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Volunteer Tourists Are Still Showing Up at Greek Refugee Camps. Are They Really Helping?

9 minute read

When Omar Alshakal, a 26 year-old Syrian refugee, arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos, having swum across the Mediterranean from Turkey in 2014, he found the Moria refugee camp to be flooded with young, Western volunteers.

After spending time almost a year in the camp, Alshakal began to notice a trend. “When young people arrive from their countries, they see kids here and fall in love with them,” says Alshakal, who founded his own organization, Refugee 4 Refugee, in 2017. “They spend as much time with them as possible but after a few weeks, they go back to their country. But the kids stay in the camp and miss these volunteers… they ask for them long after they have left.”

Thousands of volunteers have been flocking to Greece’s shores since images of refugees arriving in overcrowded, makeshift boats began surfacing in 2015. Many individuals, who volunteer with the 425 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Greece, have played a vital role in managing the biggest refugee crisis Europe has seen in decades.

Because of the ad-hoc nature of volunteering on the islands, there are few reliable figures on how many individuals have come to provide assistance but Boris Cheshirkov, a UNHCR representative in Greece estimates that the number is in the “thousands.” But while refugees and other organizations working in the camps said volunteers of all kinds have played an outsized role in the humanitarian response, they said those without training risk making things worse for the people they’re trying to help.

Aid is still badly needed. Conditions in Greek refugee camps have continued to deteriorate, and remain dangerous and inadequate. Camps lack basic amenities. In the cold winter months, refugees are forced to build fires in their thin tents, which has caused fatalities. On Feb. 11, the United Nations called for the evacuation of the Moria camp on Lesbos—which hosts 18,342 people in a facility built for 2,200—due to fear of overcrowding and disease outbreak.

Refugees On The Island Of Samos, Greece
Looking over the 'Mount Syria' refugee camp located on a hillside above Samos Town on Samos, Greece.Giles Clarke–Getty

The Greek government and the European Union have been criticized for failing to develop a cohesive response to the crisis and for providing insufficient support in the camps. Since a center-right government was elected in July, Greek authorities have taken a tougher stance on migration, making it more difficult for nonprofits to operate on the islands.

That leaves volunteers—both formal staff at non-profits and ad-hoc volunteers—plugging holes in the system.

Nikolaos Trihas, an expert on volunteers in Greek refugee camps writes that the burden of managing the crisis has fallen “almost exclusively on the shoulders of volunteers and local communities.”

In this context, skilled volunteers play a pivotal role in providing services, ranging from free legal guidance to medical attention.

But a different kind of volunteer has also been arriving on Greece’s shores; young, untrained and unskilled visitors, who can inadvertently exacerbate the problems they seek to address.

The importance of training

Many refugees and aid organizations recognize that unskilled volunteers fill—albeit imperfectly—a massive gap in humanitarian aid on the islands. Amid a context of insufficient aid, untrained volunteers can help understaffed organizations provide necessary goods and services. “Without volunteers, the camps would have been prisons,” said Trude Jacobsen, the Secretary General of A Drop in the Ocean, an organization that coordinates volunteer air workers.

But unskilled volunteers can also aggravate the problems they seek to address. Around the world, unqualified volunteers have participated in medical procedures beyond their skill level, constant turnover of volunteers in schools has resulted in children developing attachment issues, and the popularity of ‘orphanage tourism’ has led to a rise in family separation and child exploitation. Volunteer tourists, who are disproportionately white or Western, have also been criticized for perpetuating white-savior narratives.

These problems are especially pronounced in Greek refugee camps, where unskilled volunteers are thrown into crisis situations. “I think what is especially troubling in this context is that many of the people living in these camps have faced severe trauma,” says Alex Knott, a specialist in volunteer tourism who conducted research in Greek refugee camps. “Few volunteers are equipped to deal with these realities; they might ask triggering or inappropriate questions about refugees’ journeys, or might—usually out of sympathy—make promises they can’t keep about trying to help with their asylum processes.”

Refugees and humanitarian workers reported that these issues are common. In making promises to refugee children—who have traversed across land and sea, losing homes and people along the way—volunteers put children at risk of developing attachment issues. The constant turnover of volunteers, who enter children’s lives, form close ties with them, and then leave, can exacerbate feelings of abandonment.

“This is a serious issue ,” Cheshirkov says. “Its why we’ve been calling for years now for the humanitarian response to be led by professional social workers.”

Unskilled volunteers also cause problems by making false promises to refugee adults about their asylum cases. One volunteer lawyer working on Lesbos told TIME that this causes major problems for legal institutions working on the islands. She asked to remain anonymous as she continues to work closely with volunteers.

