‘’I don’t believe love has borders’’
‘’I came here to take down walls, not put them up’’
All very noble………….right? Except it’s a (small) selection of responses I’ve heard from volunteers justifying sexual relationships with refugees. Refugees to whom they are actively providing a service, as professionals and volunteers.
‘’Do you know Maria?’’ *
‘’ Hmm, not sure, who’s she?’’
‘’You know, the Spanish girl who’s probably shagging Ali Reza from 5b’’.
Now there’s a defining clause you won’t forget in a hurry. It’s so commonplace to hear that it doesn’t even elicit a raised eyebrow, just a weary sigh from those who’ve seen countless ‘ voluntourism romances’ before. Volunteers who spend more time eating Feta than helping – who think helping includes integrating sexually. Days of Feta, Nights of Romance.
#afternoonsofinstagram #refugeecampsofinstagram #hotrefugeesofinstagram #fetaofinstagram
A Feta romance= a Fromance.
A truly toxic mixture of Shirley Valentine and Bono. Those of us who try to bring common professional standards ask:
“If you wouldn’t do it at home, why do it here?”
Would you, like the woman in the picture, as a nurse, teacher or care worker have clients stroke your hair? Exhibit A is a prominent figure amongst volunteer organisations; the problem goes top to bottom. She’s so proud of this that it’s on her Facebook, as a publicly accessible picture. We won’t get into the cultural sensitivities around touching woman’s hair in Muslim communities. I may have blurred her face but her Facebook is filled with pictures of refugees whose faces are on public display………..with no consent.
Since refugees began pouring into Greece’s islands and principle cities of Athens and Thessalonika, the initial flurry of media interest prompted thousands of people from Europe to help. However safeguarding has been a major problem.
At the heart of it are two key issues:
First – Volunteer screening at the recruitment stage.
Second – Good practice and boundaries when working with vulnerable persons.
Triangulate these against the variance in ethics and procedures across the organisations and it’s easy to see the risks for all involved. There is very little safeguarding, at least not in the sense most professionals would normally understand it. Anyone can decide they want to volunteer in Greece with a refugee organisation and within weeks find themselves working unsupervised with children and vulnerable adults, very few questions asked. No PVG, Disclosure, no checks, no questions to verify suitability or even their motivation for taking on the role.
Whilst the vast majority of volunteers do not have unsuitable backgrounds, it’s easy to see how it’s a paedophile and predators’ paradise. Why go to Thailand to abuse a child when Greece is nearer? Currently an estimated 10,000 refugee children are missing in Europe; that’s according to Interpol, hardly known as card-carrying Amnesty International members. We cry ourselves to sleep over a dead child on a beach but no one is asking questions about 10,000 missing children………all as special and loved as Alan Kurdi was.
‘’Why do I have to sleep with volunteers to get a meal
and a bed for the night?’’
For anyone like me, working alongside unaccompanied male refugee minors, this is a familiar complaint to hear. These are some of the most vulnerable young people in Europe with insufficient housing, support and specialist care. Yet they are not safe……even from those who are supposed to protect them. On more than one occasion, I’ve endured dinner table discussions between volunteers and practitionerst asking how, if and when it’s okay to have a sexual relationship with a refugee you are currently supporting. Each time I’ve been astonished it’s something that can even be debated.
‘’I don’t think you’re respecting them as people
who can decide for themselves’’
This justification completely ignores the power dynamic inherent in professional relationships between service providers – service users and how that relates to consent. This is amplified when the context is support work. How can we truly know if it’s consent when that person is in crisis? In need of everything from extra bread, toilet roll to a passport that could save their families’ lives, access to which, could be influenced by the volunteer. It’s virtually impossible. And if it’s not full consent, it’s…………..abusive to some degree.
This is why most professional relationships preclude initiating any kind of relationship while that service-based relationship is ongoing. Can you fall in love with someone in a way that transcends borders? Of course you can, but your professional relationship with them must immediately end; although you ought to consider their vulnerability, the fact that you are a citizen of Europe and they have few if any rights. They can be detained without reason and without limit.
‘’Everybody has break-ups, we’ve all had break-ups and we got over it’’
An argument put forward by a project co-ordinator in favour of allowing volunteers, in this case teachers, to have relationships with their refugee students. There’s a kernel of truth in it: you, me and nearly every refugee have had break-ups. However, a key concept in working with people who have experienced trauma is resilience. Put simply, it’s ‘bouncebackability’ – a person’s ability to process stress, grief, difficult experiences and recover from them.
Essentially, the less traumatic your life has been, the more likely you are to be able to handle challenging life events. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest escaping Aleppo and making it to mainland Greece hasn’t been jolly. When you break-up with someone, it’s normally a combination of close friends, family, work and new experiences that help you move on.
How many of those do you have access to in a refugee camp? There are very few new experiences and life doesn’t move on, it’s on hold while the EU play God with your future. Factor in a reduced support network onto your pre-existing trauma and a break-up is going to take more than a tub of Haagen Dazs (not currently available in refugee camps) and a mindfulness session to perk you up.
The curious thing in this scenario is that, for cultural reasons possibly, there’s a complete reversal of gender roles. Relationships with this power imbalance occur almost entirely between female volunteers and male refugees. Thinking about male behaviour in general, let’s take a moment to be thankful for small mercies. Whilst common place in our patriarchal societies for it to be carried out by men, it’s a salient lesson that abuse of power is actually a human trait.
You can spot it from a mile away; the voluntourists looking for fromance and adventure. They turn up plastered in makeup for a 12hr shift in a refugee camp; wearing high-wedge sandals and tiny denim-shorts. They’re mostly to be found on a fag/food break after an hour discussing which male resident is hot. And let’s face it, Iranians and Syrians were pretty blessed in that department; even I find myself staring at their eyelashes wondering if maybe it’s Maybelline.
The voluntourists master the word ‘habibi’ and several weeks later, having promised Ahmad/ Said/ Abdullah “I’ll never forget you, I’ll write, we’ll WhatsApp every day”…….they return to their lives of privilege – lives that they control, lives with a play button not just a pause. Instagramming their ‘life-changing experiences’ giving little thought to the emotional wreckage they leave behind.
‘’If you choose for them, you’re just as repressive as the countries the refugees left behind’’
If you can really equivalate attempted genocide, the murder of defenceless civilians or brutal state-sponsored torture with telling someone in a state of temporary crisis:
‘’ I understand these feelings exist. But I’m here to give my time, energy and skills to helping you and many others. So, horny as we might be, it’s not a great idea to stick our sex bits together. But I will continue to support you as best I can’’…
then perhaps you should stick to clicking the donate link on your Ed Sheeran newsletter and go on a regular holiday.
Or fuck off and eat Feta under a tree.
*Names throughout the article have been changed to protect identities
Tiff Griffin, an English teacher by profession, cat lover and self-confessed feminist, has lived and worked in Kenya, Brazil and most recently Greece. His work with the migrant community started in Glasgow 2007 and he maintains a strong connection to the refugee community in both his home town and Greece. His earliest account as a volunteer in Athens can be read here.