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Rethinking Humanitarianism | Are volunteers the new face of humanitarian border aid response?

‘We are not the ones who are trained in organising such help. But we just felt that if nobody is doing it, somebody has to do it.’

When the Polish government introduced an emergency zone along the border in August, volunteers took it upon themselves to get organised and provide blankets, food, water, medical check-ups, and legal advice to migrants in need. 

But citizens and activists providing voluntary aid are under constant pressure from police and border guards trying to disturb the outreach and emergency support. While hundreds of volunteers are risking fines and more to provide aid, what is the role of the traditional aid agencies in this developing humanitarian crisis?

In this episode, host Heba Aly speaks to a Polish activist who is leading the voluntary humanitarian response at the Poland-Belarus border by risking her own life. And the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, explains what its role is when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance in Europe. 

Guests: Anna Alboth, Polish activist with Grupa Granica and the Minority Rights Group, Christiner Goyer, Poland representative of UNHCR.

Make sure you never miss an episode of season two by subscribing on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or searching “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

TRANSCRIPT | Are volunteers the new face of humanitarian border aid response?

Heba Aly: The United Nations Refugee Agency convened governments online last week to review the commitments made as part of a Global Compact on Refugees, agreed three years ago. Those commitments include easing the pressures on countries hosting refugees, enhancing the self-reliance of refugees, creating more long-term resettlement opportunities, and improving conditions in refugees’ countries of origin so that they go home safely.

But while they discussed these issues at a policy level, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers were stuck between the borders of Poland and Belarus. Pushed out of one country, unable to enter the other, brutalised by border guards on both sides, sleeping outdoors in freezing temperatures, or stacked in government warehouses.

Here is one of them, a Syrian refugee, explaining his experience with smugglers: 

Audio clip, Global News, Nov. 2021:

“At 5am they took us to Minsk by [a van]. Took us about 3.5 hours. Then we spent also 3 hours from Minsk to the border. The last car that took us to the border, they go through the forest, and tell us there is the border, 500 metres facing you. You just cross. He drive his car and go back. Then Belarus border guards come, they follow us, and then they catch us. He kicked me in the face with his foot, so I passed out for a couple of minutes – broke my nose, and broke a bone in here, and my eyes are swollen.” 

Aly: Interestingly enough, many of the people actually delivering aid to migrants and asylum seekers stuck in inhumane conditions in Eastern Europe were not present at the Global Compact meetings. 

That’s because many of them are volunteers. In fact, volunteers have become the face of the humanitarian aid response there. 

And not just in Poland, but also in Greece and on the southern border of the United States. It's largely volunteers who are providing blankets, food, medical check ups. As well as legal advice to migrants and asylum seekers.

Which begs the question: Why is the major part of the aid response to these humanitarian crises falling to volunteers? 

I’m Heba Aly. And this is Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Today we’re looking into why volunteers are providing emergency aid in places where we might expect large humanitarian aid agencies to be taking the lead.

What does this say about the changing face of humanitarianism? The return of solidarity movements? And the limitations of traditional aid agencies when confronted with politicised migration responses?

Joining us is Anna Alboth, a media officer with Minority Rights Group. She is a Polish activist who founded Grupa Granica, a volunteer collective of Polish civil society organisations that are providing asylum seekers and migrants with humanitarian assistance along the border of Poland and Belarus.

Anna, welcome to the podcast.

Anna Alboth: Hello.

Aly: So what started as a text message that you sent to fellow activists, asking what you could do together about, what you considered, a looming humanitarian crisis, is now an operation involving more than 300 volunteers. Tell us a bit about the journey of how you got there.

