A significant number of ad-hoc volunteer organizations, assisted by hundreds of volunteers, are engaged in the humanitarian refugee response across Greece. These organizations often specialize in one sector or location, conducting activities such as rescuing refugees at sea, providing emergency supplies, safe spaces for women and children, and psycho-social support. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is the official partner working and coordinating with the Greek government on the refugee response. Formal coordination mechanisms include UN agencies and established international and national non-governmental organizations. Ad-hoc volunteer organizations which have not registered with the authorities, and volunteers not affiliated with a specific NGO, risk being left out of these coordination mechanisms and related information sharing.
Stakeholders have recognized the problem of a lack of coordination between established and ad-hoc actors since the start of the response, not in the least because of the multitude of partners. Excluding ad-hoc volunteer organizations and unaffiliated volunteers from the regular coordination mechanisms ignores the existing gaps in the response. Many ad-hoc volunteer organizations work in geographical areas where no formal organizations are present (yet), including informal camps and islands where refugees keep arriving. Other organizations may focus on a particular type of activity which is not addressed by the authorities, and/or implement activities for which there is little funding available by traditional donors.
More restrictive EU regulations and increased border interdictions at land and sea challenge the work of NGOs by diminishing protective space. Access to refugees is increasingly restricted as new arrivals are accommodated in formal refugee and detention camps usually closed to unaffiliated volunteers. This has had its effect on established organizations as well: following the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) declined to accept further funding from EU Member States and institutions. While perceived as problematic by some ad-hoc organizations, the official registration of NGOs by the Greek authorities might in fact benefit the refugee response if this means they are included in formal coordination mechanisms as well.
Cooperation between organizations, based on increased coordination, would further benefit both. Where ad-hoc volunteer organizations may be able to respond faster, filling gaps in the overall humanitarian response, established partners could train and develop these organizations, including by sharing accountability protocols. Meanwhile, lessons learned from the alternative infrastructure and human resources set up by ad-hoc volunteer agencies could innovate and improve humanitarian assistance. A quick search on Facebook shows that volunteer organizations are extremely effective in adopting social media, with thousands of followers. While traditional humanitarian and development actors are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of social media, some ad-hoc volunteer organizations, and hundreds of non-affiliated volunteers, rely on quick data sharing and response rates, getting people in the right place at the right time.
Effective coordination is a major component of the humanitarian reform agenda, and largely based on data collection and information sharing. To reduce gaps, increase effectiveness and benefit from the availability of skills of both established and ad-hoc volunteer organizations, coordination mechanisms should include all stakeholders involved in the response. Furthermore, cooperation between established and ad-hoc organizations should be encouraged. The innovative and effective use of social media is just one example of how transferred knowledge and experience might benefit all, increased accountability of ad-hoc volunteer organizations through the formalization of coordination another.