Tag Archives: refugees

Volunteers Along Immigrant & Refugee Journey

refugeesLast year, e-Volunteerism, a publication by Energize, Inc. and Susan Ellis, featured an article about volunteers at the front lines of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, and how their impassioned scramble to help—though often inefficient and always insufficient—nonetheless addressed grave needs and sent a message to governments to respond. But the images of these orange-vested volunteers, often entirely self-funded and pulling refugees from boats and greeting them with blankets on Mediterranean shores, represent just a fraction of the diverse volunteer sector that serves the needs of immigrants and refugees worldwide. And these borders and shorelines are not the end of the journey; for the immigrants and refugees, they are where new journeys begin. While some immigrants’ first steps inside a country are more perilous than others, even immigrants who arrive safely at an airport are still plunged into uncertainty and vulnerability. Settling into a new life, a new job, new customs, a new language, and the new experience of being a racial, ethnic, or religious minority can often be a more daunting journey than getting to the country in the first place.

A new e-Volunteerism Voices article by Kerry Martin explores how volunteers engage with immigrants and refugees at every stage of their journey. It focuses on the current situation in the USA (which has relevant implications for other countries) by assessing the nature of volunteer services for three distinct groups: 1) refugees formally resettled through government and other authorized organizations; 2) recent immigrants (non-refugees) who are undocumented, at risk of losing their immigration status, or in need of support due to poverty, exploitation, abuse, etc.; and 3) refugees unrecognized by the U.S. and not formally resettled, primarily those fleeing from gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The full article is available to subscribers of e-Volunteerism and it’s worth subscribing to read this article!

Also see:

Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip (& where to find credible volunteering abroad/work abroad programs)

How to Pursue a Career with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organizations, Including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer

Safety in virtual volunteering

Between my Google Alerts and those whom I follow on Twitter, I see a story at least once a day about the engagement of online volunteers. I put the most interesting or unique ones on the Virtual Volunteering Wiki. It’s so wonderful to see virtual volunteering oh-so-mainstream. I’m not at all surprised: by the 1990s, it was already impossible to track every organization involving online volunteers – there were so many! If there is anyone out there still talking about any form of virtual volunteering – digital volunteers, micro volunteering, crowd sourcing, ework, etc. – as “new”, you have to wonder: have they been under a rock?

But I do have a concern: many of these virtual volunteering initiatives don’t seem to have thought about online safety. Too many, in my opinion, are focused on creating a really complex, feature-rich web site for volunteers to use to sign up and contribute their time and skills, but not thinking about risk management – protecting clients and volunteers.

As Susan Ellis and I say in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and I say in any workshop related to virtual volunteering:

Relatively speaking, the Internet is no more or less safe than any other public space, such as a school, faith community, or sports stadium. Fears of exploitation, abuse, or exposure to sexually-explicit or violent material should not prevent an agency from engaging in virtual volunteering, any more than such fears should prevent the involve­ment of volunteers onsite. There is risk in any vol­unteering, online or face-to-face. The challenge is to minimize and manage such risk. (page 112)

Do you have to interview every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to check professional references on every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to conduct a criminal background check on every online volunteer? No, you don’t have to do any of these things IF the tasks they will do as volunteers don’t warrant such – they aren’t going to work with clients, they aren’t going to work with other online volunteers and know their names, they aren’t going to have access to confidential information, they won’t have access to any online systems in such a way that they could even accidentially harm such, etc. Again, back to a quote from The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.:

Every organization will have different interview­ ing and screening methods based on what services volunteers provide and its workplace culture. Even for volunteers working onsite, the issues involved in volunteering for a beach cleanup or simple clerical work are not the same as issues involved in volun­teering to tutor young children or manage an orga­nization’s computer systems.

