Pilot Action Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Networking Workshop of civil society organisations in Thessaloniki (July 2019)

On 10 July 2019, the Aristotle University team organized a networking event among civil society organisations in Thessaloniki entitled: «Refugees, migrants and volunteering: on the road to inclusion». 40 representatives and members of local civil society organisations came together in LAB29A of the NGO SolidarityNow. The workshop began with a presentation of the project and the key findings of the VAI study in Greece. Reflecting on some of the issues highlighted in the study, the general secretary of Caritas Thessaloniki presented the organisation and its activities focused on two issues affecting voluntary engagement of migrants and refugees: limited knowledge of the Greek language, and the role of Greece as a transit country which hinders long-term commitment. He additionally pointed to administrative and bureaucratic problems, the problematic function of project-based funding, the coexistence of professionals often with the same roles as volunteers. 

The floor then opened to other participants highlighting issues coming through their own experience from the field. Initially, the distinction touched upon the distinction between solidarity and volunteering as well as the difference between a solidarity activist or volunteer and an organization’s salaried employee. In the latter case, the participation of a migrant / refugee in voluntary action may be problematic in the sense that it entails unequal status and therefore immigrants’ volunteering starts from a different starting point and is differently perceived.

The discussion then focused on the legal and institutional framework of volunteering in Greece. This was an issue of concern to all participant organizations, as the almost inexistent and extremely fragmented such framework has caused many and serious problems for organizations. Some of these problems related to the legal grey zone not allowing for a clear-cut distinction between volunteers and informal workers within an organisation. In this frame, different types of organisation being approached in different ways by competent authorities: on the one hand, large established organizations which systematically employ many volunteers do not usually face problems with the authorities, while, on the other, small organizations with few volunteers are often subject to labour inspections which may result in unfounded – yet highly problematic – charges for undeclared work. In this context, voluntary participation of immigrants / refugees becomes even more precarious, and for some organizations impossible. 

Nevertheless, the boundaries between volunteering and unpaid work are often unclear, especially when volunteers cover stable and lasting needs of organizations. Many choose volunteering to gain work experience, hence volunteering may be conflated with apprenticeship, whilst many young people see volunteering as another “tick-box in the CV”. So a question was raised beyond the problematic legal framework of volunteering in the Greek context: where does volunteering begin and end? In relation to this, as far as migrants are concerned, participants referred to practices where the organisations’ beneficiaries were “obliged” to provide voluntary work, e.g. to cover emergency interpretation needs.

Then the discussion came to the issue of the ideological basis of volunteering and the need for it. Criticism has focused on the fact that today the organizations themselves do not always promote an ideological background of volunteering; rather, they simply cover their needs. It is, however, the organizations’ responsibility to cultivate the ideological background of volunteering. As stated, also in relation to the institutional framework: “the point is to create a legislative framework and organizations to be clear about their goals and their work”. 

Finally, it has been stressed that, beyond the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the city, in relation to the refugee ”emergency”, there are many second and third generation immigrants who are active citizens, and this should not be ignored.

The floor was then given to the representative of local NGO Symbiosis, who painted the broader picture of immigration and asylum pointing out that a number of issues remain open following recent (as of 7 July) government change, relating, for instance to the future of open refugee accommodation sites versus detention centres, the way they operate and their impact on life prospects and integration in the long run. 

The discussion then opened to explore the possibilities for collaboration between civil society organisations and the role of Academia and the University.

The issue of establishing a solid institutional framework has re-emerged as it is clear that institutional issues block all processes. Since 2014, a relevant legal framework has been in the process of consultation. It has even been argued that even “bad” legislation that would however protect volunteering is better than not having a legal framework at all. At this point some participants shared their experience and knowledge on the institutional framework of volunteering in other European countries and relevant EU legislation. In any case, political will is important, and even in countries where there is a tradition of volunteering and long-established institutional frameworks, this can be circumvented (as is the case in Italy with the recent attacks on civil society and solidarity to migrants).

Focusing on refugee / migrant volunteering, representatives of organizations have shared experiences in this regard. Some positive experiences were reported, and it was argued that, in this process, it is the organization’s responsibility to make sure that migrants / refugees who contribute voluntarily are properly included and not dissociated. There has been a consensus that organizations should integrate them also into their operation and decision-making procedures, so that they feel they have something to offer and a say in how things are done. Of course, also in the case of immigrant volunteers, participation may also aim at enriching their CVs, or possibly strengthen their asylum claims. Finally, it is worth noting the experience of refugee who was present at the event and described his personal experience as a volunteer, emphasizing the importance of solidarity and the liberation one feels through volunteering.

Event promoting best practices and innovation programmes (October 2019)

The first workshop closed with the promise to come back to some of the highlighted issues in a second and larger meeting aiming at more participants and a wider and more varied audience. This was materialised as a full-day event on 31 October 2019 at the premises of the University (Amphitheatre III, KEDEA), under the title “Refugees-migrants, solidarity and volunteering: obstacles and challenges for civil society”. The event gathered 138 attendants, among others from local civil society organisations, the academic community (including students), migrants and refugees, who came together in four sessions, including academic presentations, roundtables, documentary screenings and an art exhibition. It began with a presentation of VAI and the comparative results if the study in the four countries taking part in the project.

It then focused on the issues highlighted at the July workshop, aiming to respond to some of the questions raised with respect to the legal framework and the grey zones between volunteerism and professionalism through a series of academic presentations. 

Professor K. Tsitselikis (Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies, University of Macedonia) focused on the juxtaposition between voluntarism vs professionalism. Based on the Greek experience of the last few years, he highlighted the difficulties and contradictions of transitioning and shifting from one condition to the other, or even combining the two. He concluded by emphasizing that it is wrong to idealize the former while demonizing the latter.

