In the project

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


5. Suggestions for working with people on the

move & refugees

In this unit, we want to give you some background information and considerations for working with vulnerable people such as protection and asylum seekers in precarious living conditions, as well as encourage you to learn about trauma. You will receive further instructions and input of this kind in your project, which will have top priority for orientation but you might find some valuable suggestions and food for thought here that can be important for your work with people on the move There is no claim to completeness. .


Why might guidelines for working with people on the move be important?

When becoming engaged in this field, you should be fundamentally aware of the difficult and complex life situation of the people seeking protection. People on the move are in a very vulnerable and often powerless position due to political and structural injustices and abuses. Many of them have had psychologically stressful, violent and traumatising experiences.

  • Working with people seeking protection and sanctuary in inhumane living conditions, as they are currently prevailing in various camps in Europe, requires considerate and reflective behaviour. It is therefore necessary to question and reflect on the significance of these circumstances for all of your actions.
  • To protect yourself and the beneficiaries of your work, it might be helpful to be guided by certain advice based on personal as well as professional experiences from people working in the field.
  • It is important for us to clarify: These tips should by no means give the impression that all people seeking protection are to be seen as a homogenous group, concluding that each one would have to be met with certain "rules”. People on the run are, of course, like all of us, people with complex life stories, needs, desires and personalities. The situation of each individual is extremely complex and varies a lot depending on many factors. Even less so, we want to address refugees and people on the move never as passive victims without agency, because these oversimplifications are happening enough in media and public discourses.
  • This unit is nevertheless based on the knowledge that people you might work with currently find themselves in very vulnerable positions, to which they are sometimes defencelessly at the mercy of others. Many of them have had or are having terrible, sometimes traumatising experiences in the past and present. Therefore volunteering in this context requires to behave consciously and as considerately as possible, as you are automatically in a position of power - if you want to or not.
  • First of all, the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence should generally apply to humanitarian aid projects and support structures (see Unit 1). In addition, we have compiled guidelines for action based on our experience.
  • The following guidelines are of course limited depending on your function and project and are by no means complete. Your organisation will most likely inform you about the rules of conduct that apply in the project and that have to be considered under the given working conditions. These rules have of course the first priority. However, you should always critically examine instructions independently and always discuss issues, questions or worries with your team members in case of uncertainty.

Inform yourself

Where can I learn about the meanings of refugee experiences?

Before you start working in your project, we recommend that you learn about forms of trauma and trauma-sensitive approaches in the context of stories of escape.

Here are some reading recommendations (only in German for now, English literature will be added later):


Living conditions and power relations

Impact of complex life situations and power relations on your work.

In Unit 2 - Racism, Eurocentrism, White-Saviour Complex and Voluntourism - you will find important theoretical background information that can help you in reflecting on your behaviour and privileged position

  • Be aware of the difficult life situation of your fellow human beings, but never reduce them to their flight experience or their current residence status.
    You are working with a group of people that is increasingly stigmatised politically and in the media and reduced to the terms "refugee" or "migrant" with all their (mostly negative) attributions. However, these are people who, like you, have their own life stories or individual needs. Try to appreciate those and never to reduce them to individual aspects of their identity.
  • Always maintain naturalness, respect and an eye-to-eye approach to all the people you work with. There is no need to become paternalistic.
    Be aware that you as a volunteer are after all in a professional working surrounding: Be respectful, friendly and courteous to those around you, just as you would to people in other workplaces.
  • Remember that you are visiting the camps, dormitories, or even apartments as a guest and behave accordingly.
    Note possible culturally or religiously based sensibilities of courtesy and decorum that may be new to you. This may include physical contact, style of dress, or topics of conversation. If you are unsure, ask, but always remain respectful.
  • Be aware of the tendencies and dangers of "disaster tourism," which unfortunately happens all the time among volunteers.
    Disaster tourism means specifically seeking out dramatic life stories or photographing particularly difficult life situations to report back home or on the Internet. These forms of voyeurism usually result in exploitation and degradation of the other person. Be aware of this tendency in storytelling and always reflect on the level of your curiosity and the motivation behind it. Always consider the impact of your actions on the feelings of those around you.
  • Be aware that you as a volunteer - even if unconsciously and unintentionally - are almost always in a much more privileged and powerful position in all kinds of interaction.
    This refers, for example, to your mobility and the possibility to return home at any time, to your access to certain information, and most likely to your financial resources. So again, be aware of possible external effects and self-evidence of your actions.
  • Do not take photos of people without their consent.
    Read more in Unit 6 - Public Outreach

Trauma-sensitive interaction and contact

How can you behave in a trauma sensitive manner?

  • If a person wants to share their personal story with you, feel free to listen, if you want to and can provide your attention and also strength in that situation. If not, it is also possible and recommended to say so instead of hurting someone's feelings or creating a stressful situation.
  • It is recommended not to ask direct questions, for example about details of the escape history or family members, out of respect for possible traumatic memories.
  • Always try to convey a sense of calm and confidence in your work. In the camps, there is usually already enough stress due to the precarious living situation. Therefore, try to create a welcoming and positive atmosphere in your project.
  • Unequal treatment can cause stress and conflict in living conditions of constant deprivation and disappointment. Therefore, try to distribute all your offers and resources equally and do not make promises you cannot keep.
  • We recommend not answering questions outside your expertise (e.g. legal, medical, psychological) and not giving information you are not sure about. Most of the time, there are organisations or responsible persons in your area or online to whom you can refer such questions.
  • Report incidents of verbal and/or physical violence, or signs of violence (wounds, unusual behaviour) to appropriate people in charge. Try to leave out personal comments and interpretations.
  • Especially when working with children: If possible, keep the necessary physical distance, i.e. try to avoid cuddling with children. By being physically close for long periods of time, you create dependencies that can leave gaps and cause pain after you leave.
  • For similar reasons, try to interact with all the people you work with on a friendly and caring, but not necessarily amicable level, if you cannot maintain the relationship.
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