by Sarah Edgcumbe

Owen Jones recently pointed out that the far right is now at its strongest since the 1930s. A horrifying reality of today’s populist Europe. These groups have been unfailingly and cynically opportunistic in using terrorist attacks in Europe to galvanize hatred against Muslims, whilst presenting themselves as protecting white European innocents from the depravity of the Qu’ran, or simply as “not racist” concerned citizens who feel that we should help “our own” (read: white) homeless before helping others. This mindset has contributed to the election of far right governments in Poland, Hungary and Italy and demonstrates that we should not view these groups as fringe street-movements – they are effecting political change with horrifying efficiency through influencing voters.

Mainstream media is in on this, of course. As Chris Jarvis wrote in October 2016, the media’s reaction to refugees and migrants has been nothing short of inflammatory.  The influence of mistruths presented in the media has led to vilification of refugees and migrants. In our failure to protect vulnerable people who are unable to seek protection in their country of origin, we have failed to learn history’s lesson. Enoch Powell would be proud of us. We should all be fucking ashamed of ourselves.

Enoch Powell would be proud of us. We should all be fucking ashamed of ourselves.

The combined effect of the EU-Turkey Deal and the Dublin Convention has effectively left between 11,000 – 16,500 refugees stranded on the Greek islands, whilst both Greece and Italy struggle to cope with providing basic necessities to the refugees in their care. This in turn has enabled the far right in those countries to gain more popular support as the public feel increasingly burdened at the behest of Europe. Refugee Rights Europe recently found that 21.7% of refugees on the Greek island of Chios have been subjected to violence by Greek citizens. In Calais, the same organization found that 40.4% of refugees have experienced violence perpetrated by French citizens, while alarmingly 91.8% have experienced police violence.

In the face of all this horror, Europe increasingly seems to be teetering on the edge of fascism. There is however, a small yet bright light shining in the darkness of the inhumanity currently sweeping Europe. Volunteers and activists are rising up in the face of the far right, in the face of the bloated cruelty of the politicians, in the face of the inflammatory media, and in the face of apathy. Some of these volunteers have a history of volunteering and activism, whilst some have realized that we are in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe and spurred on by the lack of State and NGO resources being provided for refugees, and have reached out as a human to their fellow humans to offer solidarity and assistance. One of the most defining features of the current European response to refugees is the stark contrast between the huge numbers of volunteers who dedicate their time and resources to filling gaps in refugee protection, and those political actors who should be doing it themselves.


For every Golden Dawn insignia spray painted on a building in Chios, “Refugees Welcome” is spray painted nearby. “Fight Racism” is graffitied all over Athens. These graffiti wars are emblematic of the grassroots level at which the fight for refugee rights is taking place. Volunteers in Calais have been attacked and had their cars vandalized, they are also often verbally abused by the police. Worse still, there is a rising trend in some European countries of arresting volunteers who are simply distributing food and clothing. In 2018, to be fully law-abiding seems to mean  letting refugees starve, die of hypothermia, or suffer a host of other cruelties without raising a hand to stop it. Despite these bullying tactics however Volunteers have risen, and since the onset of the Syrian war, they have become increasingly organized. An elaborate grassroots network of contacts, support and specialist resources have grown exponentially and can be accessed whenever needed, at short notice, predominantly through social media. Information points for volunteers and refugees alike have been established for different countries across Europe.

Some volunteers have been present in Europe since the first migration of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict. They saw a need not being met by the State or large NGOs and stepped in to provide services, sometimes creating and developing refugee-specific organizations along the way. These people have made great personal sacrifices, often leaving behind families, well-paying jobs, and the comfort of a well structured familiar lifestyle in order to take on board an emotionally draining and psychologically challenging role that does not stop. Grassroots volunteers, often with no formal training, have united to provide a safety net for and demonstrate solidarity with refugees as best they can. The range of volunteer initiatives is vast, including hosting refugees, fundraising, campaigning and advocacy, online assistance providing information, moral support and signposting refugees to specialist services. Then there’s addressing basic needs such as shelter, clothing and food; women’s centres providing specialist support and protection; youth centres and youth work; legal advice; medical assistance; psychosocial activities; libraries; and education. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but the range of services is incredible and testament to the dynamism, determination and flexibility of the volunteers involved on a long term or monthly basis, or by volunteers who spend short periods.

Whether people  are acting out of humanitarian instinct, a conscious demonstration of solidarity in opposition to the socio-political status quo, or any other reason, the shared characteristic is that volunteers tend to remain politically engaged – fighting for refugee rights in a myriad of ways – but ultimately refusing to accept defeat. As the European response to refugees remains stagnant, and refugees remain destitute, it is important that volunteers and activists collaborate with refugees and migrants and continue to make our voices heard.

Increasingly, a discussion is being held about the dilemma of volunteers, through their presence, legitimizing the lack of State and NGO provision. This is a debate worth having, as ultimately our goal is increase pressure on governments who are failing to properly protect and respect refugees until they carry out their responsibilities in an effective, humane and refugee-led manner. We also need to continue to counter right-wing anti-refugee and anti-migrant rhetoric wherever we encounter it. Disseminating the narrative of refugees’ experiences and advocating for our moral duty to stand side by side with them is the only way we can effectively combat the far right. Real life exchanges at street level of individuals’ experiences may in some way work towards delegitimizing the bigoted headlines and gluttonous, divisive policies of politicians whilst isolating far-right leaders.

It is important that in volunteering we do not become complacent. The fight for refugee rights and adequate protection across Europe will be a hard fight to win. Volunteers and activists have been instrumental in documenting human rights abuses committed against refugees and this must continue. Volunteer and activist collective Are You Syrious and the Shoufu Collective recently wrote about an experience in Chios which left them uncomfortable. They reported that in order to maintain their position on the island, volunteers were becoming complicit in the abuses of refugee rights committed  by not speaking out about what they were witnessing on a daily basis.


The reluctance to rock the boat is essentially serving to perpetuate the abhorrent environment that refugees find themselves in. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into this trap. Refugee solidarity is not about “us and them”. It is not about giving ourselves a pat on the back or documenting our volunteering experience on fucking Instagram. Refugees are not passive victims, and as such we need to focus on collaboration in order to make all of our voices as loud as possible. As Are You Syrious and the Shoufu Collective point out, we have a responsibility as witnesses. A huge number of volunteers across Europe are working tirelessly and diligently to provide assistance – often moving around within the solidarity network sharing experiences and best practices – whilst also calling out the authorities and NGOs who are neglecting their duties. This is the standard of solidarity we must maintain.

We must counter right-wing vitriol wherever we encounter it, and attempt to share the human narrative of the refugee experience, but we also need to hold politicians to account. The moment they start to bend to populism they must be called out or replaced. It is ultimately the politicians who have the power to implement much needed policy and social change. While they continue neglect and abuse refugees, we must be a razor-sharp thorn in their side.

All images by the author

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