Grassroots responses to the refugee and migrant crisis

Europeans searching for - and creating - opportunities to help

While many fear a mass influx of refugees and political support for an immediate and adequate solution is limited, citizens across Europe have voiced their sympathy. The discrepancy between government and the will of citizens seems to fuel grassroots initiatives, as obligations towards refugees are often compassionate rather than legal, and is felt by citizens throughout Europe who act on a shared sense of responsibility and desire to help.

Hundreds of refugees arrive on European soil daily facing an uncertain future, from Italy to the Greek islands and even Scandinavia through Russia by bike. Meanwhile, many undocumented migrants who were denied asylum fall through the safety net as they can not return to their home country and do not have access to services of their country of arrival. Civic initiatives and grassroots responses are driven by compassion, solidarity, empathy and common realisation that we can share the burden and simultaneously find innovative solutions and creative opportunities for undocumented migrants, those awaiting asylum and those otherwise caught up in the refugee crisis.


As men, women and children – many fleeing Syria’s civil war – continue to arrive from the east, thousands of undocumented people travel on towards Germany, the favoured destination for many. Although there are several reports on violent attacks on migrants and refugee-centres, the media have also widely covered a much kinder and welcoming response. ‘Refugees Welcome‘ was written on signs at Bundesliga football matches, and volunteers welcomed refugees arriving at the Munich train station with water, snacks and baby packs. German activists offer immigrants a lift in their cars, an initiative inspired by West Germans who smuggled people out of the communist East in Cold War. As Germany is expected to take up around 800.000 refugees in the coming year, initiatives such as Berlin-based Cucula are likely to prove their value they aim to improve the situation of refugees by helping them to build up their own future through training and education in furniture design and education.

Sports and community-building

Projects like Cucula contribute on the social level and showcase solutions enabling refugees to find a place in society. An obstacle many refugees will face without documents, but even once granted asylum is isolation from society, which different initiatives attempt to alleviate. Bayern Munchen offers football training, free tickets and language courses to refugees, Vereinssport für Flüchtlinge is a team-sport aid project, which will soon compete in the regular regional league.


Similar initiatives and activism are found throughout Europe. Icelanders stepped up to try to fill the humanitarian void, urged the Icelandic government to do more than take in 50 Syrian refugees, and many offered their homes and support. Bottom-up and non-governmental initiatives can offer relief in the asylum housing crisis experienced in many European cities. The Rotterdam-based housing corporation Woonbron has offered to house refugees in vacant office buildings and schools, and flat-share platforms and Air B&B-type initiatives for refugees have emerged in France, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. The majority of the staff at Magdas Hotel in Vienna is consists of refugees and the hotel furthermore has two hotel suites are dedicated to refugees whom are minors and separated from their families. A similar initiative has emerged in Augsburg, Germany where a former nursing home was transformed into Grandhotel Cosmopolis, housing artists, musicians, tourists as well as refugees. A more drastic and controversial potential solution is provided by an Egyptian billionaire, who has offered to buy an island off Greece or Italy and develop it to help hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from Syria and other conflicts.


Several art projects raise awareness and offer a platform and safe place to start a sometimes uncomfortable public discussion on this sensitive topic. Miniature refugees roaming the streets of Amsterdam as part of a guerrilla street art project Moving People. The project displays miniature dolls as refugees in the streets of Amsterdam and The Hague from September on. On park benches, at stations and bus stops, on road signs, at traffic lights, in windowsills, in malls, in office areas; they will be popping up everywhere. Finders are encouraged to share pictures of the miniature dolls and their stories on social media. In Limbo Embassy is a moving embassy representing refugees in limbo. The project follows the movements of the we are here refugee action collective; a group of refugees in limbo, gathered in Amsterdam. In Limbo Embassy is a neutral meeting place travelling and presenting itself to different audiences, creating direct contact between citizens and refugees. The Embassy will begin their tour in Amsterdam, after which they will continue to other parts of the Netherlands.

The Jungle

The refugee camp in Calais has attracted humanitarian aid and initiatives for years, but and wide range of support and relief activities have recently sprung up across Europe. Different citizens and activists groups send nurses, legal aid, food kitchens; basic humanitarian aid. Families and organisations regularly driving to Calais with supplies such as food, bedding and warm clothing. Calais Action has several local branches and is a grass roots giving movement supported by a group of volunteers who aim to provide support to those in Calais and raise awareness of the growing humanitarian crisis currently occurring. Jungle Books/Livres de la jungle in French is a library in France’s growing refugee camp ‘the Jungle’, set up by a British teacher. Besides stocking around 200 donated books, the library supports a school that offers classes to the refugees and asylum seekers that live in the camp. The Music across borders aims to help residents of the camp by donating musical instruments and create awareness of the importance of creativity and culture in empowering people disenfranchised by war, climate change and a barbaric immigration system. Lowlands Festival in the Netherlands is where the initiators of Doneer je Deken (‘Donate your blanket’) started, initially collecting camping supplies left behind by visitors, now organising several activities and collecting a wide range of items which will be delivered to humanitarian organisations in the Calais refugee camp. 

‘The Jungle’ in Calais is one of the largest make-shift European refugee camps, but with hundreds of refugees arriving daily at railway stations and airports throughout Europe, smaller settlements of undocumented migrants emerge in parks and other public places. The Collectactief movement in Brussels, largely made up of undocumented migrants, organized an event where migrants cooked meals for 60 undocumented refugees currently residing in the Maximiliaanpark, accross the Immigration Service Office.

For those looking for ways to support or set up their own initiative, several articles write different ways to get involved. The Guardian lists several organizations and grassroots initiatives welcoming donations, and the Dutch Volkskrant lists several bottom-up initiatives across the Netherlands and the EU.

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