The same is true for online volunteers. Your screening approach will be different for a volun­teer designing a Web page than for one creating a private online area where your staff and clients will interact and the online volunteer will have far more access to client contact and other confidential information. (page 41)

If an online volunteering role does warrant some degree of screening – and not all do, but most do – then you have to decide how much there will be, and how it will be conducted. First and foremost is that you must follow the law. For instance, many states require a criminal background check on any volunteers that will work with children one-on-one. A volunteer who will come to a classroom one time to speak about his or her job may not be required by law to undergo a criminal background check, but someone who will talk with a child, one-on-one, even if they will always be in a room with other adults and children, probably is required by law to undergo such – apply the same principles to online volunteers in determining what screening is required. Should the online volunteering candidate be interviewed? If the person is new and is doing any task that requires at least some expertise – web page development, translating text from one language to another, moderating an online discussion group, designing a newsletter, editing a brochure, etc. – yes, absolutely! Many more tips for screening online volunteers to ensure they really can do the task that they have signed up for, and have the time to do so, can be found in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

My favorite resource on screening volunteers, online or offline, that will work with clients in any capacity, is free to download: Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. Point one under the section on what to do before the organization starts screening volunteers is this: “Develop criteria that define how screening information will be used to determine an applicant’s suitability.” That will be different for every organization, depending on their mission and the work volunteers will do. You have to think about not only worst-case scenarios – screening out people that might sexually and/or financially-exploit clients, other volunteers, etc. – but also about people who don’t have the skills necessary for the work, people who don’t have the temperament for the challenges, and people who really don’t have time to volunteer, as all of those scenarios, while not criminal, can be harmful to your organization and those it serves.

You also have to clearly define what behavior is inappropriate on the part of online volunteers, how you will communicate that to volunteers, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and how you are going to be aware of such behavior. As we note in the guidebook, a way to absolutely ensure safety in online interactions between volunteers and clients is to set up a private sys­tem through which all messages are sent, reviewed by staff before they can be read by the intended recipient, stripped of all personal identifying information by the moderator, archived for the record, etc., but that such a system can ruin an attempt to create trusting, caring relationships between volunteers and clients (and we provide a powerful example of how such a super-safe system ended up almost derailing an online mentoring program). Your efforts to ensure safety must balance with your program goals.

Among the many suggestions we make in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, regarding online safety is this:

The best way to ensure that clients and vol­unteers are having positive online experiences is for program staff to stay in frequent touch with both, to encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Also, it is fundamental that you establish and clearly (and frequently) communicate policies regarding online exchanges between volunteers and clients. (page 114)

Clearly, explicitly inform applicants for volunteering about your organization’s policies and procedures regarding safety, abuse prevention, and all aspects of risk management, as well as circumstances that would lead to a volunteer being dismissed. Be explicit. Also share your code of conduct or statement of ethics in writing. Ask applicants if they have a problem with any of the policies and procedures, code of ethics, etc.; such a discussion will help you find out if applicants are uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. Even though it is not legally binding, require applicants to sign a document that states they understand and agree to adhere to your policies and procedures and code of conduct; again, this can help you find out if an applicant is uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. It also affirms to volunteers that you make the safety of your volunteers, staff and clients a priority, which can encourage new volunteers to take such precautions with the utmost seriousness.

vvbooklittleThere are lots more suggestions and specifics about risk management, online safety, ensuring client confidentiality and setting boundaries for relationships in virtual volunteering in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. Suggestions for risk management are found throughout the book, in the chapters regarding developing and revising policies, designing assignments for online volunteers, interviewing and screening online volunteers, orienting and training online volunteers, basic techniques for working with online volunteers, and online volunteers working directly with clients, as well as the chapter written for online volunteers themselves. Our advice is based on both virtual volunteering practices, including micro volunteering and crowdsourcing, and the proven fundamentals of onsite, face-to-face, traditional volunteer management.

Also see:

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

volunteer managers: you are NOT psychic!

Photos & videos by & of volunteers online – privacy issues?

Exploitation of volunteers in refugee camps?

UNLogoFounded in 1991 as a temporary shelter for Somalis fleeing horrific violence in their homeland, the Dadaab complex in Kenya now houses nearly half a million refugees, and is supported by a variety of international agencies, including the United Nations. Children have been born there and grown up there – it’s the only home they’ve ever known. Conditions there are often deplorable. Ben Rawlence profiles nine of the camp’s residents in his new book, City of Thorns, and details the profound challenges in providing even basic services there, let alone helping refugees get out of their precarious situation. Rawlence was interviewed on the radio show Fresh Air (the broadcast is available for free online). And his comments about volunteers in the camp grabbed my attention – and not for the right reasons.

