Why civil society engagement is crucial for refugee protection

Forum on the Partnership Principle in the UN Global Compact on Refugees

Contribution by Dr. Ludger Pries, Professor of Sociology, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

5 July 2022

The UN New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants of 2016 and the then following UN Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and the UN Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) of December 2018 were substantial steps to draw public attention to one of the most important issues of the 21st century. Forced migration is considered as a challenge, but they also open opportunities for social and institutional learning and cooperation, for making a better world. According to the more general content of this essay, the terms forced migrants and refugees are used here in a broader sense of forcibly displaced persons, who migrate across national borders (IOM 2019: 41, 109; UNHCR 2021: 2, 12f).

The aggression of the Russian government against Ukraine and the forced displacement of millions of civilians underline the need to advance in a global responsibility and organization of forced migration. One aspect that is often underestimated, but crucial for opening chances of a fairer living together is the engagement of civil society. Efforts should be improved to institutionally embed it in the overall better governance of migration and refugee protection (concerning related ambiguities see Pries 2019).

Both, GCM and GCR underline the relevance of international cooperation on the governance of international migration and asylum. They mainly focus on, the agency of States and their options to ‘address’ or ‘manage’ (forced) migration and on the refugees and migrants themselves and their self-reliance or resilience. In this process, the macro or state level as well as the micro or individual levels are addressed.

In the future, the role of civil society and their organisations related to refugee protection should be strengthened, e.g. by partnering (Panizzon in this blog). There is empirical evidence for their crucial role in putting in practice refugee protection and assistance for migrants – especially in cases of ‘organized non-responsibility’ of EU member states (Pries 2018).

Refugee protection in the EU: engagement between States and civil society

Just like at the United Nations (UN), also at the EU there is an accentuated difference between public declarations and formal rules, on the one side, and the actual practice of refugee and migrant protection, on the other.

 The Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is a nice legal framework, except the non-working Dublin regulation therein that attributes all responsibility of refugee protection to the states of first entrance. The actual local and national efficacy often reveal an ‘organized non-responsibility’, that is, passing on responsibilities between and inside member states and the EU and its agencies but, at the same time, blaming those member states being challenged most by the arrival of forced migrants (Pries 2018: 98). The most often used Dublin rule requires that the asylum seekers have to apply in the Member Sate (MS), where they first entered irregularly the territory of the EU. This  leads to an unbalanced distribution of responsibilities.

The EU MS at the door of the EU, where refugees most frequently arrive, are especially challenged, by their geographical location and by the Dublin mechanism that leaves them alone with all responsibilities. The very fact that most asylum claims are submitted in Germany –  a country without external EU borders – underlines the failure of the Dublin Regulation.

For decades Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus had to manage the arrival of  the great majority of refugees coming into the EU, since 2021 and then the Russian war against Ukraine beginning in 2022, Poland and other Eastern EU MS are also challenged. This was not such a sensitive issue when refugee movements towards the EU were small. Since the 21st century, the Mediterranean and more recently Eastern MS have to cope with increasing numbers of asylum seekers. Many of them then push along to other MS like Germany and France. Nevertheless, there is no mechanism for sharing responsibilities and resources between all EU MS. This can be coined organized non-responsibility because the MS that are  most challenged by asylum are left alone. The MS that are  not so much affected, not only duck away but even point at other MS criticizing either insufficient border controls or insufficient reception conditions – or both.

Even before the refugee movement from the Middle East, especially Syria, to the EU especially since 2015, civil society and its organizations related to refugee protection filled the gap left by the organized non-responsibility at state level. For the Mediterranean MS, like Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, we could demonstrate this, although we encountered many differences between the countries. For instance, in Spain and Italy there is a long tradition of civil society engagement in refugee reception and protection.

