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The Political Legacy of the Refugee Crisis Volunteers

Since Europe’s refugee crisis began, the focus has often been on anti-migrant populism. Researcher Julie Melichar has tracked an opposite wave, of Europeans politically activated by humanitarian response work.

Written by Julie Melichar Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Volunteers play with refugee children on the island of Lesbos.LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Since 2015, the movement of people reaching the shores of the European Union has been labeled a refugee crisis: an unexpected emergency requiring a humanitarian response. Framing it as a crisis allowed the situation to be stripped of its political dimension and presented as a humanitarian issue.

Thousands of individuals, observing it from afar, felt the urge to do something. This need also originated from a sense of disconnection with political representatives and governmental processes in individuals’ home countries, where they saw the response to the crisis as insufficient. For some it was a symptom of a loss of faith in politics in general.

Even though many of them were politically conscious, this pushed them away from traditional politics. Many of these elements converged on the Greek island of Lesbos among the humanitarian volunteers, where I studied the dynamics at play between humanitarianism and politics. My findings are based on qualitative interviews conducted in early 2016 and 2017 with people on the move, founders of ad hoc organizations created on Lesbos and volunteer humanitarians.

They saw the response to the crisis as insufficient. For some it was a symptom of a loss of faith in politics in general.

In a place where the external border of the E.U. is made and where different political stakes converge, humanitarian action does not unfold in a political vacuum: Even more than usual, it has inherent political causes and implications.

Operating in this politicized place and interacting with its actors, volunteer humanitarians are likely to realize that portrayals of the situation as a humanitarian crisis overlook some of its fundamental aspects. Volunteers come to see and understand the dynamics underlying the “crisis.” Those who were previously only motivated by moral sentiments might become more politically conscious, while those who were already politically conscious are likely to expand their awareness.

What is more, encounters with people stuck on the island may also have an impact on volunteer humanitarians.

“Moving boxes around is great, distributing a cup of tea and a warm jumper, as well, but it won’t get them out of here! I’ve been here for a while now, residents are starting to trust me, they tell me their stories and it touches me! It’s frustrating not to be able to help more.

Once, I found myself offering clothes to Leyla, a young girl from Iraq. We started talking about Spanish football and she looked at me and said: ‘Maybe you and I can go together to a match in Spain some time?’ I said yes, but I felt horrible. I thought: ‘In a few months, I’ll probably be in Spain and you’ll be on a plane on your way back to Iraq.’ I cannot help her in the long term, which is what I would actually like.”*

In the camps on Lesbos, volunteers frequently feel frustration that their help is not enough because it fails to address the political root causes of the crisis. Replacing numbers with faces allows the volunteers to humanize the debate surrounding the “refugee crisis.”

Humanitarian action does not unfold in a political vacuum: Even more than usual, it has inherent political causes and implications

The injustice of the situation of people on the move is brought closer to the volunteers’ realities through personal exchanges. Being confronted with fellow human beings with completely different life experiences also seems to reveal the “accidental nature of our place,” an idea developed by the African philosopher Achille Mbembe. It helps to place these encounters and experiences into the broader picture of the “crisis” and the structural factors that caused people to be stuck.

Volunteer humanitarian engagement in Lesbos can lead to the deconstruction of the crisis from its initial presentation as humanitarian, revealing its political root causes. In creating or strengthening the political consciousness of volunteers, this process may nudge people to engage politically to address these root causes.

“I’m happy to distribute clothes all my life if that allows them to go to Athens. But if they don’t get papers it won’t change anything for them. We attack the symptoms, not the disease itself. It’s frustrating. So now it’s this ‘getting the paper’ that I want to work on.”*

For some, volunteering on Lesbos may only have been a parenthesis in their life trajectory. For others, it seems that humanitarian work on Lesbos has led them to political engagement in their home countries, not primarily through governmental channels, but from below.

Volunteers take part in spreading an alternative mindset. It happens within one’s direct environment, among family and friends, for whom former volunteers become trusted informants. Moreover, beyond their impact on personal networks, many volunteers, upon their return, turn toward education talks or awareness campaigns.

Some have given talks in schools, written articles in newspapers or organized public discussions on the topic in order to strengthen people’s understanding of the crisis and share stories from the ground. Others have founded volunteer organizations in their home countries, to connect people on the move with other citizens. They are recreating the humanizing and deconstruction processes they underwent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

*Quotes from volunteers collected during the research.

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