Travel Tips

Everything You Need to Know About Volunteering With Refugee Aid Organizations in Europe

Since my trip to Calais and Thessaloniki last summer, I’ve gotten a steady stream of emails from readers interested in volunteering abroad. When I was researching organizations helping refugees in Europe, I had a hard time finding accurate information. A lot of people are having trouble finding reputable organizations to volunteer with, finding information about lodging, etc. So I thought it would be helpful to provide an outline of everything you need to know about volunteering with refugee aid organizations in Europe.

Eritrean Church in the Calais Jungle Refugee Camp
Eritrean Church in the Calais Jungle Refugee Camp

The first thing you need to know is that things change rapidly on the ground. Refugee camps get shut down, moved around, and the organizations serving them are left scrambling to move their operations. Thus, it is absolutely crucial that you maintain some flexibility in your travel plans. I achieved this by booking one-way airfare to every destination. Flexibility is important because some of these aid organizations are a completely disorganized mess. They’ll tell you they need you, but when you show up they scratch their heads in confusion. Things also change rapidly in terms of the flow of refugees and volunteer demand, so be prepared for that.

As I pointed out earlier, the aid organizations handling Europe’s refugee crisis (and in many areas they are the only ones handling it) get overwhelmed with situational changes and don’t always respond to emails on time. Reach out to them at least one month in advance so you’ll know where you’re going once you arrive. You’ll also be able to make transportation and lodging arrangements well in advance, as well connect with fellow volunteers before arriving.

Which Organizations Should You Volunteer With in Europe?

There are lots of organizations you can volunteer with in Europe. Grassroots organizations have really taken the lead and done amazing work with very little money. It’s also easier to get involved with small grassroots organizations, since they’re easier to communicate with and there’s overall less red tape. I volunteered with the Al Khair Foundation and Help Refugees while I was in Europe last summer. Based on my research of refugee aid groups as well as feedback from fellow volunteers, here are the aid organizations I would recommend volunteering with: 

Al Khair Foundation: The Al Khair Foundation really blew me away. For starters, they were the only organization serving the Softex Refugee Camp while I was there. The camp’s extremely basic amenities were on par with what you’d see in refugee camps near war zones. But the Al Khair Foundation and their team of enthusiastic volunteers did their best. They had a massive refrigerated truck on-site that contained food. There was also a large yellow school bus, from which they distributed meals to over 2,000 camp residents every day. On Eid they set up bounce houses and games inside a barn. They tried really hard to make the situation as comfortable as possible, especially for the kids.

Al Khair Foundation's truck at Softex Refugee Camp in Thessaloniki Greece
Al Khair Foundation’s truck at Softex Refugee Camp in Thessaloniki Greece

A couple of years ago Al Khair had a program called A Week in Greece. Volunteers who raised 1,000 Euro for the Foundation received free airfare between the UK and Greece, food, and lodging during a week-long volunteer trip. The current page references a 2015 trip to Idomeni (a camp that has been shut down), so I have no idea if this program is still active. I would reach out to the Al Khair Foundation via the email address on that page to find out. This is a great way to volunteer because the organization takes care of everything. All you have to do is show up. 

Help Refugees: Help Refugees has a warehouse in Calais where they continue to accept and organize donations. Since the shut-down of the Calais Jungle, Help Refugees has expanded a lot of their efforts to Greece. Last I heard, they were serving the Softex Refugee camp alongside the Al Khair Foundation.

CalAid: CalAid is another organization that was founded to serve the Calais Jungle Refugee camp but has since expanded to Greece. Their warehouse was next door to Help Refugees’, so some of their volunteers occasionally came over to help us out. I heard great things about CalAid from fellow volunteers.

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins San Frontieres: Medecins San Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders as we know them in the U.S., is an esteemed organization. They run clinics and provide medical services at refugee camps throughout Europe. Their office in Thessaloniki is an organizational mess. They will tell you you’re needed on another island and after you’ve made travel arrangements, they’ll follow up saying they screwed up – they need you in Athens. If you’re a medical professional, your experience may be different. In any case, you can really make a huge impact volunteering with Medecins San Frontieres in Europe.

International Medical Corps: If you want to volunteer your medical services without dealing with bureaucratic BS from Medecins San Frontieres, consider The International Medical Corps. Last I checked, they have a presence in Greece and while I don’t have any personal experience with them, I can’t imagine they’re as unorganized as Medecins San Frontieres.

Migrant Offshore Aid Station Foundation: The Migrant Offshore Aid Station Foundation does some of the most important work of any refugee aid organization in Europe. They literally pull refugees out of the water, saving thousands of them from drowning. They have several large boats operating in the Mediterranean and are responsible for rescuing over 30,000 people since their founding four years ago. This is the type of volunteer assignment you want to dedicate more than a few days to. If you’re heading there this summer, I recommend getting your volunteer application in now.

Team Humanity: The Migrant Offshore Aid Station Foundation has received a lot of media coverage, so I imagine they’re flooded with volunteers (no bad pun intended). In case you’re rejected by MOAS, Team Humanity is a good alternative.

Proactiva Open Arms: Proactive Open Arms is a Barcelona-based NGO that focuses on rescuing refugees in Greece. They are currently stationed in Lesvos and their story is pretty amazing. They started off in September 2015, rescuing refugees by swimming out to sea and pulling them back to land. Eventually they got some paddleboats and nine months after they started, they had a fleet of large rescue boats. Even if you can’t support them as a volunteer, Proactiva Open Arms is worth supporting financially. They accept donations via credit card and PayPal.

Boat Refugee Foundation: The Boat Refugee Foundation carries out rescue operations in Lesvos and Samos, Greece. The great thing about Boat Refugee Foundation is that they arrange accommodations for volunteers for just 10 Euros per night. They take volunteering seriously, so the volunteer application includes a long list of questions.

Small Project Istanbul: Small Project Istanbul is a great little organization that helps refugees adjust to their new community in Turkey. If you’re passing through Istanbul this summer and want to spend some time volunteering, Small Project Istanbul is a great organization to volunteer with.

Refugees Welcome: Refugees Welcome is a great organization for Europeans who want to open their homes to refugees who would otherwise be sheltered in camps. They currently operate in 20 countries, including Canada. While Americans can’t get involved directly, they can help out by donating money to the organization.

Resources for Volunteers in Greece

If you’re looking to volunteer in Greece, there are a few resources you should be aware of. First, you should connect with whatever organization you choose to volunteer with on Facebook. It’s also a good idea to check out volunteer groups (i.e. “Northern Greece Volunteers). This can help you coordinate rides, arrange a place to stay, etc.

The Greece Volunteer Info  Packet is also incredibly helpful in understanding the European refugee crisis, the many ways volunteers can prepare for their duties, as well as region-specific information. Volunteering can be incredibly stressful and nothing like what you see in the news. You might want to read this Refugee Crisis Reality Check for Volunteers for a better idea of what to expect. Lastly, is a great place to learn about which organizations are in dire need of volunteers.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll cover more about what to expect when you’re volunteering with refugee aid organizations in Europe. I’ll be discussing my volunteering experience at the Ann Arbor Art Fair DO in July. In the meantime, if you have any questions about volunteering in Europe this summer, feel free to post them below.

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  1. Where did they go after the Calias Jungle closed?

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