Assistant Professor G. Aggelopoulos (Department of History and Archaeology, Aristotle University) overviewed the experience of organizing refugee education during 2015-16, exploring the utilization of the “knowhow” of activism and volunteering. He emphasized that the latter have been taken into consideration by the previous government while recruiting “coordinators of refugee education”, for the first time in the Greek public sector (by adding voluntary experience in the job specification for that role). In assessing that experience, however, he highlighted the distinction between state and voluntarism, since the latter stops where the former begins.

Lawyer Ms Githkopoulou talked about the almost non-existent, unclear and fragmented legal framework of volunteering in Greece, trying to approach the legal distinction of volunteering from dependent employment. She expressed some basic considerations of applicable law on the subject, noting that the current legislative characterization of volunteering based on specific quantitative criteria is problematic. She then overviewed the legal pathways to safeguard voluntary engagement in organisations, including e.g.: specific proof of evidence of voluntary participation; evidence for distinguishing remuneration for paid employment from grants expenses coverage for volunteers; tax and accounting treatment of volunteer expenses and grants; provisions for volunteers’ insurance coverage in case of an accident.

Doctoral researcher Mr Ch. Baliktsioglou (School of Spatial Planning and Develiopment, Aristotle University) focused on the contradictions of the relationship between civil society and volunteering. These contradictions and the evolution of volunteering, he noted, are related to a broader socio-political transformation occurring in the 1980s and 1990s in the USA and UK. This transformation relates to the consolidation of a neoliberal political order and the reshaping of the social field, where a key element is the promotion of the virtues of volunteering and the consequent change in the relationship of the citizen with the state. In this view, there is an ideotypical transformation of the citizen into a volunteer, which is presented as social liberation, while in fact it is a form of alienation that separates state welfare and its structures from the political body of citizens who are turned into a body of volunteers.

These talks were followed by a roundtable of good practices in policies and projects implemented locally in Thessaloniki. Ms V. Politi, former head of the Social Policy and Gender Equality Department of the Municipality of Thessaloniki, presented the local authorities’ projects aiming at the reception and social inclusion of migrants and refugees, and the challenges they have faced in implementing them. Specifically, she presented four relevant projects: “Arrival Cities”, the Shelter for Asylum Seekers, the REACT housing project and the Immigrants Integration Centre.

Ms M. Topalidou, a nurse and co-founder of voluntary association Albatros, presentation her organisation’s activities and experiences of intervening in refugee camps. Based on the moto that “all people are equal, without any exception”, the association is active in: covering basic needs, offering legal advice, psychological support, language training, painting and music classes, referring refugees and other vulnerable groups to relevant services and organisations, promoting communication between refugees and local communities, organizing recreation events, etc.

Ms S. Athanasiou, Solidarity Center Manager in the NGO SolidarityNow, presented the Employment and Job Counseling Service developed and provided at the Thessaloniki Solidarity Center and the SolidarityNow Refugee Support Center in Thessaloniki. Ms Athanasiou referred to the challenges relating to the risk of long-term unemployment. Alongside the overall lack of descent jobs for recently arrived refugees, she pointed to the beneficiaries’ lack of Greek language knowledge and their lack of required skills (or the non-recognition of qualifications/degrees or work experience, when they do have such skills), the continuous changes in their living conditions, poor access to unemployed support services (including limited vocational training opportunities), restrictions due to legal and administrative barriers, as well as discrimination and intercultural differences. To counteract these challenges, the services provided by Solidarity and Refugee Support Centers in Thessaloniki include: social service, employment counseling, psychological support, legal service, accounting support service, creative activities and expression, and education.

Ms Siafaka, Cultural Manager and language mediator, presented two EU-AMIF-funded projects implemented by the NGO United Societies of the Balkans (USB): a) EU VOICE, which supports the integration of third-country nationals and promotes the exchange between them and their host countries through cultural volunteering experiences, and b) BRIDGES: Promoting inclusive communities across Europe, which brings together four cities in five European countries to tackle issues such as xenophobia, cultural barriers and social divisions through sports, cultural and community services.

An active and lively discussion followed up, whereby various other participants from local civil society organisations (PRAKSIS, ARSIS) as well as volunteers stepped in to speak about their experiences. Next came a second Roundtable in which voice was given to recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers who shared their stories of migration as well as encounters with volunteering: Richard, a Congolese artist, painter and musician, who lives in Greece in the last three years and is now a recognised refugee; Mansoor, a civil engineer from Afghanistan, who has arrived with his family a year ago and has claimed asylum; and Habib, a Ghanaian kindergarten teacher also seeking asylum in Greece having arrived last  year. An alternative creative perspective of volunteering involving community and refugee participation through the arts was then presented by V. Tsartsanis, artist and Mastermind behind the Asklepeion team: a video showing this work was screened during his talk, while photos and paintings were exhibited in the outside space over the day. The session closed with the projection of two short movies:

  • A fiction film entitled “Bitte warten” (Please wait) on the topic of waiting during the asylum processes in Austria and its impact on people’s life, written, produced and directed by VAI partner Carolin Vonbank (FREIRAD) and Emad Husso. Both creators have kindly intervened via skype to talk about the movie.
  • The documentary “Escape from Syria: Rania’s odyssey”, telling the story of the trip of Rania Mustafa Ali and her friend Ayman from war-ridden Kobane in Syria to Austria. Filmed with a hands-on camera by Rania herself, the film was directed and produced by journalist Anders Hammer who kindly cleared the movie so as to be specifically screened at the event.