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Crowdsourced humanitarianism and the fight for safe passage

Social media helped coordinate a volunteer response to the new arrivals on Lesvos when governments failed to step up to the plate, but can such a system be replicated?

Helping people off the boats arriving at Lesvos in 2015. Fotomovimiento/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

The Greek island of Lesvos in 2015 became an example of the human cost incurred when governments fail to provide safe passage to individuals fleeing war and persecution. The negative impacts of securitised migration policies, together with government and aid agency inaction, created a dire situation on the island’s shores that catapulted Lesvos into the public eye.

The situation also made Lesvos the focus of impassioned activists who helped bring about the birth of an international network of volunteers dedicated to improving conditions on the island. These volunteers not only formed the backbone of the initial humanitarian response but also continue to play an integral role alongside professional aid agencies on the island today.

Based on my own understanding and experience as a volunteer, the successes that this grassroots response has been able to achieve are owed in significant part to its internet-based community of support and information sharing. Looking toward the future, this can provide valuable insight into the ways in which “ordinary people” can take the fight for safe passage into their own hands.

Safe passage in the context of Lesvos

In 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants shoved off from Turkish shores in an attempt to reach nearby Lesvos and the European Union. Many died trying, as the journey is made life threatening by European migration policies that effectively prevent asylum seekers from making use of safe and legal migratory pathways. As a result, they were forced to board flimsy, overcrowded dinghies that all too often proved incapable of crossing a stretch of the Aegean Sea no longer than the island of Manhattan.

Conditions on Lesvos itself also presented serious threats to safe passage. Refugees and migrants on the island faced – and continue to face – extremely poor living conditions. Greek authorities have drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups over their reception policies, including their practice of automatically detaining asylum seekers that arrive on the island.

Volunteers respond

In the early- to mid-summer of 2015, the number of refugees and migrants arriving on Lesvos began to skyrocket, and neither the Greek government nor aid agencies were prepared to deal with the humanitarian emergency that ensued. As a result, those that arrived were often left without food, water, dry clothing, shelter, or transportation to the island’s reception and registration facility.

The volunteer effort on the island was in many ways crowdsourced.

In the absence of large-scale official support, the initial humanitarian response that developed on Lesvos was a grassroots one. What began as the modest efforts of a handful of local residents in the northern city of Molyvos soon became a large network of small groups and private individuals from around the world. Volunteers came to coordinate and participate in virtually every aspect of the humanitarian response: they provided refugees and migrants with food, dry clothing, and emergency supplies; helped provide transport to refugee and migrant families and individuals; and kept watch along the coast, rushing down to the water to assist boats as they arrived. Some volunteers even established their own makeshift refugee camp in response to the conditions inside one government-run facility.

The network of volunteers making this possible operated both in person and online. Hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers traveled to Lesvos to participate in the response, while many more shared relevant information and provided support remotely. With the help of this online community, the volunteer effort on the island was in many ways crowdsourced: websites and Facebook pages displayed the work that volunteers were doing, assured those looking on that more hands were needed on deck, and explained how to get to the island and link up with others already there.

In this way, many volunteers traveled to the island for a few days or weeks before effectively rotating out and being replaced. When I first came across the abovementioned pages, the knowledge was revelatory. I knew of the crisis unfolding on Lesvos and was deeply concerned, but also failed to register that I could respond by joining the relief effort itself. I’ve spoken to a number of others who have shared similar stories. By simply alerting onlookers of its existence, then, the online volunteer community encouraged people to act who may have otherwise remained concerned but passive bystanders.

This online community also drove the success of the volunteer effort on the island itself. The primary Facebook page, for example, acted as a platform for sharing information about day-to-day events on the island. Areas on Lesvos with the most acute need for extra volunteers or resources could thus be identified and addressed. This aspect of the volunteer response speaks to another of its strengths: flexibility. Indeed, while large aid organisations can become encumbered by bureaucratic procedures, volunteer groups on Lesvos were often able to rapidly divert their human and material resources to meet needs as they arose. Shared communication platforms allowed volunteers on Lesvos to get the most out of this flexibility.

Acknowledging shortcomings and looking ahead

Of course, one cannot sing the praises of volunteers and simply leave it at that. Such a front-lines approach to seeking safe passage is not without its drawbacks, and they ought to be recognised and discussed. Perhaps the most glaring issue is that so many volunteers who traveled to Lesvos inserted themselves into highly sensitive situations for which they had no relevant training or expertise. A person trying to help can all too easily end up hurting, and this certainly occurred on Lesvos.

The online volunteer community encouraged people to act who may have otherwise remained concerned but passive bystanders.

Further, the volunteer humanitarian response seen in Lesvos, and in Greece more broadly, has no real parallel anywhere else. Indeed, there are a great number of humanitarian emergencies around the world in which international volunteer networks are conspicuously absent. The explanation behind Lesvos as the site of such a response is likely related almost entirely to the fact that Lesvos is in Europe, giving its crisis added media attention and placing it within much of the western public’s own imagined community.

Supporters of the kind of international grassroots response that has taken place on Lesvos must consider the ways in which these issues might be addressed. An effort to consolidate the volunteer community into a more established organisation with some semblance of a recognised leadership structure might allow for such progress. This would make it easier to ensure that volunteers receive training courses, for example, and could assist in keeping volunteers engaged on issues related to safe passage around the world.

This latter idea is particularly important when one looks at the Lesvos volunteers as an extremely valuable resource that might be tapped to advocate and act on behalf of safe passage campaigns in the future. Indeed, the volunteer effort on Lesvos has shown that, where governments refuse or fail to enact policies that ensure safe passage, the global citizenry is capable of responding effectively on its own. Finding a way to keep this community connected, concerned, and constantly expanding will help bring the world that much closer to providing safe passage and protecting the rights of all refugees and migrants.

About the author

Phil Bracey holds an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where his research included a focus on international volunteers in Greece. He was a volunteer with VCA, now known as Humanitarian Support Agency, on Lesvos in December 2015 and January 2016.

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