Learning from Europe: A Real Citizen Service for Wales

Andy Bevan details how a citizen service in Wales could offer support for the current refugee crisis.

News reports on Europe’s refugee crisis have shown impressive glimpses of the warm and open, informal welcome extended by many individual citizens to Syrians, Iraqis and others arriving in Austria and Germany in recent weeks. There has also been some mention of more formal arrangements being set up by big civil society organisations, including Caritas and the Red Cross.

When the IWA launched its first Senedd Paper, A Real Citizen Service for Wales, on 22 January 2014, I remember emphasising how much Wales could learn from the big, government-funded citizen service programmes which already exist in Germany (the Federal Volunteer Service, BFD) and in France (Service Civique). So, I recently contacted colleagues at BFD and Service Civique, asking how they are responding to the recent sharp increase in refugee arrivals.

In Germany, responsibility for BFD (Bundesfreiwilligendienst) rests with the Ministry for Families, Elders, Women and Youth. Last week, Miriam Junker-Ojo, who works in their Engagement Policy Unit, told me, “The huge number of currently arriving refugees is quite a challenge; not only for Germany, but for the whole of Europe. In Germany, we are very grateful for the overwhelming number of people who volunteer to help in welcoming the refugees. Those voluntary helpers, who sometimes very spontaneously decide to just go and do something, are not necessarily part of the established voluntary services such as BFD, FSJ or FÖJ.” (The last two are the long-established Voluntary Social Year and Voluntary Ecological Year programmes, which overlap quite a lot with BFD). Miriam continued, “Still, it´s obvious that voluntary services can play a significant role in this situation. We already have volunteers in BFD or FSJ who serve in institutions connected to helping refugees, but no figures. However, the government plans to establish a special refugee programme within the BFD (and give more funds to it). This programme is aimed to give more volunteers in the BFD the opportunity to do their service in connection with helping refugees, and to establish structures that give more refugees the opportunity to do a BFD themselves – as a way of integration into German society.”

Meanwhile, in France, the Minister for Youth, Patrick Kanner, announced at the European Council of Ministers on 9 September that one of the immediate objectives of the French Government is to make arrangements for 1,000 new Service Civique placements to help to welcome newly arrived refugees in France. Agence France Presse reported on 18 September that the Minister, alongside elected representatives from local government in Paris and Rennes, referred to the useful role played by volunteers like Hakim Soudjay, 24, a Service Civique volunteer with the NGO, Unis-Cité, who has already been working with migrants in Calais and Dunkirk. “We are able to assist  migrants with their daily routine, helping them to make links with local people”, explained Hakim. Patrick Kanner went further, explaining how useful the volunteers are in helping migrant children to enrol at local schools, accompanying them in the search for work and finding out about their new, local environment, its rules and facilities.

These efforts make David Cameron’s talk of a “Big Society” look empty by comparison. Part of his “Big Society” agenda is the National Citizen Service(NCS) programme which, in reality, is an unpaid, 3-6 week outward-bound, character-building training scheme aimed at 17 year olds. The Cabinet Office in London persuaded the Welsh Government to allow a small-scale NCS pilot in Wales last October for about 300 young people; a review of this pilot is due to report to the Welsh Government in the near future.

IWA’s proposal for a real citizen service for Wales is much bolder and much closer to the model in Germany and France. We have proposed a programme open to 18-25 year olds to do 9-12 months’ properly paid, full-time service in elderly care, environmental and other social roles.

Our aim has been, all along, to flag up this proposal as the political parties in Wales settle down to draft their manifestoes. ready for the Assembly elections in May 2016. Plaid Cymru’s Education Spokesperson, Simon Thomas, has shown a real interest in Citizen Service and there was a brief reference to the idea in Plaid’s UK General Election manifesto for May 2015. While there is unfortunately no mention of citizen service in  Plaid’s pre-election “Roadmap” for May 2016, I am told that it is still a possibility for the full manifesto.

I would like to think, given IWA’s advocacy of this proposal to date, that we can successfully make the case for a commitment to citizen service from other political parties too.

As the German and French examples show, a real citizen service programme is not just another “make-work” scheme for young people. It actually represents a real innovation in institution-building, adding a flexible and responsive new tool for social interventions and the strengthening of civil society in Wales. We should be confident enough to learn from strong European comparators and, in the process, to move well beyond the narrow vision for young people’s citizen service of the Tory Government in London.

Andy Bevan spent nine years with VSO between 1988-1997, supporting development projects in Africa. From 1997 to 2013 he worked on the EU’s European Voluntary Service programme. He is the author of the IWA's Senedd Paper 'A Real Citizen Service for Wales'.

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