Alboth: At the beginning of August, when refugees started to be pushed from the Belarusian side to the Lithuanian side, having experienced in Europe on different borders, I knew that the same will be happening on the Polish border. Together with a group of activists from very different organisations in Poland, we had a call to get ready for what is coming. I had this pleasure to know a lot of activists in Poland in the last fifteen years. I used to work with different organisations, and we started to think which NGO can do which work in this field. We knew that we will need monitoring, we will need gathering testimonies of people. August was summer, it was warm, it was sunny. There were just a few people crossing every day. We had no idea that our operation would change to a huge system of very organised headquarters with people not only gathering testimonies, but also bringing humanitarian aid to the forest: where people are dying, where people are so hungry that we’ve never experienced anything like this before. And it’s December and it’s -12 at night. We had no idea that it would end up like this. 

Aly: As you've been describing, you've been spending time in the forest where asylum seekers and migrants are either hiding or just stuck. And I’ve read interviews with you where you describe seeing people with dog bites, with scars from being pushed through barbed wire, with hyperthermia. You were back at the border this week, what is the latest there? 

Alboth: People are in terrible condition. Still, in August or September, it was something else to spend a night in the forest with your family, with your kids, with your babies. There are a lot of families out there. Now surviving the night, with snow, ice, minus temperatures. And also when your immune system is already, since two months or three months, really going lower. It’s just heartbreaking. It’s not that we are getting used to it, but we are learning new things. And we had trainings with different doctors, because we are the ones who are in the forest reaching out to people. And by being there, we also bring additional attention to them. And we have to be very careful when border guards notice us or them, when the army comes, when a police comes, they immediately push people back. In August, we were still hoping that a person who wants to apply for international protection will be taken, as it should be according to law, to a refugee centre, and the procedure would be started. But very fast in August, we learned that 96% of people are just immediately pushed back. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a pregnant woman who will lose her pregnancy being on the army car, if it’s a kid which is divided from the family, or a group of men. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Aly: Can you tell us a little bit about who these migrants are? And, I suppose how many you’ve been able to help. 

Alboth: From August on we were in contact with around 6000 people already. We try to put everything through our database – with names, nationalities, age, health state – because we are the only ones gathering this information. And we know that it’s very important also in the situation when somebody is lost and families are looking for them. So for now, we are meeting groups of people from Iraq, Kurdish and also Yazidis, Syrians, Afghans, Yemeni, people from Congo, and also from Somalia. I think those are the most common nationalities. 

Aly: You now have, as you mentioned, hundreds of volunteers. Who are the volunteers, where are they coming from? And what’s their motivation, I suppose?

Alboth: Polish forests are a very difficult geographic place. There is a lot of mud, a lot of swamps, people arriving to Belarusian sites have no idea about conditions like this. They don’t know that they will be placed without clean rivers where you cannot drink any water. People that we are meeting, didn’t drink for days, didn’t eat for weeks. So a lot of Polish people decided to just pack their stuff and come to the east, to do something that should be done by the state, that should be done by big international humanitarian organisations. We are not the ones who are trained in organising such help. But we just all felt that if nobody else is doing it, somebody has to do it. Until now, we have confirmed around twenty deaths in the forest, but we know there is much more people in the situation. And we know that if we wouldn’t have been bringing food and water for the last four months, the situation would be even more tragic. So there are a lot of people from all over Poland. We try to organise trainings for them before they go, legal trainings, medical trainings, but also ethical trainings. How to behave and what to do in the situation of a traumatised person met in the forest. But because Poland introduced the state of emergency all along the border, to many places we, as activists, cannot legally enter. A lot of local people leaving there, people who have a right to be there. They just turned into activists. This is something that I really want to underline: that for us people who used to work in humanitarian organisations or in human rights organisations, this feels quite natural that we have to act when things like this are happening in Poland. But people who lived in a very calm borderland of eastern Poland, most of them never had any experience with the topic of migration. But suddenly a hungry family was knocking on their doors or was crossing a cornfield behind their house. And they just had to react. At the beginning, it was just a few people, people were contacting us asking for advice, how to do it, if they are allowed to do it, if sharing food is legal, if inviting somebody home is legal. They didn’t know. We started some emergency number for local people to call us to ask all those questions. But now there is really hundreds of people helping like this.

