossible to ignore the volume of people arriving, but at the same time there was a realisation of our own limitations as tourists.

A few of our group pulled people from flimsy dinghies and some pulled them straight out of the water. They were not doing this as part of a NGO-led or coordinated effort. They don’t work in the aid industry, yet they were saving lives.

Another day, a friend and myself went to volunteer at the short stay camp called Pipka – a self-managed initiative, funded entirely on public donations, which has hosted more than 6,000 refugees since 2012.

I was keen to support a non-NGO intervention mainly because of time limitations. Having worked at Bond and interacted with humanitarian NGOs, I wanted to avoid any bureaucracy that may present itself as barriers to volunteering.

We emptied and sorted boxes of donated pots, utensils and crockery as instructed, cleaned work surfaces and washed floors.

In the compound, there was a separate building about the size of a one storey Victorian terraced house, completely packed with clothes and shoe donations. We sorted clothes for boys and girls and bags of toys for children of different age groups, all for distribution at the official refugee camps of Moria and Kara Tepe.

I met Nathan from Kent who had been touring the Greek islands and he told me that he had decided to help out at Pipka because he had a van. He had been there for two months, sorting clothes and doing deliveries of essential items to the refugee camps. I noticed that he didn’t use the word ‘volunteer’ and wondered whether helping out at Pipka for Nathan was more about a sense of obligation, rather than a voluntary response.

Holiday souvenir or helpful endeavour?

When I ask myself the question ‘can a tourist be of any use?’, I now say with cautious conviction that I am not sure how much good we did but I know that we did some good, and I hope that we did no harm.

Voluntourism is thriving on Lesbos, because of deeply unhappy and unpleasant circumstances and the reason there were so many people helping out is because of the strain on the government and NGOs.

Pipka is a perfect example of this, and so are the Swedish, Danish, British and other tourists who have ended up volunteering. People want to be useful. Whether sending clothes, goods and financial donations, or travelling to Lesbos and dedicating whole months to assisting the refugee plight.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to say whether I made a difference to anyone’s life or not, but the exposure and interaction with refugees, volunteers and islanders certainly made a difference to mine.


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Avatar photo Jarina is our volunteering development consultancy officer. Jarina develops consultancy and training services with the aim of improving volunteering practice across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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