They often act as the vital link between these communities and the host country, playing an essential role in the daily lives of many individuals and families.
What does their job entail and what are the barriers they face in their daily work? How do they build trust and engage with the people they encounter? Nine frontline workers from across Europe shared their experiences with us.
Question 1: Where do you work, and how would you describe your role?
Leila: I’m a reintegration counsellor at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Belgium. Since 2017, I have been part of the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) team which is in charge of assisting migrants with vulnerabilities.
Marine: I’m a nurse and LGBTQI+ focal point at the Belgian Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Fedasil) Arrival Centre in Brussels. As a centre of arrival, our role is to identify the possible vulnerabilities of each person requesting international protection and to find a reception centre that is as suitable as possible for them.
Andree: I’m the director of the Femmes en Détresse (FeD). I have been working in the social sector since 1987. Before joining FeD, I have been working mainly with children and adolescents, as well as with disabled persons and elderly persons.
Stéphanie: I’m a specialized educator at the NGO Femmes en Detresse (FeD). FeD provides a safe environment for women who have survived sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), particularly domestic violence, in Luxembourg. I inform women about their rights and the possibilities of support in Luxembourg.
Stefano: I have worked at Rome’s Social Services as a social worker dedicated to children and families since 2000. Prior to that, I founded a cooperative which assisted the elderly living in the city suburbs. I am currently the delegated guardian for the City of Rome’s Mayor.
Heba: I have worked as a doula and cultural interpreter for the past 4 years for the NGO Early Parental Support in the City of Gothenburg. I support mothers both individually and by providing courses and training to support migrant parents in their parenting roles.
Dalmar: I am a youth Counsellor at the City of Gothenburg. I provide support to vulnerable persons between the ages of 13-25 who may be suffering from mental health difficulties, drug abuse, family issues, etc. I am part of a skills development group that studies honour-based violence.
Vicky: I am an integrated approach psychologist-psychotherapist and I specialize as a Jungian analyst*. I coordinate a project with the regional anti-trafficking net and currently manage two reception centers in Italy.
Bissi: I work for RainbowHouse which is an LGBTQI+ umbrella organization in the heart of Brussels. I’m in charge of a youth project called “Brave New You” which brings together young queer people across Europe, including people with a migrant background and people who are in an asylum procedure.
*a Jungian Analyst is a practitioner trained in the tradition and theories of Analytical Psychology: to understand and interpret the symbolic and metaphorical manifestations of the psyche.
Question 2: What role do you play as a frontline worker working with migrant communities?
Heba: The parents I work with have greater trust in me than the Swedish authorities. We share the same language and culture, so they feel more comfortable opening up and telling me about the difficulties in their relationship or family. I provide parents with information on their rights and explain to them the Swedish laws and regulations and how and where to get support when needed. I feel that I am of great importance in creating trust in Swedish society among the parents. I can explain how society works and strengthen their self-esteem.
Bissi: When reaching out to my target group, I ask myself “how does this person publicly relate to their queerness, how do they want to be perceived? How do I make them feel safe in the group? Even though it may consist of only LGBTQI+ people, there are some individuals who don’t have the same knowledge about their experiences, their past or their identities. On a personal level, I can understand and relate to some of this public’s challenges because I am a 2nd generation migrant, I am queer, I am black with light-skin privilege and I am racialized. This however can make drawing a line between professional and private life quite difficult.
Marine: Being one of the first contacts for asylum seekers in their host country means there is a huge responsibility for frontline workers, like myself, to establish a relationship of trust. The first contact is the most important and crucial moment, especially as medical staff, to create space for this trust so that migrants feel comfortable to express their health concerns. We have lost the trust of many people because of unintentional mistakes that are being made by professionals who mean well but have not been properly trained. My biggest victory is when someone says to me “I'll go see a doctor.”
Leila: I think that past experiences in reception or emergency shelters etc. may discourage LGBTQI+ people from sharing personal aspects of their lives. We try to create a safe environment for LGBTQI+ beneficiaries so they feel at ease to share information if they want to. I realized that sharing with them that I’m part of the LGBTQI+ community myself often breaks the ice and allows for interesting conversations, especially in regard to personal safety and fear of judgment from their community in their country of origin.
Dalmar: Breaking harmful stereotypes against migrants is a first step towards fostering a feeling of belonging in their new society. I know firsthand that children, regardless of nationality, culture and ethnicity have the same inherent values to respect, learn and love.
Stéphanie: Personally, I believe it is important to always keep in mind that no person is “immune” from domestic violence. It can happen to anyone, regardless of your nationality, social class, gender or age. As a frontline worker myself, I make sure to keep an open mind and a listening ear.
Marine: It is important to sometimes “take off your white medical coat”. Even a simple “hello” or a smile goes a long way to establishing a relationship of trust. This line of work relies heavily on body language especially when there is a language barrier. The tone of voice and general mannerisms of staff are extremely important to consider.
Question 3: Can you describe some of the barriers that you face in your work?
Dalmar: Migrants, particularly parents, have an enormous amount of psychological stress that comes with the yearning to be part of a larger collective. Time after time I have seen migrant families endure poor, judgemental contact with different institutions.
Marine: Specializing in caring for single women, families and LGBTQI+ people come with its own set of challenges. During my first year at the centre, I was faced with a lack of knowledge and readily available tools to provide the appropriate care needed for LGBTQI+ persons. I had a lot of questions: what is LGBTQI+? What is the correct medical care administrated for people who take hormones?
