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An underresearched area, this research paper is aimed at understanding the complexity of the impact of armed conflict on individuals and communities in the context of social work. For this purpose, key definitions, the scale of those affected by the phenomenon, and its impact are considered. Issues related to researching armed conflict are highlighted. The relevance of social work support during different facets of armed conflict follows, including the dilemmas that this type of intervention raises for social workers. Throughout the text, the international character of armed conflict is emphasized, and examples are given from different parts of the world.
- Contextualized Background Information
- Experiencing Armed Conflict
- Long-Term Impact
- Positive Outcomes of Armed Conflict
- Researching Armed Conflict
- The Relevance of Social Work to the Humanitarian Activities Undertaken in Armed Conflict Contexts
- The Impact of Armed Conflict on Social Workers
- Training and Educational Initiatives
Making sense of the significance and implications of armed conflict for social work requires clarity about what constitutes armed conflict. Armed conflict is a political conflict in which arms are used to attack the other side, defined as ‘the enemy,’ and to defend one’s own side. Although this is the definition of war, the concept of war is usually kept for an armed conflict between two or more countries, while the term ‘civil war’ is used to describe a war within one nation or country.
Armed conflict is not a useful term for describing hostilities between two groups in which arms are not applied, but which are nevertheless powerful, and may be either the outcome of an armed conflict, or lead to one in the future. Most conflicts between ethnic minorities and majorities, coexisting religions, and travelers and nontravelers do not result in armed conflict most of the time, but may plant the seed for such a conflict in the future. The war in the then Yugoslavia in the 1990s provides a good example of a political conflict that simmered for 50 years before it erupted into outright war. This research paper considers the relevance of social work support during different facets of armed conflict, including the dilemmas that intervening poses for social workers. It emphasizes the international character of armed conflict, giving examples from different parts of the world.
Contextualized Background Information
There are 15.3 million refugees of war from 21 countries, according to the United Nations (UN) Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2012). Refugees are people who have left their own country due to a violent conflict and 10.5 million of them are looked after by the UNHCR, while 4.8 million of these are looked after by the UN Refugees Welfare Agency in the Middle East refugee camps based in Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) where they have been since 1949.
Twenty-seven million people are recognized as internally displaced people (IDP). They live mainly in their country of origin, but away from where they lived when the conflict began, which they left due to the impact of an ongoing internal war (civil war) or occupation by another country. This brings the total number of refugees and IDP to 42 million, likely to be an underestimate, because many of those leaving in a hurry in the chaotic situation of an armed conflict, are often not counted and do not declare themselves as either IDP or refugees.
Asylum seekers are people who declare themselves as refugees, live outside their country, and whose status has not been confirmed as refugees by the authorities in the country in which they reside. The total number of asylum seekers is not known, as not every country releases this information, and also because some of them enter a country illegally, or without the knowledge of the authorities. Recent information from the UNHCR (2012) states that in 2012, there were 108 912 asylum seekers in industrialized countries, a rise of 25% from the 2009 to 2010 figures.
Their treatment in the host countries and country of origin should follow the Geneva Convention (established in 1951). It should also follow the UN Convention and Protocol (1967) on the status of refugees, endorsed by the UN, although not signed by all countries (see Ramon and Magljlic, 2012). In reality, this is not always the case, especially for IDP or asylum seekers, where each country decides how they should be treated.
Experiencing Armed Conflict
Some of the most negative outcomes of armed conflict appear daily on television screens. Losses of many types characterize the impact of armed conflict, such as loss of life, limbs, family members and friends, animals, property, or items of sentimental value. The loss of the sense of security and of future prospects for many of the survivors of an armed conflict may take a very long time to heal, and in many instances remain unhealed and potentially lead to further conflict in future.
Economic devastation is often a direct outcome of an armed conflict, in which the means of production have been destroyed, leading to supply shortages of food, water, and means of construction. The lack of food and shelter leads to an increased rate of illness and death among the more vulnerable population groups, such as children, women, and old people (Watchlist, 2003 (Web site); ECHO, 2013 (Web site); Doucet and Denov, 2012; Krill, 2000).
