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This research paper uses recent literature and research to illuminate knowledge, values, and skills that social workers require to work with refugees, an emergent field of practice. Literature is drawn from books, journal articles, and online resources including relevant national policy documents. A change of tone is discerned in recent literature, in the form of discourse suggesting that refugees have become less deserving of the protection of their human rights. Their encounters with racism and xenophobia are noted. Dilemmas faced by social workers to fulfill their statutory functions while holding true to their professional principles of social justice are discussed.
- Literature Review
- Literature Review, Historical and Political Contexts
- Literature Review, Electronic Resources Informing Macro- and Micropractice
- Core Theories and Concepts
- Social Work Roles and Practices
- Ethical Challenges
This research paper focuses on social work with refugees (rather than asylum seekers), using recent literature and research to illuminate the knowledge, values, and skills that social workers require when engaging in this emergent field of practice. The dilemmas faced by social workers to fulfill their statutory functions while holding true to their professional principles of social justice will be discussed.
Social work is operating in an increasingly international and global environment (Chathapuram and Link, 1999; Midgley, 2000; Powell, 2001). This is particularly apparent when working with immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Literature on globalization and social work explicitly links social work practice to issues of citizenship, inclusion, and participation in civil society. Social workers are inevitably called upon to work in this context, either as agents of the state or in the voluntary sector as members of nongovernmental organizations or not-for-profit organizations. In nonstatutory settings, they are more likely to be able to express their professional principles of social justice. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) reminds us that “The issues surrounding refugees are matters of justice and peace. Social workers in the vast majority of countries will be required to address the problems facing refugees in their practice” (IFSW, 2012: p. 1).
Potocky-Tripodi (2002: p. 3) argued that “Social work practice with refugees and immigrants requires specialized knowledge of the unique issues of these populations.” Her comprehensive account of best practice in this new and challenging field is consistent with the IFSW position. She systematically explored the many factors, which practitioners need to recognize in the lives of this client group, using an analysis that reflects on the macro-, meso-, and microlevels of social work practice. Good practitioners, she observed, should be informed about human rights and social justice issues as well as international and local law surrounding immigrants and refugees. Nash and Trlin (2004: p. 2), reporting on findings from two postal surveys in New Zealand, found that practitioners need to be informed regarding service delivery systems and to be knowledgeable regarding key areas such as physical health, mental health, family dynamics, cultural diversity, language, education, and economic circumstances. Social workers also need to be culturally competent and have the requisite knowledge and skills to work appropriately with their immigrant and/or refugee clients. These points will be elaborated on throughout this research paper.
People living away from their country of origin do so for a variety of reasons, sometimes voluntary and sometimes involuntary. When describing the latter, terms may be generic, such as involuntary migrant or more specific, from asylum seeker to convention refugee, or refugees with exceptional leave to remain, or even refugees in orbit (Joly et al., 1997) depending on country of origin and host country.
An immigrant is someone who moves in a planned way, from one country to another, in order to settle permanently in the new country. Immigrants know that they may, if they choose, return to their country of origin. This is not the case for refugees. According to the United Nations 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who (http://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html):
Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.
Asylum seekers, in contrast to immigrants and refugees, are people who enter a country without legal documents, or whose documents expire once they have arrived and who claim refugee status. An asylum seeker is a person who has asked for protection but has not received a decision on their application to become a refugee, or is waiting for the outcome of an appeal (SCIE, 2010). Asylum seekers have the right under the United Nations High Commissioner for Rights (UNHCR) Convention to seek a fair hearing to decide on their status as a refugee, but until that hearing, they may demand very little from the country they live in. It is essential that social workers should distinguish between the legal status of asylum seekers and refugees when working with migrants, because, in all countries, people will be entitled to different forms of public welfare support, depending on their legal immigration status. For this reason, using legal definitions correctly is fundamental, and finding out how clients are placed will assist in understanding their help-seeking behavior and aspirations for settlement (Potocky-Tripodi, 2002: p. 13).
Useful information covering the demographics of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons is available on the UNHCR Web site. The refugees of concern to UNHCR are spread around the world, with more than half in Asia and some 20% in Africa. They live in widely varying conditions, from well-established camps and collective centers to makeshift shelters or living in the open. It is estimated that there are about 19.5 million refugees in the world.
This research paper relates to social work with refugees, and this term is used with care to avoid confusion with social work with asylum seekers (see asylum seekers article) or migrants. Convention refugees are included here, but efforts have been made to refer to them in the context of a postasylum seeker category.