Aly: It’s astounding to hear you talking about this, and the role that you’ve been playing. And you said you would have expected larger agencies to be doing this kind of work. Are any of the traditional humanitarian agencies present?

Alboth: In the last weeks, we had visits of some of the organisations. They came to have a look: How does it work? What are we doing? It was, I don’t know, one, two hours, of meetings with us. Meetings with the Red Cross, meetings with UNHCR, meeting with MSF. We all understood that they couldn’t start operating in the field, like we did just from one day to another in August. But then after one month, after two months, after three months, after four months, I think everybody in the field just got extremely frustrated thinking, why is it us doing this job? 

Aly: And why do you think it is you doing this job? Why aren’t they present?

Alboth: The state of emergency that Poland introduced all around the border, didn’t let us enter the place where most of the people are. But it doesn't mean that people in the forest are not also outside of the zone. There is a lot of calls from people in the forest outside of the zone. Big organisations tell us that they need permission from the government to enter the state of emergency zone, which I understand. But there is a lot to do outside of the zone. And when we start this topic with them, they just stop answering.

Aly: I hope this doesn't put you in a difficult position, but are any of the activists also engaging in things that would be considered criminal by the government? 

Alboth: Helping people is not a crime, sharing food and water is not a crime, inviting people home to make them warm when it’s minus 10, it's not a crime. I would even say it's the opposite. Not taking somebody home with such a temperature should be a crime. No, nobody of us is doing anything that according to law is illegal. The Polish government, of course, would like to see it as illegal. They are entering our headquarters, they are checking our phones, they are stopping us on the street, police, army, border guards are trying their best to disturb our work, because they know what we are doing. They know that we are going at night to the forest to give people food. But this is not a crime. We are not doing anything wrong. 

Aly: I asked because you wrote in The Guardian that the situation at the border shows the chasm between what is legal and what is moral. And I wonder if you think humanitarian agencies are too concerned with what is legal and not enough with what is moral?

Alboth: I am, absolutely. Entering the emergency state is not allowed. You can get fined if you do it. But from my perspective, if I know that 500 metres away in the zone, where theoretically I cannot enter, there is a woman with a kid who didn't eat for days. And the worst that can happen to me would be to get a fine from the Polish government. I will just do it. And I’m aware that big organisations cannot do it. But I think it’s not right. 

Aly: This has come at a cost of course. And we’ve seen criminalisation of humanitarian aid in many contexts, most recently in Greece, where 24 volunteers were put on trial for providing aid to people in need, with charges as serious as espionage, money laundering, and spilling state secrets.

Do you worry about taking on that kind of risk, that kind of liability, especially as a regular person who doesn’t have the backup of an organisation or a structure to support you?

Alboth: We are of course thinking about it. And it already doesn’t feel comfortable when the army stops us and checks our cars all the time. There are people who would leave the border zone because they felt too scared of how they were treated. Me, for example, having two kids at home, I also have it in mind that if the Polish government would like to make trouble for me, because I’m at night in the forest hiding from the police, they could do that. I’m aware of this. And it’s very heavy. I feel that this is the first time where my life would be much easier if I wouldn’t have a family. But on the other end, you have people in need. And it’s not the situation that I’ve seen in the Balkans or in Greece, where people maybe have to wait in line for food, but they will get food. I know that in winter, in the forest, if we will not help them, they will die. And this is something on the other hand of my mind, and thinking about getting fine, or helping somebody in such a situation is just not a question for all of us. 

Aly: And with that context in mind, what does it say to you that you are at the frontline of this, and the humanitarian sector, the big NGOs, the UN agencies are not taking those kinds of risks?

