I was invited by the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) to speak at the above 2.5 day European Exchange Visit in Istanbul on 4-6th April 2016.The conference offered a unique opportunity to share the accumulated knowledge from the UK and to learn from the experiences and best practices of 28 representatives from 8 European countries who were working in 24 different NGOs.
It was my first visit to Istanbul. It was, therefore, eye-opening to observe the enormous scale of the challenges facing refugees as they arrive from the atrocities of war just across the border in Syria.
Istanbul is a welcoming and buzzing city. As a bridge between the East and the West, it is a wonderland of history, culture and traditions. It is a city that lives out, daily, the tradition of coexistence that has marked its very long existence at the crossroads. Today, it offers sanctuary to more than 45,000 Syrians as well as to thousands of refugees from other conflicts in the region.
At the heart of the city’s response to refugees is the Refugee Support Centre of the Human Resource Development Foundation (HRDF). Here, a team of selfless people, (similar to Coventry Refugee & Migrant Centre and City of Sanctuary), is determined to help refugees overcome their traumas. It was a privilege, indeed, to visit these offices and to observe the range of services offered there to refugees as they arrive in Istanbul. The team’s focus is wellbeing and therapy but they also offer advocacy and support. In addition, refugees are guided through the registration process.
The first day of the conference started with a welcome and introduction by Petra Hueck, Director of ICMC Europe. Petra thanked all partners and welcomed the Turkish delegation’s interest in learning from examples of volunteering in other parts of Europe.
She told the audience that ICMC serves and protects uprooted people; refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants. It does so regardless of faith, race, ethnicity or nationality. Since its creation in 1951, ICMC has identified and accompanied over one million refugees into resettlement. Additionally, ICMC provides expert resettlement personnel to UNHCR field operations through the ICMC-UNHCR Resettlement Deployment Scheme. Via its offices in Turkey and Lebanon, the ICMC Refugee Support Centre processes refugees for resettlement to the United States. As a result of this effort, the ICMC has already resettled 5,000 refugees in the EU and strives with partners to increase the number of people seeking protection there. As part of SHARE, a European resettlement network for cities and regions, ICMC has been able to work on integration projects. These have included awareness- raising, cooperation at national and local levels and the promotion of the need for refugee protection.
SHARE is a network of 4000 different civil society organisations, NGOs, faith and other community groups working with refugees in different parts of Europe. SHARE recently signed a joint statement on the welcome and protection of refugees in Europe. City of Sanctuary and CRMC are co-signatories.
Elf Selen Ay, of UNHCR Istanbul, then offered an overview of the legal frameworks for refugee protection, reception and local integration. He said there is need for durable solutions for all refugees in Turkey, (Syrians and non-Syrians alike).
This was a long day. We started at 8:45 am and finished at 7:30 pm and there was further discussion between the EU and Turkish civil societies over dinner.
The topics covered were:
- Engaging volunteers in offering legal advice, reception, psycho-social support and the integration of refugees. (This part was covered by the Dutch Council for Refugees, Portuguese Refugee Council and Caritas Italy)
- Building a culture of volunteering: national and local strategies. (I spoke in this part with a representative from the Danish Refugee Council).
- Partnership and coordination of volunteers. (Charlotte Cooke of Migration Yorkshire offered a detailed presentation of this organisation’s work and also of the regional integration forum.
- Training and supporting volunteers. (Danish and Portuguese Refugee Councils)
- Working with volunteers to support refugees in Turkey. (This was done in thematic break-out groups based on the above topics).
My talk introduced the UK and regional context and defined the number of Syrians resettled, (which is very small compared to the 450,000 population of Syrian refugees in Istanbul).
I then talked about good practices of welcome and volunteering in both the Coventry and the Leicester City of Sanctuary movements, giving a detailed overview of volunteering at Coventry Refugee & Migrant Centre with a focus on some of our challenges and opportunities.
In responding to questions from the floor, I had to explain some of the policies and approaches we have adopted in recruiting and retaining volunteers. My explanations were received very positively.
This day offered a visit to the HRDF offices in Istanbul. A substantial amount of time was spent discussing the generation of an online training tool for volunteers concerned for refugee protection. We also explored together how to develop a strategy for volunteering.
Some of the key messages that I noted from the three days were that:
- Due to the absence of a volunteering culture in Turkey, there needs to be cooperation, exchange of practices and piloting of volunteering programmes to engage local citizens in delivering volunteering and community services to refugees.
- There will be a final publication, with training and awareness-raising tools, designed to pave the way for better integration of refugees.
- 40% of those refugees supported by HRDF are not registered with the police. 40% are female and 60% male, of which 19% are vulnerable cases.
- It is easier to work with refugees in camps than with those who have moved into cities.
- It is very unlikely that refugees will find jobs and put down roots in Turkey because 37% of the Turkish economy comprises the informal sector.
- The Turkish Red Crescent reported that 66% of it’s annual budget is spent on food and 20% on refugee health at 12 border-crossing points.
I was pleased that I could represent CRMC and City of Sanctuary at this conference where our experiences in building a culture of welcome and volunteering was very well received.
Trustee City of Sanctuary