Free Labour and Humanitarian Aid: Targeted by States, Ignored by International Organisations

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The humanitarian sector relies on unpaid labourers or ‘volunteers,’, especially during disasters and conflict responses. However, the spontaneous yet significant contributions made by these volunteers remain largely unrecognised.


The entire humanitarian sector is based on unpaid labour, or ‘volunteering’. Across diverse contexts spanning natural disasters and conflicts alike, unorganised volunteers, also referred to as spontaneous volunteers, play an integral part of the humanitarian response. Their involvement is not only valued by local communities and nations during periods of crisis but also by international entities such as the United Nations. It is particularly relevant to highlight UN’s acknowledgment of the pivotal role played by these volunteers, aiming to incorporate “volunteerism in key global development processes” in their endeavours to achieve the 2030 sustainability goals.

The work of spontaneous volunteers is an integral part of the humanitarian response. Not only do they perform the initial aid, but they are also, as I reveal in my forthcoming PhD thesis, relied upon by states and international organisations to do so. Nevertheless, the free labour performed by countless civilians worldwide largely remains unrecognised by states actors and international organisations. In this article I will examine what role spontaneous volunteers play in responding to forced migration and how they are engaged with by state actors and international organisations. I will also discuss the moral obligation that state actors and international organisations have towards spontaneous volunteers whose work they are dependent upon.

My research is based on the engagement of spontaneous volunteers on Lesvos during the so-called Greek refugee crisis in 2015. In 2015, Europe witnessed the onset of what, at the time, was the largest forced migration and displacement crisis since World War II, with over 1 million forced migrants arriving in the continent. Just over 500 000 of these forced migrants arrived on Lesvos. For nine months, spontaneous volunteers and grassroots organisations were the primary responders to the humanitarian needs of forced migrants on the island. This was the case partly because international organisations were slow to respond to the needs of the arriving forced migrants, and partly because international organisations such as UNHCR and the IFRC struggled to get permission by the Greek state to initiate their humanitarian project on the island.

Although international organisations actually were present on Lesvos during the late summer and autumn of 2015, their contributions were invisible to many spontaneous volunteers. Many scholars have criticised spontaneous volunteers for this lack of awareness; however, spontaneous volunteers’ evident lack of knowledge about the wider situation on Lesvos led to what I see as a healthy impatience. This impatience and sense of urgency drove spontaneous volunteers and grassroots organisations to demonstrate a remarkable flexibility and agility in responding to on-the-ground needs. Thanks to their non-bureaucratic organisation and flat hierarchy, they were able to efficiently implement sophisticated boat spotting and monitoring systems and establish fully operational refugee transit camps whilst also conducting beach search and rescue operations — all prior to the official humanitarian responders professionalising the response during the late autumn on the island.

In addition to their lack of awareness of the wider situation, the engagement by spontaneous volunteers has been subject to much criticism. One critique is that they lack training and experience, which makes them difficult for international organisations to work with. On Lesvos, it was obvious that spontaneous volunteers grew overly protective of what many viewed as their projects. As a result, when international organisations increased their presence on the island in September 2015, many spontaneous volunteers and grassroot organisations were so personally invested that they were reluctant to collaborate. Although this conflict is important to the critical investigation of spontaneous volunteerism as a phenomenon, critiques of spontaneous volunteers’ actions on-the-ground should be weighed against their actual contributions. After all, the alternative to the mobilisation of untrained and personally invested spontaneous volunteers would have been increased suffering and death amongst the arriving forced migrants.

During the so-called Greek refugee crisis in 2015…over 500 000 of these forced migrants arrived on Lesvos. For nine months, spontaneous volunteers and grassroots organisations were the primary responders to the humanitarian needs of forced migrants on the island.


Spontaneous Volunteers are Sidelined and Targeted

International organisations actively sidelined and ignored spontaneous volunteers whom they worked alongside in Lesvos. This was evident in many situations I observed. For instance, during the 2015 autumn when spontaneous volunteers had to manage up to 2000 cold and wet forced migrants who were stranded outside a transit camp, called Stage Two, in Lesvos. The camp was run by a well-known international organisation, but the organisation chose to close the camp and leave when they saw the enormous number of forced migrants arriving. In their absence, spontaneous volunteers stepped up and managed the situation, providing water, shelter, and information to the forced migrants. This situation occurred whilst I was a volunteer coordinate on the island, and to my knowledge, spontaneous volunteers were not recognised for their effort. In my thesis, I describe this and several other examples in more detail, demonstrating the ways in which the contributions and efforts of SV are ignored.