Alboth: I don’t have a lot of hopes in big international humanitarian organisations. When I see different countries, how they are dealing with migration, and how some of the camps in Greece or in Bosnia, are run by big agencies. I have a feeling that we as activists, what we were doing from August on, we are trying to finish this crisis. Yes, we are trying to answer to what is happening. There are hungry people, we bring them food. There are people in need, we try to organise legal help for them. What I see in the work of all these big international organisations is that they live from the crisis. Their existence wouldn't be there, if there wouldn’t be crisis. And I don't want to say that, it’s only business. But I also met a lot of people working in the camps. And for them, the job was just to be from eight to four at work, and they didn’t care about the situation so much. So the people that are now in the forest, the activists, the grassroots people, those are the ones who really care. Who cannot sleep, like me, answering the phones. Who just cannot stay in the warm house knowing that people are dying. 

Aly: Anna, stay with us. I want to come back to you. But first I’d like to bring someone else into the conversation given we’ve been talking so much about the absence of traditional humanitarian agencies. We’ve invited the UN Refugee Agency to help us understand how they’re approaching this crisis. Christine Goyer is the Poland representative of UNHCR. Welcome to the podcast, Christine. 

Christine Goyer: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

Aly: So do you agree with this assessment that traditional aid agencies are mostly absent at the Polish-Belarus border? 

Goyer: Well, I'd say we are present in a different form. I mean, UNHCR has been in Poland for thirty years. So we have a long standing presence and activities in Poland. And we got engaged also in August, as early as it started. And we got engaged very much in a different form, which was to follow up on a lot of the situations and the cases that were mentioned, from Grupa Granica, from individuals themselves. We also received a lot of distressed messages. We work closely with the Polish authorities. Our job as a UN organisation is also to make sure they comply with their obligations. And they have the first responsibility when it comes to protecting people on the territory to make sure people have access to their territory. So we work very much with them to try to make them do the right thing, not only from a moral obligation as it was mentioned, but also from a very principle, legal angle. And so we work very much with the authorities. But we also work on the legal aspects. Giving our consent form so we could follow up on individual situations, we could follow up with the border guards, whether certain individuals had been admitted to the territory of Poland. Where they were, whether they were able to ask for international protection. So I’d say we’ve been involved from the very beginning, but just in a different form, as it was mentioned. 

Aly: So you’ve been engaged on the legal front, but are you providing emergency aid to people at the border, where, as we’ve heard, thousands are in need of water, food, other basic supplies.

Goyer: We are providing legal support, legal counselling, via our partners. And we are visiting a number of centres where people are taken immediately after. Some of these centres are detention centres, are closed centres. Very few people have access. So certainly, we try to see where we had an added value and where we could make a difference. And first, of course, the humanitarian situation right at the border is critical. And it’s extremely important. But then also the whole situation of how do we get out of the situation, what type of solutions are found, not only from the advocacy point of view, because it’s a clear part of the job we’re doing, but also from the individual situations. And from the people we spoke to trying to help them make sense of their situation in Poland, and what were their options and how they could receive support. That’s our engagement. 

Aly: You’ve talked about where UNHCR would have added value. But if this was, Syria or the Congo, would UNHCR and its partners be providing the very kind of basic humanitarian response in a way that you aren’t in Poland?

Goyer: It's almost impossible to compare the situation of a country like Congo or Syria with Poland, right? Poland is a country with a lot of capacity, they have institutions that are fully capable of dealing with that situation. This is not a situation of capacities, this is not a situation where the needs cannot be taken care of. This is not a situation like that. There's a political angle to it that makes all of us having to get involved. Where in normal situations, we wouldn’t have to get involved. You cannot use that comparison, because it wouldn't be also fair for the reality. Having in mind also that working for UNHCR in the European Union is very different than working in large scale emergency operations, because also of the structures in place, but also the space that is given to any organisation in such contexts. 

Aly: So is that part of the calculus that, and I’ve heard this argument before, that it’s uncomfortable for an aid organisation that is funded to respond to the people that are the most vulnerable to be putting those limited resources into developed countries in the European Union, instead of prioritising responses in countries that wouldn’t have the capacity to respond. That is, in fact, then part of how you’re thinking this through?

Goyer: We are, first of all, a small team. We’ve been here present for thirty years with a very different agenda, which was more in the monitoring capacity, monitoring of policies, of practises, of legal developments. So of course, we’re not geared the same way as in other countries where there are large scale humanitarian crises. So our resources, our engagement also differs depending on what is on the ground. And also having in mind, that situation, of course, has attracted and continues to attract a lot of attention, and rightfully so because it’s a very disturbing situation. But also keeping in mind that the numbers are very different than in other large scale situations. In my country here in Poland, I use all of these parameters to see again, where is our comparative advantage, where we can really make a difference? And how do we work collectively to find solutions? 

Aly: But when you talk about comparative advantage, I guess the question that’s coming to my mind is, it’s not only a choice that you're saying, actually, our value added somewhere else. It’s a capacity issue. You’ve talked about not being set up in Poland, to do this kind of response. You’ve talked about the fact that there are limitations imposed on you by the government. So are there challenges for you to be able to play the role that you might otherwise play in other contexts?

Goyer: We look again at all the resources on the ground. We see the fantastic job done by the volunteers. We see other institutions like the Polish Red Cross, other Polish NGOs, that are present. What we are doing when it comes to the policy issues, but when it comes to the access to international protection issues, for instance, the conditions in detention, there are not a lot of organisations that have the capacity to do that and have the possibility to do that. As I said, these centres are closed and they’re very few of us who can actually access and monitor the conditions and provide very important access to information. We have to see who’s on the ground, who does what, and, if we were not able to do the work in the detention centres, who else would be doing it? So this is a little bit of a discussion we’re having. And we've engaged with a lot of organisations to say, this is where we’re going to be focusing, because we have that possibility that is given to us and we have that space to do that work. 

Aly: And is it the case that were you to engage more aggressively in the humanitarian response on the border that would jeopardise your ability then to access the detention centres? 

Goyer: Not necessarily. Often the focus is on the situation in the forest, at the border, because that’s where you see the most humanitarian needs. People are in very bad shape, very disoriented, very confused. There are also a lot of other needs afterwards, of people who are put in detention centres, are extremely disoriented, confused, and don’t really know who to talk to. Don't really have access to the outside world until they're in a form of procedure. It’s a multifaceted situation. And I think it’s important not to overlook the other types of needs: the psychological impact of the journey people undertook, the several pushbacks, the long stay in the forest has a huge impact on their own capacity to decide ‘what’s next for me?’ We value that possibility to talk to them, then, and to provide us, plus ourl partners and a few other NGOs, crucial information on what’s next, what are the options, and what can happen to them. 

Aly: I don't want to diminish or trivialise the role of the government, which as you said, at the beginning, the primary responsibility falls with the government to deal with this kind of situation. But when you have a government that is unwilling to help, or actually is causing the problem then that is traditionally where humanitarian agencies would step in. What does it say, or is it forcing reflection internally, that that humanitarian response is being left to a bunch of volunteers that are in an ad hoc manner, and at high risk to themselves, as we heard, having to deal with that burden?

Goyer: For us in our dialogue with the authorities, all of these elements are continuously being discussed. And, of course, we are putting pressure on the authorities to say this is your responsibility, and you have to respond, and you have the capacity to respond, you have a lot of personnel on the ground deployed that can be providing that assistance, but also should not even be the need to provide that assistance if the practice of pushing people back and forth would stop, right? So it’s really addressing the issue, having the understanding, of course, that the dimension in Belarus and the instrumentalisation of people is very much problematic in that case. But we try to focus where we can. So for us, in our dialogue with the authorities is to say you have to take responsibility for all of these people. So it's obviously not an easy discussion, because Poland has taken a very firm stance and abides by it, I would say. But we have to continue to have that dialogue, even if they’re not delivering at the level we would be hoping for them to do. And to continue the dialogue, even if we’re not getting exactly where we want to be. But it’s crucial, because it’s also the future of asylum in Poland and in other places in other countries. 

