Sometimes it is better to stay home

Article written by journalist Ula Idzikowska for the newspaper Mondiaal Nieuws translated into English

With the best of intentions, volunteers travel abroad to help refugees, often without preparation or guidance. Their good intentions can turn out to be dangerous, for both the refugee and themselves.

“Don’t all those volunteers working with refugees cause more problems than they solve?” asked political scientist Fernande van Tets in early 2016 in a piece on De Correspondent analyzing the deployment of volunteers on the Greek island of Lesbos. Almost five years later, her question is still as relevant as ever: according to German cultural educator Verena Fink, some people leave for the field unprepared, which can have negative consequences for themselves and for refugees.

“In Greece, you usually get little or no psychological support from NGOs”

Fink began her work for refugees at German train stations where, like so many other volunteers, she handed out water and blankets to Syrians arriving in Germany. In 2017, she moved to the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, where she now works as coordinator of the Oikopolis social center. Refugees can go there for meals and clothes.

Sometimes she feels it’s too much for her: she has sleeping problems, can’t find peace. Fortunately, a psychologist friend of hers can help her. It’s a luxury for volunteers working for small NGOs, she emphasizes. “In Greece, you usually get little or no psychological support from NGOs.”

Learning to say, “we don’t have that”

“The Dutch NGO Stichting Bootvluchteling, which is active in the camp on Lesbos, is an exception: they do have a psychologist on standby who volunteers can reach 24 hours a day” says field coordinator Asha Fleerakkers.

Just about every camp resident struggles with trauma

Refugees with psychological problems cannot count on such assistance. They are simply too many: just about every camp resident suffers from trauma. Because of the lack of psychological support, refugees tell their stories to anyone who will listen, including volunteers. Some people do not remain passive listeners but develop a personal bond with a refugee. Often without realizing that it can have a negative impact on the latter’s well-being.

“That used to be the case, for example, with camp residents who worked with us as volunteers,” says Fleerakkers. “They felt abandoned after outside volunteers with whom they have built a relationship returned home and broke off contact. People who come here and give a lot of attention to refugees obviously mean incredibly well. But sometimes they unknowingly cause harm by doing so. To prevent this, our code of conduct for volunteers has been amended”.

Refugees not only tell what they want to get rid of, but regularly ask for help. Some volunteers succumb and promise to take care of everything. Later, they shoot into stress when they cannot keep promises. This in turn creates frustration and disillusionment among refugees. Fink stresses that volunteers should be prepared for the fact that they will have to repeat “we don’t have that” more often than “I’ll bring you what you need”.

False Hope

Often having to sell no is something that Dutch volunteer Nick Zweers recognizes. This year, he worked for three months as a volunteer for Christian Refugee Relief, mostly in the notorious Moria refugee camp, which burned down almost completely in early September. “When you’re from an NGO you get every possible question thrown at your head,’ he writes on his blog. His response is often: ‘I don’t know, just go to the information point’. But some volunteers answer anyway, even though they lack specific knowledge. Thus, they spread misinformation, which can create unrealistic expectations.”

“False hope can be very dangerous for the mental health of asylum seekers”

Providing false information about the asylum procedure is the worst, believes Mauro Farrugia, CEO of the Maltese government agency AWAS, which is responsible for housing asylum seekers. “It’s usually not meant to be malicious, volunteers want to help.” But these good intentions can have serious consequences.

“False hope can be very dangerous for the mental health of asylum seekers,” says Diana Tudorancea, psychologist and executive director of NGO Tama. “When it turns out that an asylum seeker’s situation is not changing, it can even result in a mental breakdown.” Or riots in detention or refugee centers. “When you hear as an asylum seeker that you have actually entitled to something, or that your asylum claim should be processed, you have certain expectations. If, for example, the political context changes and you have to wait longer or you don’t get what you were promised, you just get furious.”

Two NGOs (Farrugia prefers not to name the organizations), meanwhile, are no longer allowed to organize activities in Maltese asylum centers because they provided misleading information. AWAS has set up a team that works closely with NGOs, volunteers, international organizations such as European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and asylum seekers to have more control over information flow in the refugee centers.

“Jumping in for a moment”

The main problem with volunteers, according to Farrugia, is that some people want to help at all costs because they get attached to a concrete person. “They will even advise refugees what to tell them about their trip to Europe to appear more credible during their asylum interview. It happens that we hear the same flight story over and over again, except for details. Then you know something is wrong. That’s to no one’s benefit: neither the asylum seeker nor the asylum system that is overburdened because the additional investigation is required.”

“It’s normal to make mistakes when you don’t know your surroundings well”

Tudorancea recognizes it: “I see it with volunteers who jump in “for a while”, such as students who come to Malta as part of an Erasmus exchange. These people are usually very idealistic. Often they have an idea in their heads to save individuals one by one, while this is not necessarily the best approach.”

The psychologist does not blame volunteers. “It’s normal to make mistakes when you don’t know the environment well. Besides, the purpose of volunteering is to gain experience somewhere. It is the responsibility of organizations to provide a better framework for people.” Boat Refugee Foundation and many other organizations prepare volunteers for their stay before they leave. For example, by organizing information sessions, where, among other things, the code of conduct with all the do’s and don’t is thoroughly gone through

Picking up signals 

But even that is no guarantee that nothing will go wrong. Tudorancea: “We should not forget that an asylum seekers’ center is a loaded place, full of emotions, where conflicts regularly arise. On the one hand, you have the staff – not always highly trained, poorly paid, and therefore sometimes frustrated – and on the other hand, refugees in a poor mental state. Some volunteers who go out unaccompanied do not know this context sufficiently or at all. Moreover, they often do not know how to react in a conflict situation.”

An untrained volunteer ofter does not see the signs of serious human rights violations either 

Finally, the lack of experience also causes volunteers to fail to pick up on certain important signs – such as suicidal thoughts. “An untrained volunteer often doesn’t see the signs of serious human rights violations either,” says Tudorancea. “During a therapeutic session in an asylum center, I was able to figure out that she was a victim of sexual exploitation based on an asylum seeker’s behavior and the way she expressed herself. Had an inexperienced person been present during that session, this most likely would not have come out.”

So should someone with good intentions but no experience stay home? Working in the field is not the only option for supporting refugees. Behind-the-scenes activities such as sorting clothes or preparing meals are equally important. So is financial support for NGOs who often have to make do with what they have. In this way, everyone can contribute. Of course, this does not mean that everyone should stay at home: without volunteers on the ground, NGOs would not be able to do their work.

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