Europe’s refugee crisis: the thinking philanthropist’s response?


Jo Andrews


It is impossible not to be profoundly moved and disturbed by the images of thousands of people scrambling to reach Western and Northern Europe to escape conflict, refugee camps, poverty and intolerance. Latest estimates suggest that by the end of the year close to a million will have arrived in the European Union via Greece and the Western Balkans, or across the Mediterranean to Italy. They are heading principally for Germany, Sweden and Austria. UN figures suggest they are predominantly refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, but around one third come from other locations, such as Albania, Kosovo, Pakistan and Nigeria, and are unlikely to qualify for refugee status.

This is the largest movement of people in Europe since the end of the Second World War and it is hardly surprising that many funders, including those that have not traditionally given in this field, now want to help, but an emotive appeal to a grant-maker to do something NOW is not usually conducive to sensible grant-making. Equally ploughing ahead with a strategy set in concrete, which ignores this profound event is nonsensical: What is the thinking philanthropist to do?

Here are some thoughts and observations. I can’t claim they are all my own; many come from a recent Ariadne tele-briefing with more than 80 funders from around the world.   

It is tempting to dash off and offer immediate help, but there is plenty to do and this is a crisis that has been a long time in the making and will be a long time in the solving. Is emergency relief something your foundation understands and has expertise in delivering? Is this something that private funders should be doing at all?

There is a strong argument from a number of grant-makers that this sort of operation is best left to international agencies, big NGOs and governments that have long experience of humanitarian crises. They will be in receipt of substantial funds from the public – the UK Disasters Emergency Committee raised £27 million for Syrian refugees by March 2015, for example.

But others will disagree. This crisis has many faces and it may be that funders who have good grassroots links with Greek, Italian or Hungarian NGOs can help with extra funds.

The humanitarian needs are also pressing when refugees reach their destinations. Civil society and small operations have been making a real difference, for example, in the camps at Calais, or in the receiving cities in Germany, with relatively small sums of money – funds delivered here, often via social media, make a real difference to the mental and physical health of refugees, who have desperate needs for food, books, shelter and clean clothes, as well as wifi and phone connections. 

Funders should think about the consequences of accepting new refugees and others into new communities, in particular, how public and local services will cope well. This is important, because on so many levels, it will impact on both the refugees and their hosts. Foundations that operate on a city or regional level will find their advantage here. They should have the connections and understanding to know where their funds can really assist – how they can help in terms of policy and strategy or in partnering with city and local authorities. Funders that work at this level may find they can partner with similar funders in other European cities where there are benefits in sharing expertise and approaches.

But the long term has not gone away, and in many senses this remains the level where funders may well have most impact, partly because it is often the most neglected. Funders specialising in the field of migration have been dealing with a landscape that has been changing gradually over many years, and this crisis is like an earthquake that re-arranges the landscape suddenly: what will it look like afterwards?

An upsurge of sympathy for the refugees and a very human desire to help has been prominent across Europe, but polls suggest that the public attitudes about immigrants are not changing. Roughly put, around 25 per cent of Western European populations welcome the arrival of the refugees, 25 per cent are opposed, and 50 per cent sit in the middle.

Some of the long-term outcomes of this crisis depend on the 50 per cent who express no strong opinion. Will our societies integrate the new arrivals swiftly and enable them to contribute and thrive, or will opinion turn against them and fuel far right xenophobia? In the long term, what is the EU going to do?

Durable policy ideas seem to be in short supply. Will continued migration and squabbling sink the agreements and institutions that have survived for 60 years? If so, what might replace them?

These are big questions and hard to answer, but funders have a real role here in helping to define the contours of the new landscape. Easy to say, but difficult to carry out. 

It is important for funders to use a range of help and support to help re-draw their strategies and programmes.

Three vital words here are information, contacts, context. 

Get informed, join the tele-briefings, read the research and the reports, use not only your contacts and expertise, but also those that exist in your networks, and before you put anything into action think, does this fit the new context? Ariadne will be holding fortnightly tele-briefings on the crisis for funders for the next few months.  Any funder is welcome to join us. 

Jo Andrews is director of Ariadne.

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