What do a group of ex prisoners in Russia, a community of pensioners in Bulgaria and a team of young people in the Netherlands all have in common?

They are all Red Cross volunteers.

During the last four months of 2009 I worked as part of the team in our Europe Zone office based in Budapest looking at how the Red Cross is reaching out to vulnerable people in all these different countries.  I spoke with colleagues from far and wide as Uzbekistan and Malta, Ukraine and Montenegro and heard some inspiring stories of how the Red Cross works all over the world to help vulnerable people, whoever and wherever they are.

The Europe Zone team helps to support the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent across 52 countries in Europe and Central Asia. They are part of a wider body, the International Federation, who co-ordinate the work of the staggering 186 National Societies across the world.

Over the coming weeks, I will be posting some of the stories that colleagues from across the continent shared with me about what they are doing and the people they help – starting with the Spanish Red Cross, or Cruz Roja Española.

“We call them ‘udjana’, which means extended family”: How the Spanish Red Cross helps migrants washed up on the Canary Islands coast

Twenty-four-year-old Omar Seco worked for nine months in a metal factory to pay for his passage from Mauritania to Spain. In February 2009 he embarked on the sea journey on a large canoe – an experience more terrifying than anything he had imagined. “I was very frightened for three days,” he recalls. “I often feared that I would drown. The waves were huge and we were thrown around like rag dolls”.

Thousands of men, women and children risk their lives each year to make the voyage over to Spain from Africa, often in small wooden boats, ‘cayucos’, packed with 80 or 90 people. The Spanish Red Cross has been working to provide humanitarian aid, such as providing medical relief to those washed up on coasts, for 10 years.

In 2006, however, a dramatic increase in the number of arrivals by boat to the Canary Islands (more than 25,000 people reached its coasts, mostly from sub-Saharan countries) meant the Spanish Red Cross was called upon to play a crucial role in supporting the government’s efforts to respond to the crisis and increase the scale of their support.

Mila Núñez Sachetich from the Spanish Red Cross recalls: “Not only was there a dramatic increase in the overall numbers of irregular migrants arriving on the coasts, often exhausted from very dangerous journeys, but we also began to see a lot more women – including pregnant women and children, as well. Some were very ill or dehydrated, others had died during the voyage. It was a very traumatic situation.

Reception centres run by the Red Cross, where migrants like Omar can stay after they are released from detention centres for up to 15 days, were expanded to accommodate the increased number of arrivals. Omar recalls: “The Spanish Red Cross brought me to this centre that we are in now. We call them ‘Udjama’ which means ‘extended family’. Now I have a place to live and have food every day. On top of this, I am attending Spanish classes and other workshops which are vitally important for me to be able to find work.”

Omar’s story, along with many others, has been featured on a weekly show, ‘Golden Stories’, hosted by the Spanish Red Cross and broadcast on the biggest radio station in Spain, La SER. The slot offers those who have benefited from the support of the Red Cross – in all aspects of its work – to publically share their experiences.

The programme is listened to by more than 480,000 people a week and represents just one of the ways in which the National Society is working to raise public awareness of the situation and the conditions that drive people to put their lives in danger to make these journeys.

Since 2006 the Spanish Red Cross have helped over 96,000 people who have arrived on the Spanish coasts. However, volunteers and staff acknowledge there are still huge humanitarian challenges which have been exacerbated by the economic crisis.

The recession has led to a scarcity in work on the market and they are seeing an increased number of those they helped a few years ago returning to the Red Cross, homeless and in desperate need of support. “The majority of people don’t want to be reliant on our assistance. They want to be working,” Mila says. “However, times are very hard. We are now offering assistance to many people who arrived during the 2006 wave and are currently destitute.”

Despite these challenges, there is still a will and optimism amongst new arrivals that they can build a life for themselves. Omar wants to find work and stay on the island: He reflects: “I consider myself very fortunate to have arrived safe and sound in Gran Canaria because I know that many aren’t so lucky – they died at sea or were deported to their countries of origin. I am very fortunate and want to take advantage of this opportunity I have been given.”

Image © Jon Santa Cruz/ Spanish Red Cross