Grassroots Solidarity with Refugees
As European governments shut the doors, activists are opening windows. Daniel Deering and Áine Mannion report on Irish activist responses to the refugee crisis.
For the refugees who survive the difficult journey to Europe from the Middle East and Africa, their troubles have not ended. While governments are doing little to tackle the xenophobia, discrimination and exploitation many face, it is political activists who are increasingly mobilising in support.
As refugees arrive in boats to the Greek island of Lesbos, they are met by volunteers from activist networks, who provide practical solidarity and support: driving those who are unable to walk, and providing water, food and dry clothes. The 75 kilometre journey to the island’s registration centre is made more difficult by a law prohibiting Greek drivers from transporting refugees and migrants.
One of those who welcomed refugees arriving in Lesbos was Irish activist Caoimhe Butterly, who worked with German group Welcome to Europe, providing new arrivals with information in Arabic. She said, “We tried to help prepare them for the difficult and often humiliating journey that lay ahead.”
Butterly provided refugees information on the supports that are available from activist solidarity networks across Europe. In the absence of adequate national and international policy responses, food, shelter, transport and other support services are largely being provided by grassroots organisations.
She argues that not only are these organisations providing immediate humanitarian solidarity but they are also playing a vital role in challenging European border policy. She feels these efforts are a small attempt to redress “securitised, discriminatory and militarised responses to a humanitarian crisis”.
In recent months, grassroots groups have sprung up in Ireland to provide practical solidarity to refugees at home and abroad.
One such group, Cork Calais Refugee Solidarity, organised a humanitarian convoy during October to the refugee camp in Calais, northern France, bringing important supplies and providing medical care over the course of their stay. The group started out small but was inundated with offers of support and donations after setting up a Facebook page. By the time the convoy left for Calais it included four articulated lorries, six vans and a 50-seater bus of volunteers including a medical team and skilled construction workers.
Bairbre Flood, who was among the activists that made the trip, said, “Over four days, our 54-member convoy provided medical treatment to about a quarter of the refugee camp, built shelters, litter-picked and distributed clothing and goods which had been collected and sorted by hundreds of volunteers all around the country for weeks leading up to the trip. We met many other grassroots volunteers from all over England, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany and Holland with similar projects.”
In Calais, the volunteers witnessed an unprovoked attack on refugees by French police, and heard many other accounts of similar violence. Flood said, “Our medical team treated about 1,000 people over the few days we were there. Many had injuries sustained from police beatings and dog bites.”
Many other residents of the Calais camp have been seriously injured or killed while attempting to mount trains in an attempt to make the trip to the UK. Many have been hospitalised for amputation procedures after falling on train tracks.
The most important thing is that the people who are arriving are integrated into the communities.
Both Flood and Butterly are keen to emphasise the self-organisation of refugees in the face of adversity. Flood recounts: “The residents of the camp themselves had constructed cafes, restaurants, shops, a library, a church and mosque, and were trying to organise themselves as best they could under the circumstances.”
Butterly points to the use of ‘collective civil disobedience’ – witnessed in Budapest when migrants collectively decided to march past police lines and away from Hungary – which shows that refugees “are far from victimised communities, they are self-empowered survivors in every sense of the word.” The extent to which “refugee and migrant communities are reaffirming their agency, voice and potential to selforganise” is an important feature of the humanitarian crisis that media reports often downplay.
In Kildare, the Syrian Support and Welcome group was set up by activists involved in the anti-water tax campaign who were inspired by solidarity efforts in other countries. Helena Keane, a founder of the group, set up a Facebook page to challenge racism and welcome refugees relocated at the nearby Hazel Hotel in Monasterevin, County Kildare.
Helena describes the group’s quick growth: “Initially we were just planning on having some kind of welcome committee and we were hoping to have a few footballs for the kids that were coming, just to welcome them. We set up the Facebook page to tell people what we were doing and it kind of just grew. The people on the ground got their act together way before the Government so there were loads of people wanting to donate but no one knew where to put it.”
These early grassroots efforts uncovered a large amount of untapped good will and influenced others to contribute. She added: “There’s a music store in Dublin that’s giving ukuleles. There are people giving bikes and offering their homes for a holiday.”
The longer term vision is to ensure that not only are refugees welcomed, but that they are actively helped to integrate. The local group plans to host an awareness event in the New Year, and ensure that refugees can have connections in thelocal community.
Keane added: “The most important thing is that the people who are arriving are integrated into the communities, that they’re not locked into the hotel, that they’re getting out into the communities. That’s the best thing we can do: help integrate the people who are arriving into our communities. The long-term plan for anyone who wants to help should be to volunteer in that way.”
When asked what has been missing from the grassroots strategy and the wider humanitarian response over the last number of months, Butterly said there has been insufficient “coordination between the organisations and networks that have been responding to both the humanitarian and the overtly political and justice-based aspects of the situation.”
She also emphasised that activist networks need to “extend co-ordination beyond immediate practical responses towards a more long-term, political and cohesive strategy” that first “directly challenges the further securitisation of borders and then responds to the inevitable militarisation and attempted closures of borders.”
In Ireland, some efforts at coordination are hinted at by the ICTU Global Solidarity Committee, which called for the involvement of local communities in the support of incoming refugees. The Committee also pointed to the possible use of the Congress Centres Network, with 25 centres nationwide, which “provide support, resources and a range of services to vulnerable groups in our society and excel in key aspects of training, upskilling and job seeking supports.”
The Committee suggests that “the centres are firmly embedded within their local communities and it is our view that they could play a key role in the government programme to assist, settle and integrate refugees.”
Elsewhere, Cork Calais Solidarity has committed to organising ongoing visits of construction workers and medics to refugee camps, while also working on the domestic issues of direct provision and deportation. Both it and Syrian Refugee Solidarity have shown the enormous amount of goodwill that exists towards those in desperate conditions. They are ready to turn this into long-term campaigning work to support refugees at home and abroad.