Civil Society is on the frontline responding to the refugee crisis. CIVICUS noted in its 2015 State of Civil Society report that it is civil society that is acting as the first and often more effective responders to crises around the world. CIVICUS spoke to Libby Freeman the founder of grassroots campaign Calais Action (Twitter handle: @Calaisaction), a CSO that is on the frontline assisting refugees arriving in Europe on the response of civil society organisations to the crisis and, what they can do better.
1.What are the urgent needs of refugees and what sort of assistance are you offering?
We are collecting aid donations from around the United Kingdom mostly consisting of sleeping bags, tents, camping equipment, clothes, jackets and food. We are distributing in Calais and went on our first mission to Eastern Europe in September. We are also based in Hungary, and reaching out to refugees in Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. We are also working with NGOs on the ground in Calais to organise volunteer programs and assist in long-term help projects for the refugees.
2. How would you describe the humanitarian response?
At present the humanitarian response from ordinary people, from the British public is good. We had a huge surge in donations of money and aid over the last couple of weeks. There are more and more people getting out there to help, be that going to the camp in Calais to offer hands-on on help, fundraising or getting involved with charities and NGOs.
3. What are some of the challenges confronting civil society groups that are assisting in the crisis?
There are many challenges involved. Gathering and maintaining the human resources and the funding which ultimately drive any kind of aid is a challenge. What you end up with is a lot of people helping through sheer frustration because nothing gets done by the government. So it’s ordinary normal people who have no prior humanitarian experience and that is a challenge because we do not offer training programmes.
Setting up infrastructure from scratch such as volunteer programs and aid donations on large scale is also a big challenge that we are facing. We also have no one source of information so unfounded information also causes confusion. We don’t have huge capacity so we cannot always direct people who want to help in the right way.
4. In your opinion, what can be done better about the crisis by CSOs who have responded to the crisis?
Civil groups must work together. As we grow we are focusing on working with other organisations as much as possible to avoid and put to an end the problem of different groups duplicating work and putting out sometimes conflicting information.
Social media is currently the only real way of finding out what is happening and how to get involved. As it is all grassroots work, it’s a very organic process and the more everyone mobilises together, the easier the job will be.
5.There appears to be humanitarian and aid support being given to the refugees by CSOs which is commendable. Is there a vacuum in terms of monitoring how refugees are being treated by police or officials at processing centres?
In Calais NGOs are asking for cameras to be donated so they can document violence by the French police towards the refugees. The violence and mistreatment of refugees is a huge problem they face daily and something I have spoken to many refugees about first hand. A group called Calais Migrants Solidarity have been involved with documenting the violations of human rights of refugees. Refugees are completely stripped of rights whilst living in the camp and there is nothing that they can do about it as they are desperate.
6.The world recently saw the heart-wrenching photograph of three-year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a beach having drowned as his family tried to get to Europe. Are civil society workers facing trauma in responding to the situation and what sort of support do civil society workers require?
I have seen a growing number of courses and support groups pop up on social media for aid workers, NGOs and just civil society in general for trauma help. I am definitely seeing the need for more support there. The trauma is especially intense after returning from refugee camps. It’s extremely hard because of what you experience there, and it’s something no one should do without having the back up of talking to someone or a counsellor afterwards.