Every day, in cities across Europe, frontline workers provide essential services to migrant communities in a challenging context. They play a vital role in the daily lives of many individuals and families by serving as a link between these communities and the host country.

Who are these frontline workers? What do they do, what barriers do they face in their daily work, and how do they build trust and engage with the people they serve? How does their work impact their own lives?

IOM got to know nine frontline workers from across Europe who shared their experiences with us.

Read below what Marine, Stefano, Heba and Bissi shared with us; and the full interviews with more participants here.

Where do you work, and how would you describe your role?  

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. 

Stefano: I have worked at Rome’s Social Services as a social worker dedicated to children and families since 2000. 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 four 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 role.  

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 going through an asylum procedure.  

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 in the Swedish authorities. We share the same language and culture, so they feel more comfortable to open up and tell 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 among 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 second generation migrant, I am queer, I am black with light-skin privilege and I am racialized. 

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 moment, especially as medical staff, to create space for this trust so that migrants feel comfortable to express their health concerns.  We lose the trust of many people because of unintentional mistakes that are being made by professionals who mean well but have not been properly trained.   

Can you describe some of the barriers that you face in your work? 

Marine:  Specializing in caring for single women, families and LGBTQI+ people comes 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?    

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 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. Knowing the community you live in and work with becomes paramount.   

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.    

Heba:  Agreed. It can be difficult to set boundaries for work. If someone calls during the evenings and weekends, you need to be available because the needs are so great.  

How could a training course, such as the one developed under Equalcity,  increase your capacity to work with migrant communities?  

Marine: These tools are greatly appreciated because they actively contribute to sharing knowledge on the topic of LGBTQI+, at no cost. 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 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 means in practice.  

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. We must invest in all areas, especially the health system in this case.   

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 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, trainings, or alternative learning techniques, and be that support system or network for one another. 

The Equalcity project is being piloted in four European Union  cities. It supports local authorities in fostering inclusion and assistance to migrants who are at risk, or who survived sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The objective is to build the capacity of local frontline services through the development of practical training tools and awareness-raising material on SGBV. Read more about the project here: https://belgium.iom.int/equalcity   

This project is funded by the European Union's Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme (2014-2020).  

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities