What Happened When Calais Action Spoke At The UNHCR

Last week the UNHCR invited us to speak at their global retreat in Geneva on the subject of grassroots groups and volunteers. As with our invitation to speak at the ALNAP humanitarian conference a few months ago, we’re seeing more effort on the part of institutions to reach out to volunteer groups and local community organisations in theory – but as any volunteer who’s ever visited a camp will know, grassroots groups are often ignored, blocked or actively disparaged by institutions in practice.

The UNHCR admitted openly in their welcome introductions that they had been behind the curve of recent developments in volunteering and needed to move with the times. This was our chance to speak to the heads of those institutions who govern camps across Europe, give our perspective and say what needs to be changed. The question is – will it?

The other speakers – from the UNHCR, the IOM and various country-specific organisations, spoke first on camp management, participation of women, girls and those with disabilities, and the design of public spaces. Our session was in the section about changing context and environment of camps and was entitled “Building The Next Generation of Volunteers.” We were partnered with a representative from the UNHCR’s community outreach programme who was very supportive. “We, the system, think we know everything,” he said in his introduction. “But there is still much to learn. We need to sow the seed for the future, create ownership with volunteers and local groups otherwise people will feel disenfranchised.”

We started with a short presentation giving an overview of the scale of the achievements of grassroots groups, especially those created in the people-to-people movement since 2015 and the vocational aspect of volunteering. We spoke about the role of social media in inspiring volunteering, and the change in access and information provided by Facebook people-to-people information hubs and pages. We covered the problems and sustainability issues of grassroots volunteers, police harassment and volunteer burnout, personal safety, and mental health. We also spoke on the extraordinary extent to which grassroots groups were able to help change public perception, get positive stories into the media, join campaigns such as the Dubs Amendment, and compile data from the camps to give a realistic on-the-ground picture.

But the real question was: Is there so much institutionalised mistrust, differences in ideology and bureaucracy that institutions will never be able to work with grassroots?
When the questions came, it was clear that there was a huge tendency to see grassroots groups in the abstract, or to take one unfortunate experience as being indicative of the whole. A representative raised his hand. When he had started working in Greece, he said, grassroots groups had not wanted to work with them because they represented “the system” and they didn’t want to work with the system. How could this happen if “they” didn’t want to work with “us”?

Really? All grassroots groups? We knew of plenty who would be only too happy to work together, for various reasons: giving legitimacy and being able to apply for more stable sources of funding, and to be able to benefit from association with the UNHCR. We gave positive examples of where partnerships between UNHCR and grassroots groups had been successful, and stressed the point that the volunteer movement is full of very different kinds of people. The trick is to find a group that you can work together successfully and look to how you can make it happen, not react with an automatic no. When projects are delivered in partnership they have a greater chance of longevity and reach, and can produce many other future projects.

Another voiced his concerns about protections: how could vulnerable people be protected against volunteers? We responded by asking them to remember that volunteers themselves are also at risk of harm (especially with such a large proportion of female volunteers), and that police checks can be carried out on long-term volunteers in the same way as employees.

In the break, a female representative asked why volunteers often set up kitchens and the like when food is already available through government systems. We responded that grassroots groups spring up where there is a need, or perceived need; if food provided by the government is composed of only reconstituted dried foodstuffs, is it any wonder that people hanker after freshly-cooked food or something different? Would they like to eat the same reconstituted food day in, day out? She considered. No, maybe not. Another representative seconded this: a grassroots kitchen he knew about hadn’t been up to hygiene standards, and shouldn’t have been serving food. We thought that if a project was felt to be not up to standard, then the UNHCR could help raise it to that standard, through training or other assistance.

Our recommendation was that IF the UNHCR was serious about collaborating with grassroots groups then they needed to perform some due diligence to find out which groups they could support in their area. They should spend some time shadowing a grassroots group, find out what they do and see how this could be supported. If a group was filling a need, then could that group be given funding, or given access to resources such as storage or transport? If they had a project that was filling a need, could they help make it happen, instead of saying an automatic no?

Intentions are important, but actions are vital. We hope that the UNHCR take our recommendations to heart and start to implement them at ground level so that people in camps all across Europe can be helped together.


  1. This is awesome, good on you for being there. One thing we've tried to do at Needslist is work with vetting partners to help couch for the legitimacy and impact if grassroots groups. I'd love to see how we can build this out with others.


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