When compassion and action collide

We know that informal volunteering – volunteering outside of a formal group or organisation – is widespread. It is estimated that 18 million people informally volunteered once a month in the year 2015/16.

When the migrant crisis made international headlines in 2015, people went to volunteer in refugee camps around Europe. They felt compelled to try to help when confronted with clear human suffering. They used their own money, found information online or tapped up contacts. Very often they had little understanding of what they would be facing, let alone any sort of formal induction. We know very little about who volunteered and what their motivations were, but we recognise that they wished to provide assistance to vulnerable people in desperate need and were trying to give their best in difficult circumstances.

Volunteers are a safety net

Volunteers have made a real difference through practical help such as providing tents, building shelters, helping with distributions, interpreting, as well as offering specialised skills in medical and psycho-social support, and other support such as advocacy, awareness raising, campaigning and fundraising.

We know that many organisations were ill prepared to cope with the sudden volume of volunteers who wanted to help. This, in part, explains the proliferation of new networks and organisations which have sprung up to enable people to volunteer. Many are volunteer-led and some have been set up through The Prism Fund.

Volunteers have acted as a safety net but have at times placed themselves at grave risk.

Why a campaign for volunteering in migrant camps?

We were approached by the Home Office, who were keen to help people who are volunteering in migrant camps understand some of the challenges they might face. They offered to support NCVO to provide some information for those looking to volunteer. Our role at NCVO is to grow and enhance volunteering wherever it takes place – and that includes making sure volunteers feel well informed and well supported when they’re volunteering in potentially difficult environments, so we agreed to help.

We conducted our own research, interviewing people who had volunteered in migrant camps. We found that they had received a variable quality of support to help them prepare. Some had not received any at all. Some people were going off to places with limited understanding of what they would encounter, taking long weekends in the camps of Calais and Dunkirk, and further afield. We spoke to volunteers who had experienced and witnessed burn out.

These interviews raised a number of concerns for us, including volunteer safety and migrant safeguarding issues.

We brought together a stakeholder group of expert refugee and asylum organisations, and with their support, we have written six information sheets and created accompanying videos to help volunteers better prepare themselves for what they might face in a migrant camp, and help organisations to create more structure for their volunteers. We hope they will be a useful resource for volunteers and for organisations.

View the content for volunteering in migrant camps

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We wish to thank the many volunteers who spoke to us about their experiences. And we wish to acknowledge the organisations that have contributed to the production of the information sheets and videos:

  • Red R UK
  • Dentaid
  • CalAid
  • International Organization for Migration
  • Care4Calais
  • British Red Cross
  • Refugee Rights Data Project
  • Help Refugees
  • Refugee Council


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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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