Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

10 Tips for Working with Refugees

1 Do it for the right reasons

Over the years I have heard people talk about why they have chosen to work in the humanitarian field, and with refugees in particular. And although I have heard really personalized and intimate accounts of why someone would choose this career, I have also been a witness of some not as “expected” answers. Choosing a career with displaced people is not only a personal choice you make for yourself, it can also affect the lives of human beings in the most vulnerable states of their whole life. You have to be honest with yourself and really understand why you would like to start or continue a career in the humanitarian field. Do you want to help people in a difficult situation? Do you strongly believe in the cause of refugees and want to be part of it? Do you want to feel like you are doing something valuable with your life? Great, go for it.

If you are doing this for the exotic trips to remote areas of the world, for a diplomatic passport or simply for a paycheck at the end of the month, you can still be one of the top performers in your organization but the question is whether or not you will be able to give it the same enthusiasm as your first day if things ever go wrong.

2 Learn as much as you can

Knowledge is key in every career. It is not only about the humanitarian field. But the reason why you have a lot more opportunities to learn in this case is that you are meeting people from different backgrounds, countries, cultures and who speak different and rich languages. My advice is to learn as much as you can on the job, from your colleagues, those who have been in the field for probably decades but also those who have just started their career and have fresh and new ideas that you might not have thought about before. Listen to ideas and be critical but open to learn from everyone.

But most importantly, learn from the people you are working with and for: the refugees themselves. I have stopped counting the times I realized that adopting a community based approach in my work has taught me much more than all the theoretical frameworks I was taught in books.

3 Be kind

We are working with human beings and it is, for me at least, a big blessing because we can use the golden rule we have always heard which goes “treat others how you want to be treated”!

4 Do not give promises

In the humanitarian field, we usually have the tendency of trying to do everything, help everyone and change everything that is not working. But again, we have to know how to properly manage our expectations, and most importantly the expectations of refugee communities. Sometimes you might be pressured to give answers, to schedule an interview or a home visit. You might even find yourself surrounded by a big group of beneficiaries, all having urgent and important requests. However, the most useful tip I could give here is not to give promises to get out of such situations. It will just get you into more trouble later on and, more importantly, you will eventually lose people’s trust in you.

5 Set clear boundaries

As I mentioned earlier, it is really important to have a good relationship with the communities you are working with, especially if you are meeting them on a regular (i.e daily) basis. However, one of the most important things to remember is to set your boundaries from the beginning. You might be wondering how it is possible that in a humanitarian job you should be expected to set boundaries between you and the human beings who need you the most. But, again, it all comes back to expectations management and self-care. Setting boundaries, professional ones, between you and your beneficiaries prevent you from “over-promising” or from being expected to do more even if you did not promise anything. It also helps set a clear line between your professional and personal life so that you do not end up with a burnout. Some of these boundaries would be already set by your organization in your contract or code of conduct. But the rest is all up to you so you have to be particularly careful with this.

6 Keep an eye on vulnerabilities

Depending on the kind of job you have in your organization, detecting vulnerable cases can be the core of your job. However, even if it is not, any humanitarian worker should have an eye for vulnerabilities among the community. Always keep in mind specific triggers and signs of the different vulnerabilities a refugee can have, and know in advance the referral system in your office, camp or with your partners in order to act immediately and refer the person.

7 Choose your words

One of the biggest problems in the humanitarian field is communication skills. We all come from different backgrounds, are raised in different ways and go through different education systems where we devour books and make sure we know every single term in the humanitarian or legal field. And most often than not, we tend to speak to our beneficiaries the same way we speak to everyone else, regardless to differences in cultures, backgrounds and translation issues. Hence, remember to use simple terms as the goal is that refugees understand what is going on, regardless of what we have learned by heart from books.

8 Be prepared for emergency situations

It goes without saying that working in the humanitarian field is one of the most rewarding careers but that it also comes with some drawbacks as well. One of them is the fact that you need to be always prepared for an emergency situation. You might be thinking “but if I am not working in a conflict zone, why would I be worried about emergencies?” Emergencies can vary from an abrupt change in your office’s focus or strategy which means you have to abandon your current work for a while and do something totally different, to a situation of emergency in the whole country where either the numbers of arrivals suddenly double so you have to be ready to welcome and follow up on a much bigger number of people than usual, or where the security situation of the whole country suddenly knows a change, like in the case of terrorist attacks or revolutions.

9 Self-Care

Do you remember what they say on an airplane when giving safety instructions? Before putting the oxygen mask on the person next to you, put on your mask first and then help anyone else in need. That is exactly how you should look at a career with refugees. As long as you are constantly stressed, exhausted or experiencing burnout, there is only much you can do to help the vulnerable.

Honestly speaking, when I first started working with refugees, I could not help but work all day, all night, thinking the more I work, the more I could help. In my third year in Greece, I had a full time job, a remote-based freelance job, I was volunteering at 4 different organizations, 2 of which were based in camps around 2 hours away from Athens and I was on top of that working on (or procrastinating) my first MSc. thesis. I used to wake up at 6 am to leave the house a little before 7 to reach the camp at 9. I would finish by 5 and run to university 3 days a week, which was just about 2 hours, 2 buses and one subway away, or run to other camps and offices the rest of the week to honor the million commitments I have made to different organizations. And I would still come back home around midnight to write my thesis for a couple more hours. Long story short, for over a year, I was constantly exhausted, I did not know what a good night sleep was and I realized later on that I had bitten much more than I could chew at that particular time of my life. In my head, holidays rhymed with luxury and so I didn’t take any either.. until I could not do it anymore. I felt overwhelmed and unable to perform any task. That’s when I found that self-care is not just a new trend or a luxury as I thought. It was really more like a refueling station for you to carry on doing the great work you are doing for humanity! So take care of yourself.

10 When in doubt, ask

It is that easy, when in doubt or when you are not sure you are doing the right thing, ASK, ask the refugee community you are dealing with every day, let them know they are involved and treat them the way you want to be treated as I said before, as simple as that.

About the author


Rahma Henchiri

Rahma Henchiri is an RSD/Protection Associate at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Her humanitarian journey started in refugee camps in Greece from the very first days of the “migration crisis” in the Eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey – Greece). She gained her experience through working with different international and local organizations in Greece before moving to other countries. She has been working with UNHCR for nearly two years now in two different duty stations. Her main focus currently is on asylum law, child protection and SGBV within the refugee communities.