Aly: I wonder the extent to which these very politicised migration crises have forced UNHCR to rethink its role. If you look back at the evolution of humanitarianism, traditional aid agencies were established in very different context, and to respond to very different types of crises. Famine in rural Ethiopia, for example, is much easier to deal with than politicised crises like migration in Europe, which can involve defying governments, people on the move – in many ways requires a different kind of skillset. So to what extent is UNHCR reflecting on how it needs to adapt to be able to continue to be relevant in these kinds of challenging crises that you face today? 

Goyer: I can speak for the experience we’ve had in Poland. A relatively small team suddenly being faced with that situation. And the crisis has had many different facets over the few months already, right? So we’ve had to constantly adapt and from the very beginning, being fully engaged in the individual situations, and then when that stopped a little, very much more engage on the discussion with the authorities on the legal front. So I cannot speak for my organisation as a whole, but for us here, we’ve always had to adapt to that context and also to the face we’re given to do certain things or not. This context, we try to refocus on the essentials, which is: the individuals that are in that situation, their immediate needs, and how do we find solutions for them? We cannot ignore the political context, obviously, and we need to have a good reading of it to be able to navigate it. But at the same time, there are certain things as humanitarian organisations that we will or will not engage in. And for us, it’s really to put the individual situation at the centre and have that discussion with the authorities and to say, go back to the basics: the legal obligations, the responsibility of the state, and how the people no matter how they came, whatever was their journey, have access to safety, and then offered support to continue with the lives.

Aly: In a sense this is a really interesting example, because, as you know, there has been a real push within the sector for localisation of humanitarian response. And for some, that means that UN agencies would be really limited to a normative technical advisory role rather than operational response on the ground. And that's, in some sense, exactly what we’re seeing in Poland. And so I wonder if that might also be an indication of the future of humanitarian aid, and the role, particularly of UN agencies?

Goyer: What has been interesting in Poland is really to see the complementarity of the efforts and to see how, I wouldn't say organically because nothing was organic, but in the absence of a proper coordination system that you would find in other locations. Everybody has played a role from the inhabitants of the restricted zone, as mentioned by Anna before, to the volunteers operating outside that zone, to Polish NGOs, who’re usually not necessarily operating in Poland. The level of the mobilisation of civil society has been tremendous. And I think that’s a key aspect of that crisis. We know the authorities very well, we have constant engagement with them. The issues we’ve been dealing with in that situation are not new. It’s just that the volume and then the modalities are very different. But we've had issues with access to territory, we've had issues with international protection, it’s really to continue the work we've been doing, but just adapting to the parameters of that specific situation. The collective efforts are basically all geared to this in the same direction to alleviate that human suffering in the end.

Aly: Christine, thank you so much for coming on to the podcast and sharing UNHCR’s perspective. 

Goyer: Thank you for having me. 

Aly: Anna, I want to come back to you now, and to hear your thoughts on what you’ve just heard from Christine of UNHCR, 

Alboth: So when Christina said that UNHCR maybe wouldn’t have resources on the ground and capacity in August to do something more, I was thinking that Grupa Granica was not existing even. We also didn’t have resources on the ground. But we just organised it. Because there was a need, there was a very urgent, very serious need for it. And without having experience of doing something like this, we’ve done it. And I feel that it would be amazing to have experience of big international organisations, for example, training our groups. Saying how distribution of humanitarian aid could be done in difficult places, because it’s a difficult place. Yes, it’s not Sudan. It’s not Syria. But it is a difficult place now, when we have to hide when we have to take into consideration the legal situation of every person. We were thinking at the beginning about the whole spectrum of activities. So what UNHCR is doing with detention centres with refugee centres, with following up the stories of individuals, lawyers from all our organisations are doing it too. It’s not that we only give the water in the forest, but if somebody manages to get to the procedure in Poland, we also go on monitoring it and fighting for his situation. But the percentage of people being taken to those centres, now, it’s a joke. Most of the people in need, those thousands I’m talking about, are there and will be there. And to build this bridge to bring them from the forest, from a death risk situation, to the place where lawyers can fight for them. This is the crucial thing right now, in my opinion. 

