“Optimizing Volunteer Services in Times of Refugee Crisis”

Legis activists participated in the first international conference of the project “Optimizing Volunteer Services in Times of Refugee Crisis” co-funded by European Union programme “Europe for Citizens”. The 2-day conference was held in Osijek, Croatia 18th-19th of January, 2017.

In the opening plenary, participants had the opportunity to further familiarise themselves with the “Europe for Citizens” programme, after which Tanja Teshija from Association MI – Split briefly presented the project activities. Тhe primary objective of the project is to contribute to further strengthening of the role of volunteers in times of crisis in Europe; and more specifically, to provide evidence-based recommendations for the improvement of the voluntary services on EU level. Lejla Shehic Relic from the European Volunteer Centre discussed the role of volunteerism in the refugee crisis, followed by presentations of the national policies on refugee protection in partner countries, that is, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, the UK and Hungary.

Many common challenges were acknowledged, such as need for better coordination of volunteers, better access to information for both refugees and volunteers, improved self-sustainability of volunteers so as to avoid burnout, better cooperation with authorities, respect of readmission procedures so as to avoid “playing ping-pong” with refugees and to guarantee their access to human rights and dignity, the need for open camps, not closed ones etc. The Serbian partner (Novi Sad Humanitarian Centre) presented the harsh everyday life of refugees living in the abandoned warehouse in Belgrade and their fear of being pushed back or put in closed camps, which is why they opt for the extremely cold warehouse filled with fumes where they at least can still practice their freedom of movement.

Aleksandra Davidovska from Legis gave an overview of national policies on refugee protection in the Republic of Macedonia. She elaborated on the key aspects of the Macedonian asylum system, including: access to territory and asylum procedures, quality of asylum mechanisms, treatment of persons with specific needs and detention and reception conditions.The recent amendments to the Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection, following the official balkanroute closure were also tackled, as well as the complex asylum legislation in Macedonia, which for instance requires 3 full years for family reunification after asylum has been granted to someone.

Refugee assistance and social integration in partner countries were also discussed by representatives from the given countries. Jasmin Redzepi from Legis presented the wide scope of work of his ngo, including the humanitarian response along the balkanroute in Macedonia since October 2014, with the mobile medical and legal teams of Legis, when no other organisation was active on the field until the change of law that Legis initiated in June 2015. This law amendment allowed refugees in Macedonia to finally stop walking on foot across the country and be able to use transport legally. Awareness-raising and mobilising local volunteers all along the Macedonian part of the balkanroute was also highlighted, as these very local volunteers became the leaders in their communities in organising a strong response as well as maintaining good relations with the community itself. In addition, Mr. Redzepi tackled the issue of providing refugee assistance after the official balkanroute closure, with Legis teams being currently present 24/7 in the Lipkovo area, where hundreds of irregular refugees/migrants who are still crossing are getting humanitarian aid from the aid/info point of Legis. The current plight of refugees in the transit centres in Gevgelija and Tabanovce was additionally looked into, with focus on the psycho-social support that Legis activists are providing there

Mirko Schwaerzel from BBE (Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement) from Germany provided a meaningful overview of the role of civil society in the process of social integration in terms of refugees/migrants in Germany. He pointed out that the movement of solidarity that came into being in Germany as the refugee crisis escalated has not abated despite the recent Koln or Berlin attacks and that refugee support is still incredibly strong. Moreover, he provided examples of the need to engage refugees themselves as active actors in society, even as volunteers, to facilitate the integration process. “Corporatism” was also underscored, as Mr. Schwaerzel explained that it implies involving corporations as members in their network so as to make them socially responsible.

The conference concluded with the emotional sharing and empowerment of refugees currently residing in Croatia and diverse international volunteers. The refugees emphasised the necessity for better language instruction in Croatian so as to be able to integrate more easily and they saluted the initiative to be included in volunteer organisations in Croatia, adding that they feel empowered by being actively engaged. The volunteers, among whom Gabriela Andreevska and Driton Maliqi from Legis, shared their personal experience of coping emotionally with the refugee crisis and expressed the need for more structural changes and coordinated political action on the part of NGOs and informal/independent networks and movements.