Practical work

Online seminar for volunteering at Europe's (external) borders


6. Suggestions for working with people in precarious living conditions

Engaging in support projects in the context of forced migration and border policies also means working with people who are forced to live in precarious living conditions and are and have been exposed to various forms of violence and discrimination. What does this mean for your actions? This units aims to provide you with information on important topics such as power relations and trauma-sensitive behaviour.


Why are certain guidelines for action relevant?

If you are active in the context of EU border policies in the field of support work with refugees, you should be aware of the living situation of people with a history of flight and migration in the asylum system or without legal residence status. The European Union's border policies and practices of its member states, as detailed in Unit 3,result in refugees enduring inhumane conditions for extended periods in camps within EU border regions and member states. They face violence from border authorities, discrimination by asylum officials, and encounter political constraints due to inherent disparities. Many refugees have undergone psychologically distressing, violent, and traumatizing experiences. Despite these challenges, each individual can take action, and support should be extended to those seeking protection in their resistance against structural abuses, often exemplified by their simple act of crossing borders.

  • Working with people in such difficult living conditions as those currently living in refugee camps, other forms of accommodation in the asylum system, or on the streets of Europe demands reflective action. It’s necessary to scrutinise and reflect on the significance of these circumstances for the people affected.
  • These remarks do not seek to present refugees as a homogenous group. Like all individuals, refugees possess unique life stories, needs, wishes, and personalities. Their life situations hinge on various factors, the legal residence status and country of residence are only some of them. Contrary to prevailing media portrayals, refugees are not passive victims; rather, this unit emphasizes working with individuals who actively shape their lives, with their experiences of flight constituting only a part of their identity.
  • Acknowledging the structural vulnerability of people on the move, this unit aims to cultivate awareness of potential power dynamics and privileges within one's own position, promoting considerate behaviour.
  • The following guidelines are of course limited depending on your function and project and are by no means exhaustive. Your organization will likely provide specific conduct rules applicable to your work, and these should be adhered to. However, it is important to critically evaluate them independently and discuss any questions, problems or concerns that arise with your team members.

Life situations and power relations

Navigating Individual Life Situations and Power Dynamics in Your Work

In Unit 2 - Racism, Eurocentrism, White-Saviourism and Voluntourism, you will encounter pivotal theoretical insights that will guide you in examining your own behaviour and acknowledging your privileged position.

  • Be aware of the difficult life situation of your fellow human beings, but never reduce them to their experience as refugees or their current residence status.
    You are working with a group of people who are increasingly stigmatised politically and in the media and reduced to the terms "refugee" or "migrant" with all their (mostly negative) attributions. Acknowledge that, like yourself, they have distinct life stories and individual needs. Avoid reducing them to singular aspects of their identity.
  • Steer clear of paternalistic tendencies. That means: refrain from making decisions for others based on what you think is best for them. Treat the people you work with as equals, showing respect in a professional manner. Be respectful, friendly and polite to others, just as you would be to people in any other workplace.
  • Remember that you are visiting camps, dormitories, or flats as a guest, and behave accordingly.
    Be aware of potential culturally or religiously conditioned feelings of politeness and respect that may be new to you. This may relate to physical contact, style of dress, or topics of conversation. If you are unsure, ask and always remain respectful.
  • Be aware of the tendencies and dangers of "disaster tourism", which unfortunately occurs time and again among volunteers.
    Be mindful of the pitfalls of "disaster tourism." This involves seeking out dramatic stories or photographing challenging life situations for reporting purposes. These forms of voyeurism usually result in exploitation and humiliation of the other person. Reflect on the motivations behind your curiosity and consider the impact on and the feelings of those involved.
  • Be aware that as a volunteer - albeit unconsciously and unintentionally - you are almost always in a clearly privileged and powerful position in interactions.
    This privilege extends to aspects like mobility, which depends on your passport and the ability to return home at any time, information access, and most likely financial resources. Be aware of the possible external effects of your actions and what you take for granted.
  • Do not take photos of people without their consent.
    More on this in Unit 7 - Public Outreach

Trauma-sensitive behaviour

How can you be as trauma-sensitive as possible?

  • If someone wishes to share their potentially traumatic experiences, consider your own capacity to listen attentively and empathetically. If you find it challenging, it's okay to express this instead of risking discomfort or creating stress.
  • Out of respect for possible traumatic memories, it is recommended not to ask direct questions, for example about details of the flight history.
  • Foster a sense of calm in your work. Given the inherent stress of some life situations, try to create a relaxed and approachable atmosphere when working together.
  • In living conditions marked by ongoing deprivation and disappointment, unequal treatment can induce stress and conflict. Distribute your offers and resources fairly, avoiding promises that cannot be kept.
  • We recommend that you do not answer any questions outside your expertise (e.g. legal, medical, psychological) and do not pass on any information that you aren’t certain about. In most cases, there are organisations or responsible persons in the area to whom you can refer and to whom you can forward questions.
  • Report incidents of verbal and/or physical violence or signs of violence (wounds, conspicuous behaviour) to the responsible persons. Try to leave out personal comments and interpretations.
  • The following applies to children in particular: if possible, maintain the necessary physical distance, i.e. do not cuddle/cuddle as little as possible with children. Physical closeness over longer periods of time can create dependencies leading to gaps and pain upon your departure, especially for children marked by insecurity and loss.
  • For similar reasons, interact with other individuals in a friendly and approachable manner, but be careful with friendships if you can't or don't want to maintain the relationship.

Find out more!

Where can I find out about the meanings of experiences of flight?

Before you get involved in your project, we recommend that you familiarise yourself with certain forms of trauma and trauma-sensitive handling in the context of stories of flight.

Here are a few reading tips from us:


This unit was translated from German into English by Mina Aries.

Questions? Critical feedback? Ideas? Additions?
We are very happy to receive feedback and helpful hints from you! Just email us:

You want to share our contents?
Creative Commons Lizenzvertrag
This work is licensed by Creative Commons Namensnennung - Nicht-kommerziell - Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen 4.0 International Lizenz