The destruction of medical facilities and the disappearance of health personnel lead to a high rate of disability and increased mortality among those wounded. The long-term physical, psychological, and social impact on those affected has been documented (e.g., Doucet and Denov, 2012). These include the long-term impact on women, Beah’s (2007) personal account of being forced to be a child soldier, and Nuttman-Shwartz et al.’s (2011) account of the long-term impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Most of the current ongoing armed conflicts, across all continents, have their roots in the past history of the communities engaged in them. For instance, the current Syrian conflict has its roots in the history of the relationships between the Alawite minority groups and the Sunni majority; the aftermath of the war in Iraq is marked by the renewed conflict between the Sunni and the Shia communities, which has also been at the background of the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.
It is the interpretation of the past, and what is remembered of it by those who witnessed the conflict and subsequent generations who reinterpret the past in the light of the present, that counts and makes the differences between looking for another round of armed conflict or its prevention. Memories are always constructed, although often individual memories are suppressed in favor of memories perceived by those in power as suitable for collective consumption (Halbwachs, 1992).
Social work practitioners need to be aware of these issues in their work with individuals and communities, to enable individuals to resolve their memories that conflict with the collective injunction. For example, in Bosnia, Moslem women experiencing rape in the 1990s were not allowed to mention this experience due to the wish to repress the assumed guilt of their menfolk in being unable to prevent the rape (Zavirsek, 2008: p. 162).
Considerable efforts have gone into collectively remembering some conflicts, such as the Second World War, the Holocaust of Jews and Gypsies in Europe, and beyond these groups at that time, or in subsequent events of a similar nature. Moreover, some other conflicts, no less horrendous or far reaching, are not equally collectively commemorated, e.g., the Armenian genocide and the Biafra war.
The wish to remember, and for such events to be etched into the collective memory, is understandable in the light of the magnitude of what has happened (Zavirsek, 2008). Furthermore, where the underlying reasons for the conflict have not been resolved, and where people continue to lead an uprooted life, it is likely that the conflict will resurface, as is the case in the Middle East, where a third generation of those who left Palestine in 1948 live in refugee camps, do not have full citizen rights in the countries where the camps are located, live on UNWRA financial support, have poor future prospects, and are highly unlikely to return to the land of Palestine–Israel, a country they have never been to, but which has acquired a mythical significance for them, as it did for Jews for over 2000 years.
At the individual level, there is a range beginning with people who wish not to forget any element of the conflict, ending in those who wish to forget all of it, with people who have nightmares connected to it to those for whom it does not matter in the middle. PTSD is a recognized psychiatric diagnosis, attributed to people suffering from reliving selected situations of the conflict and finding it difficult to continue with their ordinary life (Nuttman-Shwartz et al., 2011). Enabling to share significant memories both collectively and individually is an important part of community social work/development work in rebuilding a community impacted by armed conflict, helping to cement community cohesiveness. Yet, carrying out this work without rekindling the wish for revenge and reliving traumatic events presents a challenge to social workers.
Positive Outcomes of Armed Conflict
Side by side with the high level of mindless brutality that war unleashes, a kinder human approach during armed conflicts and their aftermath can be observed. Positive outcomes include in-group and outer-group solidarity; instances of human generosity; readiness to risk one’s own life for the sake of the lives of others; tireless work toward conflict resolution and peace building; health and social reforms that would not have taken place without being stimulated by the wish that something positive will come out of such negative events; and creative art (see L’Art en Guerre, 2013).
Specific examples include Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham (who was a social worker) revising their psychoanalytically oriented work with children following the lessons learned from their involvement in the experience of mass evacuation of British children during the Second World War (Freud and Burlingham, 1943). This has led to more caution in considering moving children from home when a parent becomes ill and unable to look after them, to much greater focus on the family as a unit during family consultation services (Felsman, 2001). The recognition that many of the behaviors displayed by the evacuated children were normal reactions to abnormal situations helped to reduce the detection of pathology, and diagnosis of these children as suffering from forms of mental illness.
When Sarajevo’s psychiatric hospital was bombed out of existence during the Bosnian war, the option of not to rebuild it was accepted, enabling the more radical change of the mental health system there to proceed and move it from being a heavily institutionalized and segregating system to one with a number of community services (Kucukalic et al., 2005).
The value of an individual acting courageously to raise awareness and encourage international organizations to take the necessary steps has been exemplified by Malala Yousafzia recently. Aged 14 years, she was shot in the SWAT Valley of Pakistan in October 2012 by the Taliban because she protested against their policy of excluding girls from schooling in Pakistan. The shooting was not only condemned internationally, but also resulted in expressed mass solidarity with her in Pakistan and elsewhere (Amnesty International Newsletter, November 2012: pp. 10–17). She has survived the shooting, but had to pay the price of emigrating from her country to the United Kingdom. Malala has continued her activities for girls’ education, and has received during 2013 the International Peace Prize for Youth.
