Voluntary refugee aid – help where it is needed?

Special dialogue forum on 16 May 2017

The acute phase of the refugee crisis in Germany appears to be over. It has more or less given way to daily routine in the work with the migrants. However, without the large numbers of voluntary initiatives, the public authorities would still be struggling to cope. What makes the voluntary helpers want to become involved, and to what extent does their help actually reach the refugees?

These questions were discussed at a special dialogue forum organised in cooperation with the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship of the University of Munich on 16 May 2017.

Adnan Albash fled Syria two years. He is hoping to be able to continue his medical studies in Germany this coming winter term.

"The help does reach the people who need it, but not everything works well," explained Adnan Albash, who fled from Syria two years ago. At that time, the medical student was overwhelmed by the wave of helpfulness he was met with. "The time up until the decision was taken on my asylum application was very difficult; volunteers helped me a lot during this period. However, sometimes helpers treated the newcomers like children," he complained. In daily interaction, too, people sometimes forget that refugees are independent individuals who bring their own experiences and knowledge with them, and who want to contribute accordingly. Voluntary helpers and refugees should enter into closer dialogue with each other. "The refugees don't feel comfortable if they're not on an equal footing with the helpers. We're not pets after all." According to Albash, it would be good if more opportunities for getting into contact with the locals were already created in the reception centres. "This would help to dispel prejudices on both sides at an early stage."

Responsibility weighs heavily
Frequently, it is the volunteers who build the bridges to the outside world and who accompany refugees during the court hearing processes. The Refugee Law Clinic Munich offers free legal counselling, for example. Law students from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität founded the association. "It requires a lot of organisational work. People with different skills, such as translators or IT specialists, work in the background," explained board chairperson, Dolores Sarancic. She sees the voluntary work as a win-win situation for students and migrants alike. However, it is not always easy for the student counsellors to cope with the immense responsibility they have to bear. "For this reason, we also work with professional lawyers who help us with tricky issues," said Sarancic. Her board colleague, Philippe Schneider, added that a lot of problems already occur during the first hearing, when people have just arrived and mistakes are made in the heat of the moment: "It is, therefore, helpful when volunteers prepare refugees for the hearing."

Professor Michael Reder (IGP; first row left) moderated the dialogue forum special at the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship.

There is also a lot of voluntary work in education, the key to social participation. The multi-award-winning Munich School of Music, for example, is committed to providing schooling for refugee children and young people who cannot be integrated into the public education system. "At the moment, we have about 300 secondary school pupils who are preparing for intermediate level exams," explained Christian Stegmüller, the political representative of the association. In the past, 98 percent of the students succeeded in graduating, which is a great achievement after the short school period of three to four years. Without the support of some 200 volunteers, this would not be possible. "Volunteers can help with tutoring, afternoon care, or professional orientation," he explained. The nice thing about the work is the exchange between helpers and refugees: both sides benefit. On the other hand, letters from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees often (BAMF) spread fear of deportation among the migrants, which sometimes is also too much for the voluntary helpers to cope with.

Refugees on the waiting bench
This is where the politicians need to take action, said Christina Kamm, member of the regional Landtag parliament and integration policy spokesperson for Alliance 90/The Greens. In her view, it is necessary to support the volunteers and give them professionals to work at their side. "It bothers me that refugees are made to sit on the waiting bench too long, and that they lose so much time before the asylum procedure is completed. I hope we can improve this situation." She praised the volunteers' efforts in finding a job for refugees or explaining BAMF decisions. "The range of social and migration counselling centres is far from adequate," she complained. And although a lot refugees could actually move out of the community homes, it is often not possible due to the lack of housing.

Kamm called for the establishment of a labour migration system alongside the asylum system. This could reduce pressure on the people who often take extreme risks for body and life during their flight. The restrictive application of the asylum laws in Bavaria met with criticism. "A lot of Afghans who came to us in 2015 have continued their education and found an apprenticeship, but are still waiting for their asylum ruling because of the backlog of cases at the BAMF." These people live in constant uncertainty. "There are cases of whole integration classes being rejected. For these people, who have been here since 2015, there should be a better regulation of the right to stay in the country," the deputy urged.

The Refugee Law Clinic was represented by three board members on the panel. They engaged in a discussion over how to improve legal consultations for refugees with Christina Kamm (right).

Closer networking required
The problem is that offers of help often do not arrive at the large initial reception centres. Volunteers are not simply given access to provide advisory consultations or language courses. The result, according to Stegmüller, is that some refugees receive more assistance than they need, while others receive hardly any help at all. For Sarancic, it is crucial that the various initiatives are networked with each other better. "It is actually up to the government to organise an appropriate platform for the exchange," she explained. "A start has been made in the right direction, but it doesn't work yet."

It is also important to have meeting rooms where migrants and locals can meet and exchange ideas. The Caritas charity organisation or the Bellevue de Monaco residential and cultural centre have already made rooms available in Munich. It is clear that integration is not a one-way street and both sides must approach each other. Society also really needs to be made aware of the work carried out by volunteers, so that further initiatives can be developed. This will require signals from the policy makers. Without the countless volunteers, refugee aid would be doomed. We cannot afford that. Numerous opportunities will only open up for society as a whole if integration succeeds.

26 May 2017