Bridging the Gap to Social Services in Croatia and Greece: Enhancing Digital Skills for Migrants and Refugees

This article brings together the perspectives of Borders:None and OCC Greece, two NGOs working towards the integration and inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers respectively in Croatia and Greece. Both experiences aim to shed light on their ongoing difficulties in reaching their target groups and on the importance of fostering community support and digital skills.

How to overcome distance in Croatia’s Reception Centers

In Croatia, reception centers play a crucial role in assisting asylum seekers. These centers have traditionally relied on the collaboration between locals, individual volunteers, and NGO representatives to help refugees adjust to life in Croatia. This cooperation between volunteer organisations and reception centers has functioned for years. Locals would help refugees to get accustomed to life in Croatia, interact with them, provide workshops on the local cuisine, organise English language classes and make valuable connections within the local community.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought significant changes to this cooperation. Visitor bans were implemented in reception centers, hindering the physical presence of volunteers and NGO representatives. Even if nowadays the virus doesn’t pose as much of a threat, and the ban has been lifted almost everywhere, including hospitals and retirement centers, it hasn’t been lifted yet in reception centers.

While these restrictions were put in place for health reasons, they have particularly affected digitally illiterate asylum seekers who struggle to reach out to NGOs for assistance.

To overcome the challenges posed by limited digital literacy and lack of online access, volunteer organizations like Borders:None have adopted various tactics. For instance, promoting word-of-mouth through asylum seekers who are familiar with their activities and can share information within reception centers. The organization also employs offline strategies such as printing and distributing materials like leaflets and posters within the centers, inviting asylum seekers to participate in workshops or courses. Creating offline safe spaces, where refugees can visit NGO offices and seek assistance, has also proven effective in reaching those who are not actively online.

While some asylum seekers actively use social media, it remains crucial for NGOs to maintain an online presence to reach this audience effectively. Organizations have developed pages on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, as well as common pages such as Asylum Croatia, to provide information on translation services, legal issues, language courses, and engaging projects and activities. These digital platforms offer opportunities for communication, connection, and empowerment, bridging the gap between refugees and the wider community.

Providing access to digital skills in Greece to enhance inclusion and hope

A few kilometers further south, while the bus of OCC Greece passes through the isolated road to the Nea Kavala refugee camp to pick up the students, its volunteering team comes in touch with the harsh reality of the “lack of opportunities”, and the responsibilities of European societies to address the persistent humanitarian needs, in an ever-evolving modern, digital world. 

In Greece, OCC recognized early on the significance of digital skills and computer classes in facilitating integration for refugees and asylum seekers. However, the organization encountered numerous challenges in delivering these programs effectively. Limited access to technology within camps, language barriers, and the mental strain experienced by individuals in displacement compounded the difficulties.

For many of the people in the camp, the idea of attending digital classes was foreign, not relevant to their needs, or even intimidating. Having to deal with the social, economic, and mental barriers of displacement, not to mention surviving traumatic and distressing situations, can really disconnect one from their needs for future labour or social qualifications.

Yet, despite these challenges, OCC remained committed to providing access to digital skills and computer classes, acknowledging their potential to enhance integration, education, employment opportunities, and self-image.  The classes not only would help students better integrate into their new communities, but they could also provide a path to future education and employment opportunities, and a better self-image for themselves, through the potential achievements in a highly demanded professional field.

To address the obstacles faced in Greece, OCC adopted a multi-pronged approach. It secured funding and equipment through partnerships, developed accessible curricula with the help of volunteers and interpreters, and worked to shift the mindset of individuals in the camp, emphasizing the relevance and value of technology in achieving personal goals.

While progress has been made, the journey ahead remains challenging, as the rapidly evolving modern world demands continuous efforts to ensure refugees and asylum seekers have access to digital skills and opportunities.

The combined perspectives of these two NGOs highlight the complexities and importance of supporting asylum seekers and refugees in their journey towards integration in Europe. Collaboration between reception centers, volunteer organizations, and local communities is vital in providing the necessary support network. Moreover, bridging the digital divide and fostering digital literacy empowers people, offering them a pathway to education, employment, and a better future. As societies continue to evolve, it is crucial to recognize to ensure that opportunities are accessible to all.

Both organizations are part of the MigraCode Europe network of code schools made possible by various nonprofit organisations. All schools offer free tech education to youth refugees and migrants and support them as well with their job search. The network promotes the exchange of best practices between schools, made possible through online and transnational meetings supported by the European Union.