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Study: Refugees welcome, but support needed

Vera Kern / cc
August 7, 2016

Giving German courses, showing people around, help in navigating paperwork: A study shows that many people in Germany are volunteering to help refugees. It also indicates that they need more professional support.

Flüchtlinge warten am 25.09.2015 in der Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung für Asylbewerber in Regensburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Weigel

Organizations are in need of people who will commit themselves to volunteer to help refugees on a long-term basis, according to a study released by Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung after interviews this spring with 25 aid workers for 17 local authorities. And, the report found, aid workers need more professional suppiort.

"We're certainly not seeing any drop in the commitment to help," Bettina Windau, the director of Bertelsmann's civil society program, told DW. "It's considerable, and it's very stable." However, she added, for aid to be effective in the long term, there needs to be better coordination of the work of civilian volunteers with that of local authorities.

Volunteers are often confronted with questions that lie outside their areas of competence, Windau said, particularly on administrative issues such as navigating asylum laws or filling out forms for people who have already been granted residency. "That's actually where the real work begins: applying for Hartz IV, perhaps filling out something to do with an apartment, and so on," said a member of a refugee aid team in Flensburg, referring to Germany's welfare program.

Researchers spoke to aid workers from the southeastern city of Passau - where, at the peak of arrivals, up to 5,000 people a day crossed into Germany - to Flensburg in the north, where there have at times been dozens of refugees stuck at the train station, waiting to travel on to Sweden. Helpers in smaller municipalities were also interviewed, as well as volunteers in eastern Germany, where xenophobia often runs especially high.

Refugees and aid workers meet in the Ruhrgebiet city of DortmundImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hitji

'Commitment has evolved'

Aid workers are better organized than they were last summer. "Spontaneous commitment has evolved into structured procedures," Windau said. In many places, associations have been set up and aid has been professionalized. There are even preparatory courses for volunteers, in which they can learn about potential intercultural misunderstandings and other aspects of aid work.

If the initial focus had been on providing refugees crammed into converted sports halls with the bare necessities, efforts now are aimed at integration. In this respect the volunteers are often performing tasks that would normally be the responsibility of the state. They're giving German courses, looking for apartments, translating forms and applications, and organizing football tournaments and holiday programs for children. For many refugees, volunteers are an important bridge to the authorities.

So far, this work has gone pretty well - not least because some volunteers do it more or less round the clock. There was no feedback in the study that suggested that anyone felt overwhelmed or exploited.

Volunteers were interviewed shortly after the sexual assaults that occurred on New Year's Eve in Cologne, when initial reporting led to anti-refugee statements by some media outlets and political figures. "Many people wanted to take a very conscious stand at that time against right-wing ideology," Windau said. She added that volunteers in Dresden and Gera - where the anti-immigration Patriotic Europeans Against the "Islamization" of the Occident movement is strongest - have built a particularly strong network, both among themselves and with the authorities.

Windau said committed volunteers were a central pillar of aid work, particularly following three unrelated attacks this summer by men who had applied for asylum in Germany. According to the Bertelsmann study, volunteers have helped to spread a positive attitude toward refugees in their communities. The study recommends that towns and municipalities increase coordination units - and do more to publicly acknowledge the work of volunteers.