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Well-intentioned Chaos: Britain’s #RefugeeResponse thus far…


Blog post by Hannah Leach which first appeared on the Practical Initiatives Network blog

"The world is witnessing its worst refugee crisis since WWII.

Hard to ignore, right? And despite waves of videos, cartoons and memes portraying refugee-kicking journalists, fascist border police retaliations and “undercover” ISIS recruits sneaking into the country under the guise of “migrant”, the response of much of the British public has been nothing short of overwhelming. [The Refugees Welcome] demonstration of tens of thousands in Britain’s capital, demanding safe channels and open border policies, is a testament to this growing frustration at the Tories’ pitiful response to the crisis thus far. A response that has, no less, forced relief responsibilities to fall to the general public to rectify through grassroots community response and international aid coordination.

But as people so generously scurry to empty their pockets, airing cupboards and future garage sale stockpiles, there has been a worry rise in “rogue humanitarianism”, or “aid tourists” i.e. well-intentioned citizens with little experience of large-scale humanitarian aid operations who, instead of conducting a bit of background research on pre-established delivery channels, decide to take matters into their own hands.

"We can all admit that being at the heart of the action is an exhilarating, hugely soul-satisfying exercise, and instantly more gratifying than trying to condense your sentiments into a JustGiving post of 200 characters or less.

All the same, this is not a new crisis. Yes, the influx of refugees into the EU has ramped up recently from 123 500 this time last year to roughly 340 000 since the beginning of 2015, (with over 3000 currently trapped in no-man’s land in Calais) but systems have been in place in Calais for some time now. Save the Children, MSF, Calais Migrant Solidarity and the No Borders movement are just a few groups who have been on the ground since as far back as 2009, fighting the injustice and neglect those seeking asylum have faced as a result of impractical European policy (the Dublin law) and the fear-mongering of Fortress Europe ideals.

Admittedly, some noteworthy and well-coordinated efforts have sprung up in recent months to support these longer-standing initiatives, amongst them London-based CalAid, who have pulled together the largely disparate efforts of the local public to help ease the desperate plight of those camped out in “The Jungle” through shelter, clothing and even books and sports supplies. CalAid pertain to the more streamlined end of the grassroots activism spectrum, using digital means to effectively coordinate and inform in the midst of a chaotic scramble to do good. They’ve also explicitly warned against individual aid convoys, explaining how donations risk being abandoned in the street and squandered when delivered in this manner. Not only this, but the organisation are expanding through positive social and political action. Their upcoming demonstration in Calais promises a day of solidarity through art, debate, political petitioning and remembrance for fallen refugees, not to mention further collections.

“Let’s face it, the world needs leaders, and judging by some worrying instances of infighting cropping up between members of the copious public aid groups that have emerged in last few weeks, it’s easy to stray away from the point: restoring at least a baseline level of humanity to those fleeing insufferable conditions as a result of war and terrorism, not arguing about the wording of social media posts.

I question whether this relentlessly headstrong form of philanthropy by certain members of the public is down to frustration at the lack of coordination and a mistrust of larger organisational finance. Or is it simply a more deliberate desire to be the ‘man with the plan’, to bask in the showers of public praise at the expense of more experienced aid workers desperately urging donors to go through the proper channels? Only recently, I came across an instance of one wayward do-gooder encouraging the public to crowdfund his own trip down to Calais to personally deliver aid…I’ll let you simmer that one over by yourself. I’m not saying effective aid here comes down to size, resources, or the long-standing nature of individual organisations, as, clearly, CalAid and others would disprove this theory many times over.

“The key words here are Cooperation, Coordination, Communication, and better still, Humility; all that spirit-raising solidarity tends to crumble to dust as soon as ego factors into the equation.

What’s more, we’ve been here before. Although the Mediterranean Migrant crisis is significantly more politicised in its migratory context, the history of humanitarianism repeats itself: anyone recall the fallout from the Nepal Quake, and again, prior to that, what about the “Republic of NGOs” in Haiti? Countless haphazard aid convoys flinging themselves into the equation, inundating locally-established humanitarian operations and adding to an already complicated mix of groups working at cross-purposes. This disaster relief pandemonium was caused by good-hearted citizens travelling miles to distribute aid external to professional operations already trying to coordinate local CSO and governmental networks in place prior to the quake. In Haiti the failure stemmed from a lack of coordination between international organisations and local government systems, resulting in a lot of the aid being delegated by what the West thought was best, and failing to actually meet needs on the ground. Is the picture becoming clearer now?

As the dust settles (both literally and metaphorically) after each major humanitarian catastrophe we are able to look back with a critical eye and examine where our efforts went awry, yet when the next one strikes, why does our ability to apply these lessons have such a strong tendency to go out the window? Furthermore, with the rise of digital native populations and the relentless advancement of information and communication technologies, it’s easier than ever before to be informed and to connect, so why are we so terrible at talking to each other? Social media provides an unbelievably versatile and influential platform for collective and effective public action, as evidenced by its role in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and again in 2013, and its impact on the sheer scale of deliveries to camps in Calais thus far. Getting the knack of handling it effectively in a highly politicised environment, however, is another hurdle.

Undoubtedly, we should be heartened by the extent of outpouring of relief for refugees from Syria and other conflict zones in the UK so far, and particularly when this emerged from a deep-seated sense of civic duty in the face of embarrassing governmental inaction. But we risk generous intentions falling to nothing if we refuse to work together.

“The solution is simple: don’t stop giving, absolutely don’t stop caring, but start observing, listening and supporting, because that’s when we are at our best.”

Development Works Better Together.

Hannah Leach is the Social Media Officer for Practical Initiatives Network and works as an intern on emerging market analysis for the GSMA M4D Impact team. She is currently pursuing work in M4D and ICT4D, women’s refuge and human trafficking, following a degree in Arabic and Spanish from the University of Leeds. You may contact her at