In Spain, for example, already in 1979 the organization CEAR (Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado, Spanish Commission of Refugee Assistance) was founded aiming at promoting the compliance with human rights and refugee protection norms. In 2015, approximately 150 full-time staff and 450 volunteers supported CEAR’s work in Spain. In the General Assembly of CEAR participate all political parties, religious associations (e.g. Caritas, Protestant Church of Spain, Islamic Association of Spain) and other civil society organizations active in CEAR. In addition to its headquarters in Madrid, CEAR has a total of ten support offices in Barcelona, Bilbao, Málaga, Seville, Valencia, Ceuta and Melilla, and in the Canary Islands (Pries 2016: 19; Graetz et al. 2016: 63ff).

In Italy, the Tavolo Asilo, a national network of refugee- and asylum-related organizations sponsored by the UNHCR, is of particular importance in Italy. This round table already in 2006 had warned that Italy was the only EU member state without explicit asylum legislation. In February 2009, following a fire and the escape of hundreds of refugees from the Imbriacola camp on Lampedusa in January of that year, the Tavolo Asilo had issued a joint statement by all of its member organizations pointing out the problematic conditions on the island. The facility on Lampedusa that was originally equipped as a first aid center, since January 2009 had become the Identification and Identification Center (Centro di identificazione ed espulsione, CIE), and the fire outbreak was not least because of overcrowding, but possibly also because of protests (Pries 2016: 23f; Friese 2014: 19). As well as many other networks, committees and round tables, the Tavolo Asilo stands for the organizing and coordinating efforts of civil society in Italy (Gredzinski et al. 2016). A study conducted in refugee camps in Syracuse, Italy, in 2015, concluded:

 ‘Given the innumerable obstacles that migrants face upon arrival in Syracuse, NGOs and civil society provide an important means for migrants to exercise their right to internationally mandated services that provide a foundation for their ability to establish a future for themselves. […] NGOs must often fill in this gap for marginalized persons such as migrants.’ (Kersch 2016: 81).

In our study performed between 2013 and 2016, compared to Spain and Italy, civil society networks and organizations of refugee protection were weaker and still in a process of stabilising in Greece, Cyprus and Malta (Gansbergen/Witkowski 2016: 180).

A study in Greece, conducted some years later, found ‘a new social volunteering and NGOs will certainly fill to some extent the gaps of the policies for the refugees’ social integration and creative presence in the hosting areas’ (Chtorius/Miller 2017: 73). Cusumano (2017: 90) describes new private providers of Search and Rescue (SAR) activities in the context of refugee protection in the Mediterranean Sea and concludes that ‘civil society volunteers contributed to an unprecedented degree to covering the needs of initial care and integration.’ For many European countries, the chapters in Feischmidt et al. (2019) document the decisive role of civil society engagement in the refugee movement of 2015.

Ambivalence of civil society engagement and need of its institutionalization

Civil society engagement opens opportunities for refugee protection and for learning processes in host societies. It fills in some gaps left by organized non-responsibility of States, it brings ‘down to earth’ the needs of forced migrants. However, it also includes several challenges and risks. Civil society and its organizations may be overburdened with responsibilities and tasks they are not professionally prepared for, e.g. language courses, legal advice or psychologic treatment. Their engagement might be exploited by state authorities through delegating genuine state responsibilities without adequate rights and resources. Therefore, rules and resources for cooperation and partnership have to be negotiated and fixed.

Similarly, the ambivalent role of intergovernmental organizations (IO’s) like UNHCR and IOM in the EU migration and refugee policies. For them, Lavenex (2016: 554) identified ‘three strategies of institutional interplay’:

counterweight, whereby international organisations act as independent complement or corrector to EU policy; subcontracting, referring to the outsourcing of EU project implementation to international organisations; and rule transmission, a process in which international organisations engage in transferring EU rules to third countries. Whereas greater organisational authority and autonomy have allowed the UNHCR to keep an independent voice as counterweight to EU action, both the UNHCR and IOM have become increasingly involved in the implementation of the EU’s ‘global approach’ to migration via subcontracting and rule transmission.’