Leila: LGBTQI+ migrants often do not feel comfortable discussing certain matters with us, and so without this trust, we can’t provide them with the exact information or assistance they may require. If we do not actively work towards creating safe spaces for LGBTQI+ migrants, we will remain unable to fully understand their situation better. This will impact our ability to provide assistance and take appropriate action, together with and for the individual.
Marine: Many LGBTQI+ people are not only trying to leave their country but their communities and yet, when they arrive at the centre, they find themselves in the same predicament. This can cause insecurity and increased vulnerability. Even redirecting residents to LGBTQI+ organizations is sometimes complex because many do not want to be associated with queer organizations for fear of being "unmasked".
Stefano: The generalized cut in financial resources dedicated to welfare services has resulted in focusing only on emergency situations, and specifically on the “medicalized healthcare issues.” As a social worker, I must often turn to non-institutional organizations and/or the charity sector to assist with the more sensitive cases that need extra care. Neither the local authorities nor the health system has the resources in place to respond to these emergency situations. There are no services specifically dedicated to families, not even within community health centers. Knowing the community you live in and work with becomes paramount.
Bissi: Funding is a big one. If there isn’t enough money for communication to reach out to the target group, then it's all up to the person who deals with the project to try to reach the public in the most efficient way with whatever resources they have at their disposal. And then it’s also about the accessibility of the events. For example, 1st generation migrants often live far away in refugee centers or in other cities so you must first make sure they feel comfortable taking public transport and more importantly, that you reimburse them for their transport ticket.
Heba: It can be difficult to set boundaries for work, it easily becomes limitless. If someone calls during the evenings and weekends, you need to be available because the needs are so great.
Bissi: Personally, I am super sensitive to certain questions, so it is hard to switch off from work. This is made even more difficult because our lines of communication are usually through informal means like Instagram or WhatsApp. It is important to draw the line where work ends to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Question 4: How could training, such as the one developed under Equalcity, increase your capacity to work with migrant communities?
Stéphanie: The Equalcity manual for trainers enables us to train the professionals who are in daily contact with migrant people. The toolboxes could be symbolized as a bridge; it fosters better understanding between the host country and their migrant communities.
Andree: It can help professionals to have a better understanding of gender-based violence, the specificities and various forms, and the needs of each person we meet in our services.
Marine: These tools are greatly appreciated because they are actively contributing to the sharing of knowledge on the topic of LGBTQI+, at no cost. This is important because there is a real need for information that is both accessible to all and understandable regardless of the level of education or generation to which we belong. We need tools that do not require prior expertise to be able to use them.
Heba: The training tools of Equalcity, such as the manual on working with migrant parents, is very important for frontline workers because it promotes a greater understanding of newly arrived migrant parents’ experiences and specific conditions. It provides knowledge of what an intercultural approach and way of working with the target group mean in practice.
Leila: We meet more survivors of SGBV than we are aware of. I can only emphasize the importance of following the training like the ones of Equalcity to improve identification and support. The tools will help address any preconceptions or discriminatory attitudes about sexual orientation, gender identity and bodily diversity held by staff on the one hand and help to diminish the level of risk and exposure that LGBTQI+ migrants may face during the registration process on the other. Equalcity’s training tools can help towards reducing the level of risk experienced.
Stefano: We need more tools that will help us to provide better support to Unaccompanied Migrant Children who need the space for reflection, reasoning, and awareness. Migration will be an increasingly present phenomenon and if we do not invest in reception and other specific areas such as the health system, consequences may be ill-fated. If we want to avoid creating a divisive world, we must act bearing this in mind.
Vicky: Indeed, there is no more time for individuality. It’s time for the collective. When we have resources, we must make the most out of them in order to change this world. I believe training tools for frontline workers can make a difference. Being on the frontline can be very difficult and one should get a formal acknowledgment at the national level. Giving dignity back to those frontline workers who work hard, are poorly paid and face difficult shifts is fundamental. Only when frontline workers are well cared for and acknowledged, can UMC truly benefit. If we act as if we are islands, we won’t go anywhere.
Bissi: I believe these tools will help break down the barriers that isolate LGBTQI+ migrants and asylum seekers from the rest of society. For them to safely integrate, we as frontline workers must start rethinking how we conduct activities and events that bring people closer together. That is why it is important for us to exchange our knowledge on subjects, training, or alternative learning techniques, and be that support system or network for one another.
Dalmar: I believe they will help strengthen families by guiding them through institutional procedures and their rights as individuals. It is so important to make them feel less segregated and isolated from their host country so that they can build the confidence to partake in activities or work opportunities provided by the city. Knowing the barriers that exist and working towards unravelling them together is important.
Recognizing the importance of frontline workers, the Equalcity project places them at the center of its activities. The project aims at supporting frontline services across European cities in providing better services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in migrant communities.
The project will result in 4 practical toolboxes for frontline workers to help them in creating safer spaces for LGBTQI+ people with a migrant background, and providing better services to migrant women and girls, Unaccompanied Migrant Children (UMC), and migrant parents.
For more general information or information on Equalcity’s toolboxes, you can visit our website.
This project is funded by the European Union's Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme (2014 - 2020).