Hertie Innovationskolleg

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Supporting refugees in Berlin, one year later: asylum seekers‘ perspectives on the role of NGOs

Over the past year, since the increase of refugee numbers coming to Germany, the role of NGOs and volunteers in supporting the newcomers and complementing government services has been extraordinary. However, according to a recent survey at the Hertie School of Governance, which explores the experiences of Berlin refugees with public services, most asylum seekers perceive NGOs as relatively unimportant in service delivery. Whether it’s about German language classes, accommodation, or accessing health services, between 40% and 50% of refugees indicate that they found NGOs not to be relevant. The only areas where the latter seem to play a somewhat larger role are labour market preparation, education and ensuring personal safety (though here too only around a third of respondents see non-governmental organizations as important). Even further, when asked to assess their interaction with representatives of non-governmental organizations and with volunteers, a third of all respondents were entirely unable to do so.

These findings show that through the eyes of Berlin refugees, and in stark contrast with public perceptions, NGOs are barely visible. A likely explanation is that many refugees have a hard time distinguishing between the state and the non-governmental actors offering them support. Most refugees are likely to have had little experience with civil society in their home countries to begin with.

For service providers this is not however without consequences. From a government perspective, for instance, it means that most responsibility for services delivered is likely to be associated with state institutions alone, whether these services are assessed positively or negatively.

But the most important effects are related to NGOs themselves. Surely, if non-governmental organizations have such a low profile, it is unlikely that refugees will be aware of what they have to offer. In fact, the results of the same study show that refugees usually look up to other refugees (70%) and more rarely to apps/ social media (32%) for information about the services they need (neither NGOs, nor state institutions, on- or off-line are seen as information sources regarding critical services). For all the multitude of initiatives, apps and products being offered and despite the wide presence of NGOs, refugees rarely seek out non-governmental organizations and many of these services are unlikely to even reach their intended users.

Considering the magnitude of the refugee crisis, the current mismatch between existing NGO resources and refugees, and the resulting waste of opportunities seem to be particularly unfortunate. NGOs involved need to create more visibility for themselves and their role in the settlement and integration of refugees. Moreover, it is important for them to make use of their own ground experience related to the different sub-groups of refugees (based on age, gender, native languages etc) and identify the best channels and strategies to make information about existing services available to a variety of potential users.

The urgency of the refugee influx has perhaps left NGOs with little energy for anything else except for basic support. Nonetheless, from an NGO perspective, stepping up communication and outreach efforts might turn out to be the very missing link in the refugee integration process.