The tensions between capacities and competences of civil society organizations in relation to those of public authorities are well documented. Meanwhile state agencies sometimes cooperate with NGOs as equally important actors, in other cases NGOs are exploited for certain services and sometimes marginalised and even excluded from specific tasks. For example, Afouxenidis et al. (2017: 32) analysed the ‘dealing with a humanitarian crisis’ in the Greek island of Lesvos. They found, that initially 2015 up to the decrease of refuge arrivals in spring 2016 (due to the EU-Turkey Agreeement), a sound cooperation and strong interactions between local and national state agencies, NGOs, and self-organised volunteer groups.

Afterwards, the EU instrumentalised the presence of the IOs in Greece. Afouxenidis et al. (2017: 29) conclude, that ‘the positive model that was developed on the island was overturned by decision-making processes which were imposed by international agencies’. Concerning competing competences and roles of state authorities and NGOs the authors conclude (ibid.: 32):

‘In some of the facilities a wide range of services are provided by dense networks of NGOs and state authorities, while in others the mobilization is relatively weaker or almost absent. Restrictions to volunteers’ access to formal facilities have been gradually imposed. As a whole, information provision for a series of issues, from health services to asylum and relocation procedures remains restricted and irregular.’


In sum, civil society organizations play a crucial role in managing refugee protection and ‘filling in the gap’ that in almost all countries exists between normative frameworks for refugee protection and the unwillingness or incapacity of state authorities to fulfil their corresponding duties. Hereby complex networks of civil society could be found that go from loosely organised social movement activities up to professionalised new and older civil society organizations dedicated to refugee protection.

Research underlines the ambiguous role and function of NGOs in refugee protection. On the one hand, they make a difference in the overall refugee protection, but on the other, NGOs feel and fear to be exploited and overloaded with functions that belong to public authorities and state agencies. Besides this fundamental ambiguity, research reveals a high diversity of characteristics and constellations of organized civil society engagement.

The global frameworks like GCM and GCR should give more attention to the fundamental role of civil society organizations. GCM and GCR mention these several times, but specific criteria for partnership and cooperation would be helpful in order to prevent the risks and ambiguities mentioned before. This could be a leverage for improving both, refugee protection and the acceptance of refugees and migrants in host societies. According to the historical claim ‘no taxation without representation’ the corresponding institutional strengthening, professionalizing and embedding of civic engagement in the overall governance of (forced) migration has still to be analyzed scientifically and shaped politically. Without releasing the States and international governmental organizations from their responsibilities, the substantial engagement of civil society and their organizations related to refugee protection is a matter of fact and will be needed in the future.



Afouxenidis, A.; Petrou, K.; Kandylis, G.; Tramountanis, A. and Giannaki, D., ‘Dealing with a humanitarian crisis: refugees on the Eastern EU border of the island of Lesvos’, Journal of Applied Security Research, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2017, pp. 7-39.

Chtorius, S. and Miller, D.S., ‘Refugee flows and volunteers in the current humanitarian crisis in Greece’, Journal of Applied Security Research, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2017, pp. 61-77.

Cusumano, E., ‘Emptying the sea with a spoon? Non-governmental providers of migrants search and rescue in the Mediterranean’, Marine Policy, Vol. 75, 2017, pp. 91-98.

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Kersch, A., Asylum in crisis: structural violence and refugees in Siracusa, Italy, University of Central Florida, Orlando, 2016.

Lavenex, S., ‘Multilevelling EU external governance: the role of international organizations in the diffusion of EU migration policies’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 42, No. 4, 2016, pp. 554-570.

Pries, L., ‚Einleitung‘, Versunken im Mittelmeer? Flüchtlingsorganisationen im Mittelmeerraum und das Europäische Asylsystem, Gansbergen, A.; Pries, L. and Witkowski, J. (Eds.), Transcript, Bielefeld, 2016, pp. 9-28.

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Pries, L., Introduction: Civil Society and Volunteering in the So-Called Refugee Crisis of 2015—Ambiguities and Structural Tensions, Feischmidt, M.; Pries, L. and Cantat, C., Refugee Protection and Civil Society in Europe, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp. 1-24.

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