In October 2011, security conditions in the Dadaab camp changed drastically after the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers by al-Shabab, the radical self-described Islamist group. The kidnapping caused the U.N. to evacuate much of its international staff and shut down all non-lifesaving activities, such as counseling, sanitation support, public health education, fuel deliveries to the boreholes to pump water, schools, and training. Food rations continued, distributed by refugee volunteers, and the hospital was staffed by just a skeleton staff, providing minimal medical care. Rawlence explained this in the Fresh Air interview – the emphasis is mine:

In order to fill the gap, the refugees themselves had to step up and run things… Life deteriorated quite quickly. The situation in the hospitals became quite critical. Their water shortages were very grave. The food continued as normal, but there was an outbreak of cholera right afterwards because the kidnapping coincided with the rainy season. And the capability to deal with the cholera outbreak wasn’t there. So for about four to five months, the camp was plunged into a real crisis. And the aid agencies issued several warnings, saying that, you know, life can’t go on like this. We’ve really got to turn things around… What really happened was that a new model emerged where the camp was run by refugee volunteers. And the agencies realized that instead of paying expensive Kenyan or expatriate staff to run services that they could rely on cheap volunteers and pay them stipends. So while the services themselves are back and running, it’s not quite how it used to be. And although the refugees are happy because there’s perhaps more work for them, there is less depth of expertise. There are, you know, not so many foreign qualified nurses and so on that there need to be. So things have moved to a much more sort of shaky footing.

I think it’s absolutely required to involve refugees in the work of running the camp – and in decision-making regarding the camp. Creating volunteering opportunities for refugees, particularly the teenagers, is not just nice, but vital. But to staff positions with refugee volunteers – people living in extreme poverty, desperate for paid work – specifically so that money can be saved by not bringing in much-needed expert staff? That’s absolutely outrageous.

Now, to be fair, Rawlence is calling these people volunteers, and others call them refugee incentive workers. This is a class of worker used by the UN and other international NGOs that’s meant to get around government restrictions regarding refugees undertaking paid work. Refugees, per Kenyan law, cannot receive salaries, even if those payments are coming from international agencies; however, refugrees are permitted to receive what are termed as incentives or stipends. These stipends are nowhere near what a salary would be for the work they do as community health workers, carpenters, masons, security guards, teachers, nurses, clinical officers,  water engineers, sanitation workers, etc. – and nowhere near what these people need to support themselves and their family. They workers also receive no minimum hours of work, maternity leave or sick leave. Kakuma News Reflector – A Refugee Free Press blogged about this – and not kindly, and explains the perils for refugees in this situation quite well.

There’s a lot wrong with this situation – the primary problem is the horrific conditions refugees are facing and the impossible nature of their circumstances in terms of getting proper access to work and education opportunities, proper healthcare and proper security. But the words being used regarding these stipended workers is also troubling – this is not at all what volunteering is supposed to be.

Also see:
UN Agencies: Defend your “internships”

UNHCR mobile phone usage in refugee situations – pilot project

SMS as a tool for humanitarian aid is becoming an increasingly common tool, and you can find several examples of this highlighted on the TechSoup Public Computing, ICT4D, and Tech4Good forum branch – most posted by me, because I’m oh-so-interested in this subject.

UNHCR Innovation recently piloted an SMS system in two UNHCR operations: Esmeraldas, Ecuador and San José, Costa Rica. There is an online article highlight its experiences piloting FrontlineButt in San José, Costa Rica and lessons learned. The project, named Ascend, began as a collaboration between Stanford University and UNHCR Innovation.

The goals for this particular pilot were:

  1. How do we best utilize SMS to connect with refugees residing in an urban area?
  2. How do we embed a new tool like SMS in organizations to be sustainable, even after the pilot is over?
  3. What types of utilities does an SMS application need to appropriately handle the requirements of UNHCR and non-governmental organization (NGO) staff?

A few key takeaways were observed: one, the need for message classification to handle a large number of inbound SMS (think Gmail classifying messages as priority or not priority); two, the ability to have a feature rich application to conduct polls and surveys via SMS; three, a focus on visualizing the data received and report generation in order to convey effectiveness to potential donors.

Before the implementation of the project, project organizers sat down with four refugees to get feedback to help with this project. The interviews are available here. In short, some key takeaways were:

  • Phone presence – most of the interviewees had mobile phones and used them, though some only used them for family matters. The majority cited mobile phones as a good means of reaching them. There were also two who said it was better to call rather than send an SMS.
  • SMS uses – by and large, most of the interviewees wanted more information on activities and opportunities that were available to them. In addition, some thought it would be a good way to ask questions to UNHCR, ACAI, or Aprode.
  • Challenges faced – the biggest challenges for the refugees upon arrival was surviving in a context they were not used to. In a similar vein, they also found it very difficult to find jobs.

