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“Lots of people want to do something”

Sociologist Serhat Karakayali on the background to the big increase in the number of people helping refugees.

© dpa/Uwe Anspach - Flüchtlinge am Drehkreuz Mannheim

Who are the many volunteers looking after refugees in Germany, and what is their motivation? Serhat Karakayali of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research at Humboldt University, himself a son of Turkish immigrants, has studied the structures of the assistance provided to refugees, together with political scientist Olaf Kleist.

Mr Karakayali, there has been a considerable increase in willingness to help refugees in Germany, and lots of people are doing voluntary work. Can you put a figure on this increase?
That’s difficult, because most helpers work in structures they have created themselves outside of big associations and institutions. But a significant increase was also reported by most of the established organizations we interviewed. The number of volunteers working with refugees has risen by around 70 percent since 2011, i.e. since the beginning of the civil war in Syria.

In what ways do the people get involved?
Previously, voluntary work with refugees focused primarily on helping the people with integration and organizing their everyday lives. This still happens today: the helpers help them deal with government authorities, translate for them, give them language lessons, help with transport. In the current exceptional situation, with so many refugees arriving, more basic forms of help are also needed – the volunteers distribute food, sort clothes that have been donated, or set up tents for temporary accommodation.

What motivates the helpers?
Several factors play a role. According to our survey, the volunteers’ motives are primarily humanitarian and relate to human rights. By contrast, religion seldom plays a role as a motive. The development of the past few weeks and the dramatic television images of the refugees have had a big impact and made many people want to do something. And of course it’s also the case that, if I can help someone who is obviously in great need, it makes feel happy.

Is there is a “typical” refugee helper?
Yes, you can say that. According to our survey they are typically female, well educated and financially not badly off. We also found that a particularly large number of people with a migration background want to get involved. They account for 40 percent of the volunteers; that’s twice their share of the overall population. When these people help, their feeling is: “I can understand the situation you’re in.”