“Unskilled volunteers jeopardize the work of skilled volunteers,” she says. “I would often have clients break down screaming or crying because a 20 year-old handing out blankets and water bottles mistakenly told them their asylum request was being processed.”

Some refugees feel that unskilled volunteers overstep their roles and try to control refugees, by unnecessarily policing lines at food distribution centers or by encouraging refugees to change aspects of their culture. Knott similarly noticed this in her research.

“At an organizational meeting, volunteers and coordinators were lamenting the number of pregnant women and children being born in the camps,” Knott recounts. The volunteers discussed whether they should distribute birth control but worried that men might confiscate them. “So one person suggested putting birth control pills in the water,” Knott says. “No one objected.” The suggestion was not acted upon, Knott adds.

Volunteer tourism, which typically involves young people doing short-term volunteer work abroad, has become a global phenomenon in recent years. Nancy Gard McGehee, an expert on sustainable tourism, estimates that over 10 million people a year are spending $2 billion on volunteer tourism worldwide, which is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry. Volunteering in Greek refugee camps has become the latest frontier in a rapidly evolving industry that sits at the intersection of tourism and aid.

Greek authorities have spoken out against the influx of unskilled volunteers and unregistered NGOs. In 2016, the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos told the Guardian that though he was “grateful to the ones that immediately responded to our first call for help” he warned against “NGOs and individuals coming without official registration and showing no cooperation with our municipality,” calling their presence “disruptive.” Since then, some refugee camps have prohibited unqualified volunteers from entering the site but there have been reported cases of volunteers trying to sneak into the camps.

“Volunteers are part of the response and in many cases are doing selfless work,” says Cheshirkov of the UNHCR. “But it has to be understood that they are working with vulnerable people and that it’s a privileged position. They have to be trained, briefed and know the extent of their role.”

‘This can’t be for fun.’

In response to these problems, many organizations operating on the islands have developed strict guidelines for unskilled volunteers.

The organization Humanity Crew, for instance, which provides psychological support to refugees in Greece, requires all its volunteers to be over the age of 24 and complete a 30 hour training program. Even once volunteers have completed the program, they are not guaranteed to be selected: Last year, Humanity Crew trained 2000 people but says it only selected 400 to volunteer.

Having rigid requirements for volunteers, however, comes at a cost.

Humanity Crew often loses volunteers to other organizations when people discover the organization requires participants to complete 30 hours of training and prohibits them from taking photos of refugees to post on social media.

“This is how you lose volunteers, and funds, followers, support,” says Dr. Essam Daod, the founder of Humanity Crew.

Like organizations, refugees can find themselves unable to speak out against problems with untrained volunteers, for fear that aid will be restricted.

“We asked our own clients if they had complaints about our volunteers but it never happened because refugees don’t want to complain to the center that could help them,” said the volunteer lawyer on Lesbos. “They don’t want to bite the hand that feeds.”

Refugee camp Moria on Lesbos
A migrant tries to warm himself in a temporary camp next to the camp in Moria by a small fire on January 22, 2020.Angelos Tzortzinis–Getty

Some refugees, however, do not want to raise problems with unskilled volunteers because they appreciate their efforts.

“They didn’t cause problems,” says Mohammad Wasim Hamidy, a 24 year-old refugee from Afghanistan who arrived on Samos in 2018. “All the time, they were trying to help the people.”

Some refugees note that because unqualified volunteers have little to offer in terms of skills, they are more willing to sit and listen to refugees than employees working for organizations running the camp.

“The organizations that control the camp treated us like animals,”says Yousef, a 28 year-old Syrian-Palestinian refugee who stayed on Chios for six months in 2018 who asked to remain anonymous as he waits to hear if he has been granted asylum. “But volunteers talk to you like you are a human.”

Many refugees agree that unskilled volunteers play a vital role, but say there is a need to redefine what “helping” refugees looks like. “Of course we need volunteers,” Alshakal says. “But what we really need is for people to push their governments at home to help the situation here.”

Knott believes that unskilled volunteering has the potential to “make meaningful connections across difference” but that the volunteer model has to change.

“If we reframe volunteering in this context not as ‘helping’ or ‘saving’ but as seeking to form meaningful connections and challenge boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them,’…I think it can be a powerful tool for social change,” she says.

For Dr. Daod, the founder of Humanity Crew, the solution is more straightforward.

“They need to have basic skills and know how not to do harm,” he said. “This can’t be for fun.”

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