Researching Armed Conflict
Research into armed conflict is needed to achieve better conceptual understandings, give meaning to people’s experiences of it, and develop strategies for preventing the next round of armed conflict and the harm to the population from the ensuing outcomes. Yet, carrying out methodologically sound research is not an easy task. There is potential physical risk to researchers and those participating in the research during an acute conflict stage. Risk is also heightened because such research touches on highly sensitive and emotionally charged issues.
Researchers of human behavior are likely to use qualitative methods that encompass their own values and biases (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). This may introduce a lack of ‘objectivity’ that becomes multiplied in armed conflicts, when sympathy with one side provides the credentials that enable the researcher who is asking for permission to carry out research to do so. Furthermore, the sensitivity of the themes requiring research is difficult to encompass through simple methodology and methods, while researching in harsh conditions calls for simplicity.
Although impartiality is unattainable, commitment to uphold universal ethical rules and reflect on one’s own biases go some way to ensure that this research is carried out ethically (Kelly, 2004). Two types of research can be identified: research aimed at better understanding the context and stakeholders’ positions and evaluation of policies and interventions, including social work interventions.
Despite these difficulties, examples of sound research in relation to values and methodology exist, some of which are outlined below. Miljenovic and Zganec (2012) researched the views of local residents in a region of Croatia that showed signs of community disintegration after the 1990s war there. They developed a framework of the factors of community life that mattered to the residents, and interviewed key people representing these elements. Deteriorating economic development topped the list, followed by dysfunctional social relations between the ethnic groups that were leading a separate coexistence, difficulties in the way public institutions were functioning, and crisis of local government. Meanwhile, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were active, but internal NGOs were operating in an uncoordinated fashion that lacked continuity. On the basis of this research, the authors proposed how community building could proceed.
A survey of 10 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America, undertaken recently by the World Health Organization (Fisher et al., 2011), highlights the difficulties that adolescents face in war situations. In total, 4868 adolescents from armed conflict areas participated in these studies, and although they come from different contexts, the similarities in the findings are striking. The findings include high exposure to traumatic events, high to severe levels of PTSD symptoms, varied therapeutic responses, and the impact of the context on the severity of difficulties experienced and adequacy of responses. For example, those who became child soldiers had not only experienced traumatic events, but also scored much higher than the clinical cutoff point on depression and PTSD scales. Much needed evaluation of policy implementation is provided in a recent study of UNCHR community empowerment projects in Sierra Leone (Skran, 2012).
Only a small number of studies looked at the impact of armed conflict on social workers (e.g., Campbell and McCrystal, 2005; Ramon et al., 2006; Baum and Ramon, 2010), although this group is highly likely to be impacted by armed conflicts. Al Mikhamresh et al. (2012), researching social work activities with Iraqi refugees in Jordan, highlight the need for politically competent social work practice, in the sense of having to understand well the ‘political map’ in the situation and use this understanding to benefit clients. Guru (2012) refers to the dilemma of the researcher attempting to work with families of young Moslem men accused of engaging in terrorist activities. This research sympathizes with the families and wishes to understand better their context, but is not sure how ethical it is to research such families at the crisis stage in which their lives are embedded, while the researchers simultaneously experience difficulties in getting ethical permission to carry out this research on the grounds of potential risk to them.
The Relevance of Social Work to the Humanitarian Activities Undertaken in Armed Conflict Contexts
Local social workers in an armed conflict context are usually part of the workforce providing different types of support, working alongside doctors and administrators, and local and international organizations. At the time of an acute conflict, they will provide any help they can – food, shelter, accompanying people to medical services, taking children left without parents to a safer place, and sharing in their grief.
Support at the postacute stage may differ. At times, this focuses on economic support, including rebuilding local enterprises, emotional support in the form of formal and informal counseling, bereavement work, referring survivors to disability services, reconnecting people, supporting people to go back to their original geographic or ancestral location, and enabling memory work to take place (Zavirsek, 2008). The social work response needs to be tailored to the variations in the reactions to the traumas experienced during an armed conflict in a given population. Focus on community and group work is often more effective than individual work in increasing solidarity and mutual support. Good practice examples range from Northern Ireland to South Africa (O’Brien, 2003) to the development of advocacy practice centers in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine (Moshe-Gorodofsky, 2012), and memory work with three generations in Chile (Zavirsek, 2008). Doucet and Denov (2012) describe the work of social workers in Sierra Leone with women returnees from the civil war. In this, the clients were engaged in agricultural work alongside their social workers, in a situation in which these women were excommunicated by their own community and the social workers too had to find additional source of subsistence to their meager salary (Doucet and Denov, 2012).
Lindsay (2008) describes the work carried out by Palestinian school social workers who work with school children, their parents, and teachers when children are arrested, or who have to spend hours at checkpoints just to get to their workplace. Israeli social workers outlined what it meant to provide group mediation and emotional support to settlers evacuated from the Gaza strip, despite their vocal objection to this move (Nuttman-Shwartz, 2008).
Being local is an advantage in terms of knowing what is available and how to behave, an essential element of offering emotional and social support. Yet, being local can be a disadvantage when a civil war is raging, as it will be assumed that the social worker would side with the position taken by her or his national/tribal group, and hence defined as either part of ‘us’ or of ‘the enemy,’ and treated as such. Wairire (2008) describes such a situation in Kenya, where social workers try to mediate between tribes engaged in war on territory and cattle, and may risk their lives as a result. Working for international humanitarian agencies often entails carrying out social work activities, such as rapid assessment, responding to the need for immediate relief to a traumatic war event, and distributing food, medicine, and shelter. At the postconflict stage, the complexity to be confronted is even more demanding, including displaced people with little to do, buy, or sell, and worried about the people left behind, sick, or disabled.
Maglijlic-Holicek and Rasidagic (2008) have looked at the role of international NGOs in Bosnia-Herzogovina during the armed conflict there in the 1990s and its aftermath. Being a major tool in the application of the Dayton Peace Agreement, alongside the UN Peace Corps, they brought a new language, one of Western policy terms, and favored people who spoke English regardless of their other qualities or lack of them, over local people with the qualities and experience required for welfare work. The usual pitfalls in understanding local conditions, power games, and the diversified needs of the local population, played an additional role in making these overseas workers ineffective in their activities.
The Impact of Armed Conflict on Social Workers
Social workers participate in armed conflicts as both citizens and professionals. Like any other citizen, they too, experience increased physical and psychological vulnerability during the conflict. Yet, being citizens makes them more sensitive to the plight of specific groups, and alert to dangers that their loved ones may be facing while they are working as professionals. They may be committed to one of the two sides in the conflict.
As professionals, their mandate is similar to that of doctors – namely, to support their clients, and those people who become their clients during the armed conflict, regardless of the political affiliation of the latter. Working during a conflict may be difficult, in terms of physical danger, in being exposed to more acute losses and suffering than is normally the case (e.g., being the bearer of bad news to families), lacking necessary resources, or having to provide services to people whose views they object to. They may at times feel that they have to provide an example to others who are more vulnerable than they are (e.g., Palestinian school counselors, as described by Lindsay, 2008) or rise to the challenges that the conflict has provided and with that an opportunity to acquire a higher level of skills while highlighting to the general public the centrality of the social work contribution (Ramon, 2004; Baum and Ramon, 2010). For some social workers, the solutions adopted included deflecting the political nature of their work (e.g., mental health social workers in Belfast, as described by Campbell and McCrystal (2005)).
This context inevitably contains ethical dilemmas, which social workers may or may not be aware of. Cemlyn (2008) and Cemlyn and Nye (2012), looking at working with asylum seekers and travelers in England, indicate a range of such dilemmas resulting from the misfit of English legislation and policy and social work values. A minority of social workers are also engaged politically in campaigning for the values they believe in. Doing so from a platform of social work values is challenging, as highlighted in Moshe-Gorodofsky and Yudelevich’s (2012) recent Israeli example.
Training and Educational Initiatives
Training and education offer the possibility of preparing service providers to offer targeted service for vulnerable groups caught in armed conflict. The trainers must be responsive to local conditions and sensitivities. For example, Moshe-Gorodofsky (2012) reports on a program aimed at preparing community advocates in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine as volunteers who respond to citizens experiencing the negative outcomes of armed conflict. The program enables the advocates to meet with their counterparts from the three countries in a neutral location, a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the enemy as human beings who share values and ways of working with each other. Butler (2005) has led a fieldwork placement on a social work degree in Plymouth, in which students worked as social work trainees with refugees. Using a community development and welfare rights approach, this enabled students to have a much better understanding of the issues faced by refugees, develop empathy and demonstrate it, and try to resolve individual issues within the limitations imposed in the UK system on what refugees can and cannot do. This placement enabled students to test their adherence to the values taught on the degree course, and acquire the necessary knowledge and skills for this type of work.
Lindsay (2008) developed a training program for school counselors in the PA in Ramallah with local educators. This project enabled a 2-year training program for people from a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds to acquire knowledge and skills of providing a social work service to children and their teachers in an area where daily confrontation took place with Israeli soldiers and settlers. As the children were also engaged in protest activities against the occupation, and the workers were experiencing frequent difficulties in getting to the workplace through the roadblocks manned by the Israeli army, the newly qualified workers had to grapple with the issues that working under these complex conditions raised.
Examples of encountering obstacles related to the armed conflict and attempting to overcome them include a period of not being paid salaries due to the temporary withdrawal of EU funding because of an escalation of the political conflict in 2007. This affected directly the participants in the training who were in many cases the sole bread winners of their families. They considered taking strike action, but decided against it because of the importance of the training to them (Lindsay, 2008: pp. 233–234). Many of the participants were often stopped at border crossing by the Israeli army and it took them a long time to get to work, but put up with this obstacle as an example to the children they were working with to strive toward a normal, nonviolent life as much as possible (Lindsay, 2008).
These examples raise the question of what input is needed within the basic qualification for social workers and in postqualifying programs on armed conflicts. This question is particularly pertinent given the universal lack of attention to this issue in most well-established social work programs, despite attempts to encourage engaging with it (Duffy et al., 2013). The main reason usually given for this blatant lack is the already burdened curriculum, which is a polite way of saying that this issue is perceived as being of lesser importance than those already in the curriculum, and constitutes a denial of the significance of armed and political conflicts to an ever increasing number of countries across the globe.
The few existing initiatives are located in countries that are in a postacute armed conflict stage or have become more acutely aware of the impact of a long simmering conflict. An example of an initiative developed in the peace-building phase is provided by the school of social work at Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland (Duffy, 2006; Campbell and Duffy, 2008). Service users who have experienced the impact of this conflict (locally known as ‘The Troubles’) were invited to address social work students in their introduction to the social work course. The invitation was to a local voluntary sector organization that works with families affected by ‘The Troubles.’ A well worked-out protocol was developed relating to the aims of this initiative, how to approach the students over the several seminars that were focused on this issue, what to tell or not tell about oneself, preparing the students who come increasingly from the two sides of the conflict, and how to evaluate the outcomes. This has been a successful initiative to judge by students’ and presenters’ comments (Duffy, 2006). However, social workers who have been affected in this conflict both as citizens and as professionals have not been invited to address the students thus far.
This research paper has highlighted the complexity of the issues entailed in social workers’ understanding of and responses to the needs of populations experiencing armed conflict and included the impact of such conflicts on social workers themselves. The text covered research evidence, and the need for further research was also identified.
The insufficient attention paid to the impact of armed conflict in social work, and in social work education, and good practice examples were identified. Given that armed conflicts are part of the reality of the twenty-first century, it is hoped that the social work profession, its researchers, and educators will move from paying lip service to this crucial issue to give it the centrality it deserves. Likewise, there is a place for multidisciplinary work between social workers and other relevant disciplines to occur soon. In the context of armed conflict, social work knowledge takes key concepts concerning trauma, displacement, rebuilding communities, and research methods from psychology and sociology in particular. Practitioners work closely with varied health practitioners and educators and planners.
Epidemiologists, economists, and system managers also play an important role in different stages of an armed conflict. In meeting other disciplines on this issue, the role of social workers is both to inform and be informed, to decide which of the contributions of the other disciplines is of particular relevance to social work, as well as whether and how it fits social work values. An interesting example is provided by Dan Bar-On in his seminal article on the silence of psychologists as a discipline when faced with armed conflict (Bar-On, 2001). He argues that in this case, the allegiance to science, perceived as objective and beyond biases, prevents psychologists from taking a moral stand as well as a knowledge-building one. This research paper helps to understand similar positions taken by social workers, social work researchers, and social work educators, and understand how such a reaction does not fit the values that social work stands for, because these include social workers’ defense of human rights. Compared to other social sciences disciplines, social workers’ activities in armed conflict situations, and the research led by social work researchers on this issue, are far less known outside the discipline, calling for more effort to be put into wider dissemination of existing understandings of the issues entailed and evidence accumulated within social work.
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