Volunteer work - help where it is needed?

Dialogue forum, 10 May 2017

The work of millions of volunteers has become an indispensable part of many areas of our lives. Without the support of volunteers, the public authorities would have quickly met their limits in providing the refugee aid required since autumn 2015. However, the helpers often feel left alone in daily life, as the discussions on the fifth and last evening of the 2017 Dialogue Forums on the topic of "People on the move - back and forth and back again?" showed.

Prior to the dialogue forum "Through refugee eyes", a photo-exhibition of the Syrian artist and photographer Abdulazez, was inaugurated. His photographs give an insight into the daily realities of people that are fleeing.

Voluntary help for migrants has changed considerably in recent years. "Whereas, in the beginning, the main thing was to provide immediate help for the people arriving here, the focus today is on individual and often very thematically specific kinds of help," explained Marina Lessig, Head of the "Münchner Volunteer - Wir helfen e.V." association. Lessig was present at the central train station in Munich in the autumn of 2015, when volunteers untiringly helped thousands of people arriving every day from crisis regions, providing them with food and clothes, care and attention.

At that time, it was possible to approach and find people to do voluntary work who normally would not be open to such activities. According to Lessig, after years of volunteer work, refugee aid has developed further and is now at a point where it is also politically organised and ready to take the offensive against injustices and shortcomings. "Political awareness had already begun to develop at an earlier stage; now a movement is emerging," she said.

Asked about the long-term future of the voluntary refugee helpers, Lessig replied: "There is a vision of the new citizens being able to participate in all areas of our society to such an extent that support groups specifically focused on issues of forced displacement will no longer be needed." Integration will ultimately succeed through participation. Germany can then remain diverse, colourful and peaceful.

Positive signals against right-wing slogans
Due to the dedication and efforts of countless people, voluntary work is now seen in a different light, Lessig continued. For example, her "Münchner Volunteer" association has since become an authority on the subject, attempting in numerous projects and studies to examine how spontaneous help can form a sturdy pillar in disaster relief. "People who are acquainted with an establishment focused on uniforms and medals know that this is a significant change," Lessig declared. She also sees refugee aid as a chance of offering resistance to the xenophobic slogans of the AfD party or Pegida movement. "Refugee aid offers the opportunity of working towards something positive, such as democracy, multiculturalism, diversity, tolerance." It is wrong to dismiss refugee aid as a pity-driven pet zoo. "It is actually about the restoration of global justice through the immediate encounter with the people affected," Lessig pointed out.

Günter Burkhardt, Managing Director of PRO ASYL, stressed the important role played by volunteers in integrating refugees. The resident status is as important for integration as language skills are," he pointed out. Anyone threatened with deportation will not be able to find an apprenticeship or a job. However, because, for example, there are not enough lawyers to advise the 32,000 Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected during the first four months of 2017,  volunteers must jump into the breach and review the official notices. "It takes people to help the refugees, to find a lawyer and to go to court," he explained.

In this connection, Burkhardt criticised the Bavarian government, which threatens asylum and social counselling institutions with cuts in funding if they advise rejected asylum applicants about possible legal remedies. "We promote employment, we promote language courses, we take care of everything possible, but not of the resident status," he lamented. For this reason, he is glad that Bavaria has a refugees council and that parishes are granting sanctuary to refugees.

Günter Burkhard and Dr. Markus Gruber (from left to right) controversially discuss the role of social workers in legal consultations.

Voluntary work does not substitute full-time social work
"At the height of the refugee movement, many volunteers took on the functions of full-time professionals," stressed Dr. Markus Gruber, Ministerial Director for Asylum, Integration and Immigration at the Bavarian Ministry of Social Affairs. However, voluntary work should not become a substitute for regular jobs. Even though the numbers of refugees have fallen, major challenges still remain in coping with integration. Without the work of volunteers who accompany refugees to offices or to private landlords, almost no progress would be made in this area.

Gruber praises the efforts of the volunteers in joining together to form special units so that they can master the different challenges more effectively and efficiently. Many helpers can contribute professional know-how that the employees in the offices, for example, do not always have. "There is an incredible diversity of voluntary contributions. It is remarkable!" he said summing it all up.

But does help arrive where it is needed? "Yes, because the people are still active in helping the refugees," Lessig observed. And is the aid progressing? "No, there are too many structural hurdles facing the helpers every day." It is becoming increasingly difficult, she says, to battle against windmills and look on as the progress made in integration comes to nothing when refugees lose their work permit or are deported.

Marina Lessig points to the structural barriers that volunteers are confronted with in their daily work.

Growing demand for all-rounders
"We are not talking enough about the people whose asylum applications have been recognised.  We need to take care of them, or we will be facing a problem in our society," Gruber countered. There is a growing demand for all-rounder volunteers, who know as much as possible about as many things as possible. "A lot of help is being offered, but not everyone knows what people are offering exactly, so it is often difficult for helpers to find out who the right people are to contact," Lessig cautioned, going on to ask "Why must I, as a volunteer, invest a lot of time just to find that out?"

"We will try to provide information increasingly over the Internet," promised Gruber. He admitted that funding is sometimes not applied for because not enough is known about it. A map indicating the most important contact points for helpers is, therefore, needed. Burkhardt, in turn, would like to see a stronger response from the politicians to the needs and problems of the volunteers. "To achieve this, we will have to visit the open office hours of the parties and explain our problems. We need to conduct this dialogue, even though it is laborious."

With their commitment, their specific skills and their experience, volunteers shape the face of many different social areas. They cannot replace government organisations, but they help make many things work better. They also show that people who are migrating or fleeing are welcome, that diversity is desired, and that sometimes thinking outside the box is also desirable so that society can develop further. The panel experts all agreed.

18 May 2017