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The role of voluntary organizations in receiving refugees in Stavanger: Seven years on.

Written by Norma Wong (Ph.D), researcher at the Centre for Intercultural Communication (SIK), VID Specialized University.


Back in 2016, not long after I first arrived in Stavanger, I was involved in a voluntary initiative to welcome refugees from Syria who had just moved to Rogaland. The initiative was called “Pleased to meet you”. It was started by a Dutch photographer and a group of international and local residents who got together through organizing outdoor activities for refugees in the local reception centre (“mottak”). Back then, the asylum system in Norway was overwhelmed. Few resources and attention could be allocated beyond basic needs such as shelter and food. Many volunteers took up the initiative to create events that filled the long days that refugees had to endure while waiting to receive an answer about their resettlement in a Norwegian municipality. The “Pleased to Meet You” initiative eventually evolved into a small community of volunteers and refugees, and the photographer came up with the idea of taking dignified portraits and telling the stories of individual refugees on social media. Over months of work, we put together a grand photo exhibition at a local café opened by the vice mayor of Stavanger. This resulted in the publication of a photo book that was sold to raise funds. It was one of the many volunteer initiatives that appeared all around Norway back then. I remember there was a strong welcoming spirit in which it felt as if the whole city was putting in efforts in one initiative or another.


Seven years on


Seven years on, as our friends gradually find their way into Norwegian society, the news from Ukraine brings back shocking memories and has sent shockwaves across Europe. Immediately the Ukrainian community in Stavanger started to organize themselves initially to voice their opposition to the war in the multiple peaceful demonstrations over the first weeks of the occupation. Simultaneously, they also started to gather as a community in face of the unfolding crisis. There was the need for practical help and information, as well as emotional support and channels to share the traumatic experience as well as appeal for help from the wider society and demand for political action from state actors on international platforms.


Within a noticeably short timeframe, other voluntary groups in Stavanger have also mobilized themselves to help. There are groups that already in the first weeks of the occupation started to collect, sort, pack, and deliver resources to be sent to the Ukranian refugees that started arriving in Poland. Big and small fund-raising initiatives started to develop by various groups such as student unions, and other charity organizations.


Following the EU directive and from the parliament of Norway to offer collective temporary refugee status to victims of the Ukrainian war, the Stavanger municipality’s response has been to immediately organize themselves to work with the local civil society organizations in preparation for receiving refugees. As of 10th March, the municipality announced that it is allocating 5 million kroner (approx. 500.000 euros) to the Norwegian Refugee Council, and 1 million kroner to other voluntary organizations for initiatives related to settling Ukrainian refugees[1].


The website of the municipality of Stavanger


Researching the role of community in crisis response


At the Centre for Intercultural Communication (SIK) in Stavanger, we have been working for the last two and a half years with a project called MAVI [2] which has focused on the labour market participation of newly arrived refugees. This has given me the opportunity to delve into the field of migration studies, especially refugee integration policy in Norway. One central theme of my postdoctoral study, situated within the MAVI project, has been the role of civil society and social networks in the process of refugee integration. As I reflect on the development in the past couple of weeks, I am impressed by the quick and organized reaction by the many voluntary groups, as well as the municipality, in mobilizing resources and volunteers towards offering practical help in such a crisis situation. These immediate responses also remind me of the actions of civil society in welcoming refugees from the war in Syria back in 2015. This time around, my impression so far is that organizations and the public sector have learnt from previous experience, and one of their key response strategies has been to make use of the existing network that has been established and strengthened over the past few years.


Differences in contexts


However, the current context is different. For example, there is already an existing Ukrainian community in Norway and Stavanger; whereas, in 2015, there were very few Syrian migrants in the region. The demographic of refugees we are expecting this time will be mainly women and children, whereas, in 2015-2018, the majority were young men. This time, the refugee status is already given collectively on a temporary basis, but most of those who arrived in the previous crisis had to first wait at the reception centre through a long approval process for their refugee status. All this means that there will be different needs and priorities this time.

A case to follow up


As the war enters the third month of increasingly brutal fighting, much is still unknown. What we do know is that over four million Ukrainians have already fled the country and over 7 million have been displaced internally in Ukraine (IOM). As a researcher in refugee integration policy and civil society study, I will be following closely how Stavanger prepares itself to receive those who are arriving in the coming weeks. In particular, I will pay close attention to:

1) actions by voluntary groups in organizing themselves and mobilizing others to offer help, including funding raising, collecting and delivery of resources, dissemination of information, etc.; and

2) collaboration between the voluntary sector and the municipality, and other players involved, in response to the new needs in society brought by the crisis.

I have also lived in Stavanger for about seven years now. One of the things I find endearing in this city over the years is the many active groups here, both formal and informal communities which are building networks across nationalities, cultures and backgrounds, and offering help where it is needed. It is also an affluent city with resources and capacity to spare. As I am writing, much is underway in organizing an immediate crisis response. I am curious to follow up with what happens next, and how it compares with last time.

[1] See news on Stavanger Municipality official website, 10th March 2022 – Stavanger er klar til å bistå | Stavanger kommune [2] See www.maviproject.no

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