How to volunteer safely with migrants and refugees

Volunteering can be the single most rewarding thing you can do, however there are many things to consider when volunteering abroad that can affect both your experience and the lives of those you are there to help.

This is the second in my series of three blog posts in partnership with the Government (HMG) and NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations) to help you volunteer with migrants and refugees the right way.

It’s not known how many people from the UK have volunteered in migrant camps, but we can guess it is quite high and if you’re reading this post you might be considering becoming one of them. If you are, below are my top tips to think about before and during your volunteer placement to ensure the safety of yourself and those you volunteer with.

1. Volunteer with a reputable organisation

It often causes more harm than good to just turn up and see where help is needed. You might end up getting in the way of those who are helping through an organised programme or even give the wrong, and potentially damaging, advice to those in need.

It is always better to volunteer through an organisation who understands the area and people you are volunteering with and can help train and prepare you for your role. I’ll talk more about choosing an organisation to volunteer with in the final post in this series.

volunteering safely with refugees

2. Think about the advice you give to others

Make sure you speak to the organisation you are volunteering with to understand what you should and should not advise the vulnerable people you are volunteering with.

You can easily influence the behaviour and understanding of refugees and migrants without even realising. For example, any travel advice for them will be very different from your average traveller or tourist, as they will have less legitimate options available to them. Be careful what advice you give. There is some useful information on this on the NCVO website and in their downloadable factsheet.

3. Understand the ways in which migrants and refugees can be exploited

Migrants and refugees are often exploited because of their desperation to get somewhere, but what could seem like a travel agent could be a criminal network and could end in migrants or refugees being exploited for money, work or sex.

Understanding the different ways people traffickers and smugglers work can help make sure you don’t unintentionally put migrants and refugees in the path of criminals involved in organised immigration crime.

It’s also important to be aware of the different ways people smuggling and trafficking work so you can report anything that looks untoward to the relevant people in charge.

There is lots of information on this on the NCVO website.

volunteering safely with refugees

4. Follow the laws and customs of the country you are in

It might seem obvious but understanding the laws and culture of the country you are volunteering in can go a long way to setting you off on the right foot when volunteering. Whether it is making sure you dress appropriately and understand a few key sayings and basic customs, or understanding how people can lawfully migrate from one place to another and how the authorities and police operate.

5. Get the right insurance before you leave

You will want to check that your travel insurance covers the activities you are doing. Check with the organisation you are volunteering with and they can probably give advice on the best types of insurance to get.

volunteering safely with refugees

6. Share information with your group

Blogger Gail Aguiar volunteers in a migrant detention camp in Portugal and shared some of her tips on volunteering safely with refugees or migrants. Gail says regular briefings with the other volunteers and charity leaders can help immensely with the day to day pressures, changes and problems you or those you are volunteering with may face.

If you think something is wrong then share it with the relevant people and keep note of anything that seems odd to you. Don’t be afraid to ask your volunteer leaders questions to make sure you understand what is going on and to stay updated on any changes that might be happening.

7. Understand the boundaries of privacy

 The people you are volunteering with could have gone through some of the worst experiences imaginable. They may be fleeing persecution and not want their identity or location to be disclosed. They should have final say in what you share. Appreciate their privacy, whilst being there to listen if they need it, and share their stories if they want it.

It is not ok to take photos of refugees or migrants. They are classed as vulnerable people and so you should always ask for their permission if you need to take photos or, in the case of young people, the permission of a parent or caregiver.

The organisation you volunteer with will be able to give you clearer guidance on what you should and shouldn’t do or ask when with the migrants or refugees.

It can be quite a scary topic talking about the safety of yourself and those you are volunteering with, but listening to the organisations you volunteer with, following guidance and using common sense will prepare you to best respond in challenging environments.

Read more about volunteering safely with migrants and refugees and follow @ncvovolunteers on Twitter or @NCVOCharity on Facebook.

Clarity of terms - volunteering with refugees and migrants

volunteering safely with refugees

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  1. This post really speaks to me as I am German so I know about these issues well. I love that it shows how you can also help close to home and how important certain rules are (great that you mentioned the boundaries!) – I am usually very skeptical of voluntourism (eeek, the word alone) but this is a great guideline. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is such a great post! Thanks for sharing the tips on how to volunteer and find reputable organizations!

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