Charity generally consists of the act of giving help, often through monetary, physical or professional donations, to those in need. While often good intentioned, charity, in a way, suggests pity, as it implies reaching down, instead of reaching across. Charity tends to neglect the dignity, agency and abilities of its recipients, as it is focused on generalised help, largely intended to meet people's basic needs. Yet, basic needs may strongly differ from person to person. This trend of generalisation carries on in the European asylum system. People seeking asylum are often referred to as beneficiaries and victims. This fails to take into account individual histories, sociopolitical stories and personal needs, which in turn results in people not being seen or addressed in their full complexity. Moreover, perceiving people seeking asylum as merely passive recipients of aid contributes to a pre-existing discrepancy in power, and undermines the agency and abilities of those in the asylum system. Extending charity without addressing the context in which it is provided, facilitates and potentially intensifies this power imbalance, and keeps in place disadvantages faced by people seeking international protection.
In reality, people face disadvantages due to political, attitudinal and social barriers within the asylum system. While the obstacles people seeking asylum face are caused by a larger system their effects are often deeply personal, and can vary per person. Support to people applying for asylum should therefore centre the needs and experiences of the individual. This is why the empowerment of our clients is one of Fenix’s core values. In practice this means that within the context of the asylum system, which has been designed to treat asylum seekers as beneficiaries instead of agents with responsibility and decision-making power, we believe in information and knowledge as tools for agency. The focus of our work is not simply supplying people with generic services. By offering people tools, information and support in accessing the services they have a right to, we work together with our clients to empower them to take back control over their legal process. This emphasis on empowerment instead of charity results in an approach to holistic legal aid which is personally tailored to each individual client, as our work is led by the needs, challenges and experiences of the people we work with. Additionally, providing individual holistic legal aid allows us to address the larger systemic issues our clients face, by carrying advocacy efforts based on their experience, while aiming to affect policy, urge governments and institutions to honour their commitments, and influence public awareness.
People seeking asylum in Greece, and in Europe at large, face a deeply disempowering system, in which those in search of safety are treated as helpless beneficiaries obligated to follow generalised rules. Especially considering this context, a focus on agency, individual experiences and human complexity is crucial in providing adequate and dignified humanitarian services. This International Day of Charity, we call to replace charity with empowerment. We urge all trying to make a societal impact to reach across, instead of reaching down.