At the end of the monitoring and evaluation phase, UNHCR again contacted the same refugees to get their opinion on the project. These interviews were conducted over the phone and the interviews can be viewed here. The responses were overwhelmingly positive which is a big success for the pilot as a whole.

My favorite takeaway:

Initially we had started the pilot with a prepared list of contacts to message. Sending the blast welcome message explaining the project elicited many responses saying, “Who is this?” or “Why am I receiving this?” After interviewing refugees we began to see a pattern. People were hesitant to trust a message from an unknown number. We ended up tackling this issue by first advertising the number in UNHCR and the other NGOs so that people would become familiar with the project and expect to receive messages. In addition to that, we set up boxes in which people could drop their contact information and we would then add that phone number to the FrontlineButt database. In this way we increased trust in and awareness for the project.

Here’s the full article from UNHCR.

And for some perspective, here’s an article from October 2001: Handheld computer technologies in community service/volunteering/advocacy .

My job: reading the consequences of war

A lot of my current job is reading large volumes of text and then trying to synthesize them down to something smaller, easier to understand and quicker to read, for various reports, web pages, etc.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading a lot about what’s happening to people that have fled the violence in Eastern Ukraine, and people who have remained behind, as well as what life is like for Crimean Tatars and others that have had to flee Crimea. I haven’t cited all of my sources below – there are just too many. There’s no one comprehensive report on this crisis – yet. But all of the following is easily verifiable using news and humanitarian reports, all publicly available online:

In the areas of armed conflict, homes, buildings, roads and bridges, electricity, and water systems and other basic infrastructure are often severely wrecked. Heating systems are needed and sanitation is poor, access to medical and social services is inadequate, and access to food remains a concern. Many of those that have stayed behind are the elderly or people with disabilities. And winter is coming… many of those who have stayed behind, regardless of their politics, are experiencing not only the threat of violence, but also abduction, extortion and harassment. Many people, especially men, have disappeared without a word to family, and it’s not known if they’ve are being held somewhere or if they have been killed.

And that’s for the people that dare to try to stay in areas affected by war. Around 15,000 Crimeans of mainly Crimean Tatar ethnicity (80%) are now internally-displaced people (IDPs) and have sought refuge in the Ukraine mainland, mainly in the west. As of 8 August 2014, UNHCR reported a total of 125,032 from Eastern Ukraine, but this is probably way too low – there’s no widespread systemic way right now to register IDPs. A needs assessment conducted by OCHA in June 2014 indicates that a total of 1.52 million people may leave the Eastern regions of Ukraine, should armed conflict and violence continue, let alone escalate. Some IDPs are living in collective shelters, which were built for youth summer camps, and their numbers in those shelters are far beyond what buildings were constructed for. These shelters often do not have heating systems. And winter is coming…

IDPs usually do not have the appropriate paperwork they need to register for government services or to get a job in their new location. They can’t access their bank accounts because such have been frozen by the government here or in Russia, depending on where they have their money. IDPs have great difficulties to get legal services for protection from civil and criminal issues. Gender-based violence is on the increase, and largely unreported. There is a HUGE need to provide services to those IDPs who are suffering from psychological disorientation, alienation and stress. Communities where IDPs are living are starting to become wary of them, as any community does of people they perceive as outsiders: misunderstandings and misinformation about IDPs abound, and there is a growing need to promote respect and tolerance among everyone, through deliberate, facilitated community dialogue and communication – the stuff some people call touchy feel-y, but that I think prevents violence, even civil war.

And all of these problems are growing, every day, as conflict continues.

There are a lot of reasons the United Nations has been in Ukraine for so long – but this new, more urgent reason, is why I’m here, albeit oh-so-briefly. Such a huge challenge… so huge…

If you are saying, “I want to help Ukraine! How do I do that?” I think donating financially to any UN agency that accepts financial donations, such as the World Food Programme or UNICEF or UNFPA, and saying you are doing so for Ukraine, would be awesome. These agencies provide both direct service through their own staff and through local Ukrainian nonprofit/civil society organizations. Just please don’t send stuff – don’t collect t-shirts or baby supplies or what not if you are outside of Ukraine – it’s cheaper, more efficient, and better for local economies to buy things right here in country.