Volunteering in migrant camps

In September 2015 I spent a week in Lesbos, Greece’s third largest island and one that lies closest to Turkey. I was on holiday with 15 other people. When I got to Lesbos, I ended up volunteering in an open refugee camp cleaning and sorting donated kitchen items and garments.

Almost every day that summer, I read about the horrors and despair of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and other countries where conflict, grinding poverty and hardship force millions to flee in search of stability and peace. What perilous journeys others make to achieve the safety that we assume as a birth right. The news was terrifying, with images of flimsy dinghies and repeated reports of loss of lives at sea.

Networks of criminal gangs exploiting desperate vulnerable people, lining their pockets as they packed rubber vessels with human cargo. Business was thriving. Then came the tragic photo of lifeless three-year old Aylan Kurdi, cast ashore on a beach in Turkey. By 2015 UNHCR estimated over one million people had made their way to Europe, and so far this year over 20,000.

Painting a picture of villains and victims over simplifies the crisis. Into the mix came more volunteers wanting to help – some like me, voluntourists turning up in makeshift camps like the one I volunteered at.

Costs and rewards of compassion

What happens to all the volunteers and voluntourists who decide to help? Who helps them to decide what to do? Volunteers were pulling people from dinghies; were they trained to do this, did they really understand what they would be getting into? Who would be there to listen, give them a hug, and reassure them that recognising your own limits is not a sign of weakness but strength?

Volunteering should be done of your own free will. But when it’s a life or death situation, it transcends that: Is it still volunteering? And what about organised criminal networks? How can volunteers be made aware of the risks and consequences of inadvertently facilitating them?

Volunteers respond to the migrant crisis

There are thousands of people who have volunteered courageously in the camps of Calais, Dunkirk, Lesbos, Kos, across Europe, and some of have found themselves out of their depth and struggling. I would like to hear from them. Volunteer groups like Help Refugees, Care4Calais and CalAid and others are beacons of hope, relying on a volunteer-to-volunteer model and doing much engage vast networks of volunteers. NCVO’s role is to help those organisations to support their volunteers better and in this context, this includes understanding the risks and consequences of organised immigration crime.

Safer volunteering in migrant camps

We’re running two surveys on behalf of the Home Office, one for volunteers and one for organisations to learn about their response to the crisis, so that NCVO can bring NGOs and informal groups together to strengthen the volunteering support they provide.

Volunteers have already told us that they need:

  • help with identifying safeguarding issues among fellow volunteers in the camp
  • up-to-date guidance for migrants, including how and where to claim asylum
  • help with spotting and reporting organised immigration crime.

Organisations have already told us that they would value help with how to support young volunteers who may have no or limited experience in camps. NGOs have commonly agreed principles about how to support people in crisis and have rich expertise to share.

Thousands of people have been volunteering in unofficial camps and will continue to volunteer. The ‘jungle’ in Calais may no longer exist and shelters have burnt down in the recent fire in Dunkirk, but people are still arriving across continents, seeking refuge.

Share your experiences

If you have volunteered in camps in northern Europe, please complete this survey link or forward the survey to people who have volunteered.

If you are from an organisation and have recruited and deployed volunteers, please complete this survey.


Please email jarina.choudhury@ncvo.org.uk or call 020 7520 2420.

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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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