For many of us volunteering is a rite of passage when we travel abroad. It allows you to get under the skin of different cultures, and get to know the essence of each country through its people.
Whilst there are many positives to volunteering abroad, setting foot overseas to volunteer with migrants and refugees can also be challenging, regardless of how well you prepare yourself.
In the video below, I interviewed a friend of mine, Stephen, who was a refugee camp manager for a volunteering organisation called Lighthouse Relief, who are based on the small Greek island of Lesvos. Being only a stone’s throw from Turkey, they are often helping to care for and process 300 new refugees and migrants every day.
If you are thinking about heading abroad to volunteer and help migrants and refugees, there are several things to bear in mind. I’ve wrapped up all the points raised by Stephen in the Q&A, and added a few others below.
VOLUNTEER THROUGH AN ESTABLISHED ORGANISATION
Although you may think charging into a refugee camp and helping with food, clothes and other essentials may be useful, you’ll probably find one or more NGO’s already on location, with processes in place to help as many people as possible, in priority order. As such, volunteering through an organisation means you’ll be able to more effectively assist the ones you gave up your time to help. The organisation is also on hand to provide emotional support, if certain experiences become too much for you whilst volunteering.
VOLUNTEERS CAN BE INFLUENTIAL TO MIGRANTS
There are often thousands of migrants and refugees in a particular camp. The majority will have come from war zones, or other unstable environments which they wanted to escape from. At the same time, they are desperate to reach their destination, and will often ask questions and take any advice as fact, and use that to get to where they need to be. As such, be aware that giving onward travel or asylum advice could have unintended consequences and be dangerous. Always check with your organisation for what you should and shouldn’t advise.
MIGRANTS ARE VULNERABLE TO EXPLOITATION
As Stephen eluded to in the video, where migrant camps exist, so do organised criminals. Be aware that criminals could operate in the area you are volunteering, and report any suspicious activity to your organisation or camp manager. Finally, using social media responsibly – such as not taking photos or videos of migrants and refugees out of respect for their safety and privacy – could help keep migrants and their families secure.
VOLUNTEER FOR AT LEAST TWO WEEKS
If you only have a few days to spare, then the consensus from Stephen, and others, is that it may be better to help in other ways. Ideally you need two weeks on the ground to make an impact. Aside from getting to know your fellow volunteers, it also allows your organisation to divvy up specific tasks over that 2 week period. If you can volunteer for longer, great!
For more information about volunteering abroad, including tips, advice and videos, please check out the NCVO website, at www.ncvo.org.uk. The following link also gives advice about volunteering safely within a migrant camp – http://bit.ly/2GaN604.
If you have volunteered before and you have more tips or advice, or if you have any other questions about volunteering, feel free to add them below in the comments.
Disclaimer – this blog post and video were created in collaboration with the Government (HMG) and NCVO.