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Globe and Mail: How the EU could build a volunteer force to help refugees

(This originally appeared in the Globe and Mail as “How the EU could build a volunteer force to help refugees” on September 17th 2015.)

Despite the complexity of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Hungary, the country’s government is trying a simple solution this week: implementing new laws that give more latitude to its military and criminalize many humanitarian activities. Unfortunately, hardline government responses to refugees in countries with low capacity are not uncommon.

But instead of passively watching the implementation of such laws, the European Union has an opportunity to address the humanitarian crisis with a coordinated civil response—and do some institution building at the same time. Across Europe there is widespread public interest in providing humanitarian assistance while the long-term policy options get debated.

Greece and Hungary are two countries on the frontline of this crisis, and in both I’ve found people eager to help where governments can’t or won’t. In Budapest, many Hungarians are resisting the hostile and clumsy government responses. Most of the anti-migrant signs along Hungarian roads are government sponsored, but you can spot homemade “refugees work here” signs in shops. While anti-immigrant protests draw small crowds in Budapest, the city is teeming with altruistic efforts from soup kitchens to temporary housing. As the government is closing off the country’s Serbian border with a razor wire fence, the Central European University in Budapest has started an emergency academic program for student refugees.

The Greek island of Lesvos is a major thoroughfare for refugees coming out of Turkey and Syria. Exhausted and water-logged migrants are deposited early in the morning on isolated beaches and told to hike across the dry hills to refugee camps. Local Greeks have offered help—even through a summer financial crisis that led to worries about job losses or long-term erosion of tourism. Right now they collect money and food for the camps. But for many months it has been illegal to offer rides in private cars to undocumented people marching through the heat toward the processing camps of Mytilene. Unfortunately, the local government has criminalized these kind acts—likening such activities to human trafficking. The weather has been accommodating so far, but the coming cold winter will make the route through Lesvos even more treacherous.

Instead of watching local authorities punish volunteers and militarize the humanitarian response, the EU can take a constructive cue from these Hungarian and Greek citizens and respond to the crisis by organizing a comprehensive civilian volunteer force that channels civic energy and coordinates relief efforts. Spontaneous aid caravans that stretch from Vienna to Budapest are evidence of the civic-mindedness of the region’s citizens.  What if emergency needs in education, public safety, health, environment, and other domains could be partially met through coordinated action by young people paying off their student debt from the European system of higher education? Students across Europe have been actively setting up temporary shelters on university grounds, collecting old mobile phones for migrant families, and shuttling food to refugee processing stations. Many of these same students will graduate with significant debts in countries with tepid economies.

National service programs are in place worldwide—and are especially effective when they are tied to the relief of student debt. AmeriCorps has its critics, but since its inception more than 800,000 alumni have earned more than $2.4 billion in education awards. The United Nations Volunteers program effectively coordinates multinational teams of volunteers. Particular countries within Europe, including Holland and Switzerland, have good experience managing national service programs. Europe already has a mechanism for coordinating volunteers, but it is mostly geared toward places outside Europe and not tied to the relief of student debt.

Connecting student debt relief to public service is not a new idea. Still, it is one that could help with Europe’s immigration, education, and identity problems. Designing a continent-wide civilian service program would be logistically complex, but the EU loves to support Europe-building initiatives. Such a program would give energy to the European project, and most important, direct youthful altruism. It would help fill out the capacity of weak local governments—certainly a better outcome than watching them criminalize goodwill and militarize complex humanitarian disasters.  Instead of letting national governments discourage do-gooders and come down hard on desperate people, the EU could coordinate a systemic civic response.

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