Civil Society Comes Together to Support Refugees

February 18, 2016

Representatives from a dozen NGOs that are assisting refugees in Central and Eastern Europe met in Budapest on February 12-13 to share experiences, offer advice, and explore ways they might be able to support each other. "The reality in our countries is not monochrome, but made of many colors," said Jasmina Golubovska, a consultant for Foundation Open Society-Macedonia, "and this conference was a reminder of what we have in common, and what we can do when we come together."

The two-day event included informal discussions, workshops, panel discussions, and documentary film screenings. There were also many opportunities for informal exchanges, and network building. "I wanted to attend as a representative of NUN Kultura NGO," explained Kastriot Rexhepi, "because we are directly involved with the work at the camps helping refugees. It was very useful to share our experience and to learn how thing are being done in the countries of the Balkan route."

School of Public Policy at CEU Professor Marie-Pierre Granger. Photo: SPP/Stefan Roch"As an academic lawyer, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to find out how law is applied or – as is often the case – is distorted or disregarded on the ground. The participants identified serious state deficiencies," said SPP Associate Professor Marie-Pierre Granger. "They also clearly highlighted the essential role played by grass-roots movements and NGOs not only in upholding the rights and protecting the dignity of migrants, but also in providing them with basic assistance along the West Balkans migration routes and helping them to start a new life in their home country. I learned a lot!"

"The goal of this event," explained co-organizers Sara Bojö (graduate student at University College Dublin and Rijksuniversiteit Groningen), Mundus MAPP student Galen James Englund, alumna Lena Jacobs (Public Policy), and alumna Sara Sudetic (Nationalism Studies) was to "bring together people who are assisting refugees along the Western Balkans route to Germany so they could compare responses to the migration crisis and identify areas of cooperation."

There were also participants from much further away, like Keith Mattingly who works for the Church of Sweden in Uppsala. "The social discourse in Sweden focuses mostly on integration efforts once refugees have safely arrived to their destination. This workshop was an excellent opportunity to hear first-hand about the situation, political climate, and response all along the migration route."

Participants agreed that one of the greatest needs for refugees and migrants, and for those working with them, is reliable and accessible information. Identifying this information is enormously challenging. So too is getting it to the people who need it most – and in a way that is most useful to them. Another challenge is finding effective ways of involving refugees not just in the distribution of humanitarian assistance, but also in discussions about how and what types of assistance is distributed.

Participants discuss refugee aid in Central and Eastern Europe at the School of Public Policy at CEU. Photo: SPP/Stefan Roch

One of the other topics that participants explored was how to address the tensions between local communities and refugee populations. "Employ local people in humanitarian efforts. Get them involved," urged one participant. "If you do this, it will help to change how local communities perceive refugees. It helps refugees as well. Local people can be a great resource for refugees. They can show them where to go, and how to get things done." Marton Bisztrai, from SOS Children's Village Hungary and Menedek Association, found the discussions that focused on integration challenges particularly useful.

Participants had lots of good ideas about how they could cooperate more closely, and benefit more from each other's experiences and expertise. "I was inspired by the energy and commitment to helping refugees from all present in the room. What would be very useful is to help organizations create a transnational network where they can jointly advocate for rights of refugees seeking access to Europe, and join forces for positive change," said Magdalena Majkowska-Tomkin, program manager, Migration and Inclusion Unit, Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE).

"We should try to meet more regularly," suggested another participant. Other ideas: collect stories and publish a book; set up small working groups to tackle specific issues; create a Google form to collect and share information; set up an interactive website – "not a public website, but one for us." There was also a lot of support for the idea of taking advantage of and leveraging existing networks. "We should use them, don't create new ones," urged one activist.

The co-organizers listened closely, took notes, and promised to follow up. "This doesn't end here. This is just a beginning. We want to continue this conversation," they said.

"Unifying Refugee Aid: Building Civil Society Cooperation Along the Western Balkan Route" was organized by Sara Bojö, Galen James Englund, Lena Jacobs, and Sara Sudetic, with generous support from the Allianz Kulturstiftung and the School of Public Policy (SPP) at Central European University. The conference took place at SPP on February 12-13, 2016.