The so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ of 2015 – during which over 1 million people applied for asylum in Germany – was not perceived as a crisis by the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who rushed enthusiastically to assist them. The enthusiasm has dimmed since then owing to changing public perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and more restrictive moves by the government. Studies into volunteers’ demographics, motivations and working conditions show that their engagement has long-term potential only if volunteers are supported in the right ways.
For a few weeks in late summer 2015, the German media were very proud of volunteers assisting refugees. During ‘the summer of welcome’ (as it was dubbed by the media), thousands of Germans invested unpaid hours in assisting newly-arrived asylum seekers. Some of these volunteers had been doing this kind of work in previous years already but 2015 many more joined in. An estimated one in ten adults in Germany (or 10.9%) was involved in voluntary refugee assistance in the summer of 2015 according to a survey by the federation of protestant churches in Germany (EKD).
A team of researchers at Berlin’s Humboldt University studied the backgrounds and motivations of this group of people. Led by Dr. Serhat Karakayali and Dr. Olaf Kleist, they collected their data in November/December 2014 and again one year later in late 2015. In non-representative online surveys, they asked about volunteers’ socio-economic backgrounds, the nature of their work and their motivations. The first survey (2014) showed that some characteristics were overrepresented as compared to society at large: majorities of volunteers were female, well-educated and urban-dwelling. They also tended to be either younger than 30 or over 60 years old, and financially secure. Nearly half of these 2014 volunteers got involved following the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011 that was extensively reported in the media. That year, the number of new applications for asylum grew strongly but most of the applicants were not actually Syrians as almost 50% of the new arrivals were citizens of the six Western Balkan countries who were free to enter without a visa following a recent change in regulation.
Volunteer work in 2014 focused on integration, with many volunteers assisting refugees in dealing with the authorities and facilitating communication. The study also found that many volunteers tasked themselves with coordinating other volunteers. Compared to other fields of voluntary work in German society, the researchers concluded that those assisting refugees often work without pre-established structures and spend a large part of their time (and energy) on organizing their own work.
I spoke with researcher Olaf Kleist on the phone to find out about recent trends in volunteerism and to get an outlook on possible futures for the volunteer movement. As he told me, their second round of interviews in late 2015 observed some important changes, the most striking of which was an increase in numbers of volunteers from a range of different demographics: “There still are specific groups represented but we can say that, if refugee volunteerism wasn’t downright mainstreamed, it did reach the centre of society.” More people hailing from smaller towns and rural areas got involved, as did more middle-aged people. Much of the increase is attributable to a big increase in the number of newly arriving refugees. In 2015, Germany had temporarily ceased to send people back to their first port of entry (Greece and later also Hungary) under the Dublin Regulation. By allowing people to apply for asylum in Germany rather than requiring them to do so in the EU ‘frontier countries’, the government effectively opened the borders to people arriving from Greece via the Balkan route.
Kleist explains: “For many volunteers in 2015 it was a completely new thing to get involved. And their reasons were very diverse – for some people the media reports mattered, others wanted to be part of the big [pro-refugee] movement at the time.” Volunteer work in late 2015 often came down to emergency aid including such tasks as collecting and distributing donated clothes and food. In this, the work differed from the more long-term engagement in integration observed in the previous year.
While the volunteers were doing their work, chancellor Angela Merkel faced mounting criticism from within her government and from the right-wing opposition for temporarily opening the borders. Her famous statement “we can do it” – meaning that Germany will succeed in accommodating all new refugees – was never questioned by the volunteers Kleist heard from. They just wanted to get to work but felt that the federal government never came to ask what support they might need to be more effective.
A downturn in the political mood came with the Cologne mass sexual assault on New Year’s Eve 2015 which reports alleged to have been committed by “north-African” foreigners. The proportion of 10.9% adult German residents who were active in refugee assistance in 2015 reduced to 8% in early 2016 according to Kleist. This could be due to the erosion of pro-refugee sentiments in society but also the falling numbers of new arrivals since the closure of the Balkan route in early 2016.
The German government followed its own strategy to bring down high numbers of new asylum seekers: in October 2015, they had already added Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro to the list of ‘safe countries of origin’, whose citizens have no prima facie grounds to apply for asylum and can be deported after an application is rejected. The same was done to people from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in May 2016. In October 2016, the EU signed an agreement with the government of Afghanistan concerning the repatriation of rejected asylum-seekers in return for aid grants. Almost half of all Afghani applicants are currently being rejected in EU member states. In the months since the December 19, 2016 attack on the Berlin Christmas market by a Tunisian citizen whose application for asylum had been rejected in May, Angela Merkel’s ruling conservative party and their social-democratic coalition partners passed ever more restrictive laws concerning immigrants. For example, rejected asylum seekers are to be deported within three months of the decision on their application.
Olaf Kleist and his team are currently carrying out a third round of the volunteer survey. He is observing that even in their own social circles, volunteers are facing growing hostility, sometimes to the extent that they don’t want to talk about their work to their own family and friends anymore. But Kleist also reports that “many volunteers said that they don’t want to give up or stop what they are doing. On the contrary, they are saying: ‘now more than ever, refugees need our assistance because most of society is withdrawing their support.’” With fewer people arriving in Germany, many volunteers are returning to the integration work they had been doing in 2014. This means a more long-term engagement but also a return of the organizational challenges. Kleist highlights that some large charities have realised that they could not perform in the field of integration without the help of volunteers and are now offering trainings and other support. Similarly, some municipal governments have established good support structures for voluntary work. But the federal government is still focusing on security and a reduction of numbers of new refugees. They are not doing enough to create an environment that will facilitate the practical welcome which briefly stood out in 2015.