States actors, on the other hand, largely engaged with spontaneous volunteers through criminalisation and policing. I have in the past written on how states criminalises spontaneous volunteers, i.e. uses ‘legal or quasi-legal mechanisms and criminalisation practices – and through lawfare’. When referring to policing of spontaneous volunteers, I draw on Peter K Manning’s conceptualization of policing as a dramaturgical performance, wherein the police serve as symbolic embodiments of state authority, effectively communicating messages of state power.

I argue that international organisations sideline and ignore spontaneous volunteers whilst states criminalise and police them because the presence and actions of these volunteers highlight the failure of states and international organisations to fulfil their obligation in preventing human rights violations.

As we have discussed, states and international organisations are dependent on the work of spontaneous volunteers and humanitarian response. In the next section, I argue that international organisations and states have a moral responsibility to care and support spontaneous volunteers during and post engagement.


A Duty of Care

In humanitarian contexts, the ’duty of care’ refers to the responsibility of humanitarian actors, organisations, and entities to prioritise the safety, well-being, and protection of individuals affected by crises or disasters. This duty extends to beneficiaries, staff members, volunteers, and anyone else involved in humanitarian operations. It encompasses various aspects, including providing adequate assistance, ensuring the security of aid recipients and personnel, upholding ethical standards, and adhering to humanitarian principles such as neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The duty of care underscores the ethical and moral imperative for humanitarian actors to prioritise the dignity, rights, and welfare of those they serve, while also considering potential risks and mitigating harm in their actions and decision-making processes.

When considering the application of a duty of care framework to advocate for the responsibilities of international organisations towards spontaneous volunteers, the situation becomes more complicated. From a moral standpoint, organisations collaborating with spontaneous volunteers arguably have an obligation to support them both in the field and after their departure. This moral stance faces two significant counterarguments that warrant attention. Firstly, spontaneous volunteers lack official affiliations with organisational structures, and secondly, the organisations they partner with never explicitly invited them to participate. Spontaneous volunteers act of their own will.

Spontaneous volunteer are volunteers that typically seek flexible engagements, preferring self-organized, project-based, and informal arrangements with looser connections to organisations or as members of decentralized groups with minimal (if any) ties to overarching entities. Consequently, these volunteers actively seek autonomy from the structured environment of organised volunteerism. Consequently, it becomes understandably challenging for external or formal organisations to uphold a duty of care. Nevertheless, despite spontaneous volunteers choosing to engage and often being unaffiliated with international organisations, they play a crucial role in crisis response.

As a reminder, spontaneous volunteers are often first responders on-site, providing initial aid and rescue efforts until official response teams become involved. In some instances, such as on Lesvos, local and foreign spontaneous volunteers were the primary humanitarian responders for nine months and. Volunteerism has been integrated into the UN’s plan for implementing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, highlighting its significance as part of the UN’s humanitarian initiative to combat poverty, hunger, AIDS, and discrimination against women and girls. Consequently, spontaneous volunteerism can be considered an integral component of humanitarian response efforts. It logically follows that the duty of care owed by the UN and international organisations to their staff should also be extended to the spontaneous volunteers they engage with in the field.

States can also be argued to have their own unique responsibility to support spontaneous volunteers. Besides incorporating volunteerism into their strategy for implementing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the UN emphasises that states should establish and maintain, both in legislation and in practice, a safe and supportive environment for volunteers, while also advocating for the adoption of effective practices in promoting, facilitating, and managing volunteerism. Echoing this sentiment, the IFRC has called for the establishment of an environment that safeguards and supports volunteers across all sectors as endorsed by the IFRC council for delegates in 2019. Consequently, the IFRC urges UN member states to utilize national laws, policies, plans, and programs to ensure the safety and security of volunteers, aligning with Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions regarding the protection of civilian aid workers.

In simpler terms, seeing that spontaneous volunteers are integral to the humanitarian response, I argue that when IFRC call for ‘establishment of an environment that safeguards and support volunteers across all sectors’, this should include spontaneous volunteers. Furthermore, when IFRC urges UN member states to utilise national law, policy plans, and programs to ensure the safety and security of volunteers, this should also include spontaneous volunteers.

There are many reasons why it is challenging for international organisations and states to support spontaneous volunteers during and post engagement. These include structural issues, liability issues, financial costs, and the general lack of recognition for the cost of caring for humanitarian workers. The challenges of recognising the cost of caring, however, goes beyond what state actors and international organisations can ensure alone. It also relates to how society views and addresses mental health challenges, which is a topic that deserves reflection far beyond this article.

Spontaneous volunteers are unpaid workers. They play an instrumental role in relieving suffering and saving the lives of force migrants and other individuals affected by misfortune or crises. States, international organisations, and the broader society have a responsibility to acknowledge their valuable contributions, to place them within systems of care, and to support the mental health challenges that might come from this line of unpaid work. These volunteers deserve access to adequate support systems both during and post engagement.

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