Europe’s southern borders are standing at the forefront of the refugee crisis. People are drowning daily in the Mediterranean trying to reach safety, and EU policy states that the first country in which people arrive must be the one where they claim asylum. This places a disproportionate burden on countries already facing economic difficulties, like Greece, Spain and Italy.
The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.
– Melissa Fleming, UNHCR
Whilst northern European countries are taking in certain numbers of refugees, the lion’s share of search and rescue and initial processing falls on communities that simply cannot shoulder the burden of caring for so many alone. NGOs are doing incredible work in providing food and shelter in countries where refugees would otherwise not receive support, but the news cycle and public opinion can’t sustain the level of aid and awareness that these tireless organisations require to sustain the support that refugees so desperately need.
Thousands of people from the UK have travelled to France, Greece, Italy and Serbia to help provide basic needs for the most vulnerable people in our society – people who have fled violence and extremism, undertaken traumatic and dangerous crossings, and are now sleeping rough whilst trying to get to somewhere they can settle. Voluntourism has gained an awful reputation in recent years – young, white and affluent people travel to exotic locations to build schools and hospitals that are taken down the next day, or are parachuted into orphanages with no checks or experience.
But collecting, delivering and distributing aid in refugee camps across Europe is both necessary and hard work. It can’t take the place of skilled, professional intervention, but it can bridge the gap until permanent solutions are found.
Volunteering in refugee camps is demanding, it’s emotionally and physically exhausting, and it makes you question the society you live in and the policies that have lead to this situation. You will learn more than you ever wanted to about correctly labelling cardboard boxes and operating pallet trucks, you will meet fantastic and caring people from all over the world and drink a lot of chai tea. But most importantly, you will realise just what a privilege it is to be born in a safe, democratic country and have the freedom to travel and work wherever you choose.
You will meet people living in the camps, whose heartbreaking stories you would never ask for, but you receive anyway and that stay with you forever. You will be offered more gratitude than your heart can bear and feel crushing guilt when you have so little to offer when compared to what is actually needed.
Organisations across Europe are looking for young and motivated volunteers with time and energy to give, and many can help provide basic accommodation or contribute towards it while you volunteer, especially if you have a longer period of time to give.
It’s all too easy to watch the news and feel that the problem is too big to solve, but making even a small difference to one person can mean the world to them.