In 2015, more than a million refugees crossed into Europe. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), more than 1,011,700 migrants arrived by sea and 34,900 by land. Only in 2015, the IOM estimates that 3,770 people died in the Mediterranean Sea and more than 800 people lost their lives crossing from Turkey to Greece.

This migration surge has drawn attention to the inadequacy of the current asylum system and of the response given by governments to the crisis which has left hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants vulnerable. Such inadequacy has been highlighted throughout civil society, for example in Volonteurope’s article Refugees welcome: Citizen engagement in the face of political inertia.

The first effect of these responses is reflected upon societies and social relationships. The influx of refugees has triggered opposite effects. On one side, the adoption of tighter immigration controls, accompanied with the increased xenophobia, have increased a process of ‘othering’ which is the tendency of nationals to classify those who are deemed different from the ‘general normality’. This materialises in social relationships: refugees are portrayed as a threat to the host communities or as impostors whose aim is to merely benefit from the welfare of the country. The feeling of mistrust towards refugees also triggers a mechanism of ‘deserving help’ or ‘moral economy’ that makes distinction between those who are legitimate or illegitimate for support.

On the other hand, the crisis has drawn attention to the amazing work that volunteers are doing to support fellow humans. It seems to me that volunteering has come back to its origin, as a movement of ordinary people who spontaneously organise themselves to help those most vulnerable in society. In other crises the role of the volunteers is to compensate the work of professionals: but in this difficult time, volunteers are the active actors of the humanitarian response.

The desire to help has stretched all over Europe. Volunteering Matters recently attended SOLIDAR’s study visit, in Sicily, organised by Arci. The study visit presented some of the projects implemented in the region that provide assistance to migrants in vulnerable situations and promote integration and intercultural dialogue in the local communities. Sicily is a hotspot for volunteers supporting migrants while their asylum applications are being processed. Such projects run Italian classes, offer moral support and run educational projects for children. In various cities in Greece, volunteers have donated thousands of tents, provided food and toiletries and donated clothes. Some have donated their own spare rooms so that families are not compelled to live on the street, others are fundraising in order to pay the rent for the accommodations for refugees.

In the UK, volunteers have shown their solidarity with refugees. Volunteers have become the main coordinators of the help provided in Calais. Some have moved to Calais in order to ensure continuity of support, others go for short periods of time. The overall aim is to restore dignity to the residents of the camp.

Volunteers in Calais carry out a variety of roles. They sort out and organise all the donations in the warehouse, and build shelters, shops and mosques in the camp. They have established a women and children centre, they ensure that goods are distributed daily to different parts of the camp and, above all, they provide emotional support and show love to the refugees in the camp. In the UK, volunteers are actively raising funds and organising food/clothes collections days in different cities.

The work that volunteers do all over Europe demonstrates the intrinsic benefits of volunteering. Volunteering is a tool to fight for social justice, a way to peacefully express a disagreement against the response given by governments, and a tool to overcome the social mechanism of mistrust described above. Volunteers are a precious resource for refugees – a constant reminder that they are not alone.

If you’d like to offer your time to support refugees in Europe, the following organisations offer reputable volunteer opportunities: