In June of 2019, on World Refugee Day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s annual Global Trends Report placed the number of displaced people at almost 70.8 million. In 2018, war, violence, and persecution all attributed to the 13.6 people who became displaced last year. There has never been a more important time to volunteer with the world’s 25.9 million refugees.
Understanding the different categories of displaced persons, as well as why people become refugees, where they come from and where they live now is important when considering volunteer programs. Over half of the world’s refugees come from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. Turkey hosts the most refugees, giving about 3.7 million of them a place to escape.
The refugee crisis continues to unfold on an alarming scale as 2019 ends. The Philippines, for example, saw an uptick of displaced persons in 2018. Of the 87,505 displaced persons in Mindanao, 80,439 of them were displaced due to conflict and violence. Though the enormity of the crisis may seem overwhelming, there is an array of organizations, including the UNHCR, that track, support, and assist in resettling refugees. In 2018, UNCHR assisted 92,400 refugees. Whether providing clothing, education, shelter, or sustenance, every effort counts.
The experience of volunteering to support refugees has a lasting impact—not only for the local communities but for the volunteers as well. For one, volunteering with Palestinian refugees in Jordan profoundly altered her perspective on the world, opening her eyes to the humanity and perseverance of displaced people in the face of difficulty and injustice. Everyone deserves a home, a place for their families to be safe.
For those ready to jump in and aid in refugee efforts, here are the top countries to volunteer abroad with refugees. From Europe to Asia, South America to Africa, these are the places and organizations where your support matters most.
As host to the largest number of refugees, most of them coming from Syria, Turkey has several volunteer opportunities. Turkey is seen as a gateway to Europe, which many refugees hope will give them more opportunities for a new life.
The programs that work with refugees in Turkey offer opportunities in cities like Istanbul and specific programs work with the younger refugee population.
Jordan is one country affected by the Syria crisis. Of the 755,050 displaced people seeking asylum from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, 84% of them live in urban areas and 16% of them live in three refugee camps.
Several programs offer volunteers the chance to assist Iraqi and Syrian refugees by supporting local crafts production, therefore helping to provide sustainable means of livelihood.
Nearly one million refugees have traveled through Greece in the past two years, fleeing Syria, Iraq, and other war-torn countries. Greece is home to more than 80,000 refugees, and there is no shortage of organizations to lend your support.
Refugees in Greece often come via the sea, and over 17,000 of them are housed on the islands. Volunteering with refugees in Greece can take many forms, from working with the Boat Refugee Foundation in the Moria camp to the Cross-Cultural Solutions Refugee Program on the mainland, there’s a fit for everyone.
The Serbian situation is slightly different from other countries, as they have almost 200,000 internally displaced people, in addition to the over 30,000 refugees. Serbia shares a border with Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and has become a key transit point on the Balkan Route – a path for asylum-seekers to reach Europe. But the biggest number of displaced people came from an exodus of the ex-Yugoslavia region in the early 1990s.
Volunteer with Help Refugees to provide these people with medical care, psychological support, and providing shelter, blankets, and food.
The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar continues to deteriorate, as the government is denying citizenship to Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in the predominantly Buddhist country. Over 700,000 residents of the northern province of Rakhine have fled their homes since August 2017 due to violence, and 40% of the ones making it to neighboring Bangladesh are under the age of 12.
Opportunities for medically trained volunteers as well as for positions working in the refugee camps along the border are both available.
Volunteer opportunities abound in the West Bank, where you can assist community development or support the Deheishe Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Palestine has long had a refugee population, stemming from the religious and political unrest in the region. About 15,000 people live in the Deheishe Camp, which was established in 1949.
The majority of the almost half a million refugees in Kenya are from Somalia and South Sudan. The still-developing country faces hardships that are compounded by the number of refugees, though several are returning to Somalia as conditions improve slightly.
Volunteer opportunities in the area include teaching in schools, medical care, and assisting with basic needs.
In 2019, Italy has been the destination of over 20,000 refugees, most coming by see from Northern Africa. Over 1,000 of them are unaccompanied children who arrive by sea – at great risk.
If you have a few weeks to spare, you can volunteer to assist these migrant populations via family reunification and aid for trafficked women. Or offer aid in Reggio, Calabria, and Camini, helping migrants adapt to life in Italy.
Due to the recent unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and continued problems in South Sudan, over 1.3 million refugees are now living in Uganda. Sub-Saharan African countries host more than 26% of the world refugees, numbering at least 18 million. To volunteer in Uganda, consider one of these programs.
What It's Like Volunteering with Refugees
As a volunteer, you will have many roles to fill. Socializing is a key component to these initiatives—as a volunteer, you will mingle with the people you are assisting every day, providing food, entertainment, and daily amenities. Many of these displaced peoples are without their friends and family, so these small acts of kindness can make a huge difference in their daily lives.
The best part about volunteering overseas is that you don’t have to stop when you return home. You can still maintain involvement with the organization by fundraising, keeping in touch with the refugees you met, and sharing your experience with friends and family. In an increasingly divided geopolitical environment, building and maintaining these connections overseas is important. These displaced people are comforted by the fact that there are people across the globe concerned about their welfare.
Additionally, speak up when you return home! Talking about your volunteer trip will educate friends and family about a crisis that can seem remote and overwhelming. Share your stories and the stories of the refugees you met. They all want the same things we do education, healthcare, career opportunities. Your continued efforts can help rebuild lives in the wake of tragedy.
This post was originally published in April 2018, and was updated in November 2019.