Aly: This effort that you are mounting, how sustainable is it? How much longer do you think you can continue to do this work?

Alboth: This is a good question. There is a lot of support from all over Poland. Financial support, that we have money for petrol in our cars. Psychological support, a lot of psychologists in Poland just turned into psychology activists supporting us. A lot of people in Poland, they send donations. They send things that we can use. Well, we will be operating as long as it’s needed. But everybody is getting very tired. And people who are not prepared, who didn’t work in this field before – especially the local people, then their kids that are in this 24/7, because there is a need for help 24/7 – they cannot do it for very long without the consequences on their lives.

Aly: So in terms of the way forward, if there was one practical piece of advice or a lesson learned that you’d want to share with people working in the traditional aid sector, on how they can best support or work with this wave of voluntary humanitarians, what would you tell them? 

Alboth: I would like you guys to share your experiences with all of us, me and other activists of Grupa Granica. But also all the local activists, because I think we can all learn from each other from what is happening on the ground, but also from the thirty years experience in this field in Poland. And I think this is the most important, if we can talk all about it.

Aly: Anna, thank you very much. And please stay safe with your work, good luck.

Alboth: Thank you. 

For more on the migration crisis along the European borders, check out our ongoing reporting, including an intimate diary we just published from a reporter who accompanied volunteers on their night patrols to help people in the forest.

We’ll link to it from the show notes on our website: TheNewHumanitarian.org/podcast.

As always, if you’ve got thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them. We really do value engaging with our listeners. Should traditional aid agencies be responding to migration crises like the one at the Poland-Belarus border. Are solidarity movements the future of aid? Is this changing face of humanitarianism a positive or troubling trend? Are we overstating it altogether? Write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected] 

Now before we go: The trend of increasing volunteer led operations is not only happening along Europe’s borders. Volunteers are also playing a crucial role along the southern border of the US, where migrants and asylum seekers from Latin and Central America have set up camps without enough resources, and where thousands of unaccompanied children are stuck.

The International Rescue Committee leads a Welcome Center in Phoenix, Arizona – and relies on grassroots groups and volunteers to welcome new arrivals and provide them with aid. In 2021, they reached more than 34,000 asylum seekers.

So today we’ll leave you with Beth Strano, of IRC, explaining how important volunteers are to keeping the centre running:

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. 

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf. 

And I’m your host Heba Aly.

We’ll be taking a bit of time off over the holidays, so we’ll see you with our next episode on January 12.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Bertha Strano: It’s a really diverse range of folks that come seeking asylum in the United States. And even in spite of restrictive policies that are making it so difficult for folks to get access to that process, some folks are still getting through. we would not be able to do the work that we do to serve these folks without the support of our community and our volunteers. We call ourselves a community-based project because this shelter grew out of community efforts and grassroots efforts to serve asylum seekers that were arriving in Phoenix, and not meeting any type of reception. Just being dropped off by the government at the Greyhound station in the middle of the night. Over the years, we’ve been able to build a physical space that we can coordinate care out of and support, that all of the different community groups can come together and work alongside each other in. And we currently have more than 200 volunteers, and growing. And it is important that we all work together even when we have differences, even when we have different perspectives on how to approach the work, that the most important thing is to come together and talk through those things and find a path forward that is in the best interest of the people we serve. We are incredibly grateful for the force that volunteer efforts can provide, as well as community efforts in general.

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Finally, exploitative and extractive practices have long been commonplace in media and other businesses.

We think there is a better way. We want to build something different.

Our new five-year strategy outlines how we will do so. It is an ambitious vision to become a transformative newsroom – and one that we need your support to achieve.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian by making a regular contribution to our work - and help us deliver on our new strategy.

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