Research and publications about refugees and social work have recently increased. As refugees from a variety of countries and ethnicities have faced displacement, trauma, and loss, there are resettlement opportunities for some. Resettlement calls for courage and resilience and may involve unforeseen difficulties such as stigma, unemployment or underemployment, unwelcome climatic change, new languages, strange housing, cultural differences, racism, and perhaps the most important of all, loss of family members.
Literature reviewed in this research paper is drawn largely from books, journal articles, and online resources such as relevant national policy documents. Journal articles date predominantly from the year 2000 to the present, and the journal International Social Work is one of the main resources. Material from the UNHCR Web site has also been helpful. This discussion of research themes and sources is designed to point up consensus and diversity, recognizing the inevitable ethical dilemmas in international social work and the range of practices within the parameters of different welfare states (Dominelli, 2004; Hugman et al., 2010). It begins with a brief historical approach, and records some of the political responses to refugee populations in nation-states which have, over time, developed very different welfare regimes (Sainsbury, 2006).
A change of tone can be discerned in the literature, in the form of a discourse suggesting that asylum seekers and refugees have become somehow less deserving of the protection of their human rights. Instead, they come under suspicion and their encounters with racism and xenophobia are noted in recent research (Masocha and Simpson, 2011; Refugee Council, 2004). The status of social work, its ethical values, and the expectations social workers face as they carry out their work are a particularly challenging context for practice.
Literature Review, Historical and Political Contexts
The 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees defined refugees in relation to events that took place before 1951,which is why, in 1967, a protocol was added to the Convention to include peoplewho were unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin post-1951 (Lacroix, 2006). Lacroix made a helpful observation, which underpins recent thinking about the uneasy relationship between universal human rights and the asylum/refugee responses instituted in individual nation-states. She writes:
States which have adhered to the Convention have instituted their own refugee regimes, according to their own historical, political, ideological and social relationships to non-citizens. Hence the disparity among refugee determination systems across the western world and conflicting national views on what constitutes a refugee.
Lacroix, 2006: p. 21
Sainsbury’s (2006) comparative analysis of the social rights of immigrants in three countries exemplified three different types of welfare regime. She described the United States as having a liberal welfare regime, with an inclusive immigration policy in which rights are based on need and land of birth (ius soli). Germany, she described as having a conservative welfare regime, mediated by an exclusionary immigration policy such that rights are based on work and lineage (ius sanguinis). The third welfare category is exemplified by Sweden, with its social democratic welfare regime according to which rights are based on citizenship and residence (ius domicilii) (Sainsbury, 2006: p. 231). These three welfare regimes, each with its own criteria for negotiating rights, provide a useful schema for understanding ways in which different nation-states have interpreted universal rights legislation and developed and applied national policies for immigrants, especially asylum seekers and refugees. Both Hugman et al. (2010) and Pirjola (2009) pick up on this analysis to explore its implications for the uneasy fit between international and national human rights discourses. Hugman et al. apply it to the predicament in which social workers now find themselves, noting “the contradiction that lies between the universal rights of all human beings to live lives of dignity and the exclusionary nation-based notions of social citizenship” (Hugman et al., 2010: pp. 637–638).
The professionalization of social work cannot occur in isolation from increasing demands and expectations that social workers and colleagues face in their daily practice (Maidment, 2013). In 2001, the IFSW and International Association of Schools of Social Work jointly defined social work as “…social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work” (IFSW, 2012: p. 1). Qualified social workers are, therefore, expected to know about human rights legislation as it relates to refugees and to understand government policies, which provide the legal context for their practice in this field. They need to be aware of international agreements, conventions, and guiding statements that concern the status of refugees to become competent advocates for them.
Literature Review, Electronic Resources Informing Macro- and Micropractice
It makes sense when researching an article for an electronic encyclopedia, to identify relevant Web sites and electronic resources belonging to a range of agencies and organizations including the United Nations and other international organizations, with selected statements and conventions on human rights, as well as examples of national legislation, government policies and social work practice standards, and refugee voices.
The IFSW Web site publicizes a range of policy statements for best practice including a standard setting policy statement on refugees. It emphasizes the need for a holistic approach when working with refugees, caring not simply for material, but also for psychosocial needs. Ethical values underpin this work, imbued with a belief in the intrinsic value of each human being and the rights of the individual to seek asylum and to be treated with respect for their human dignity. “…the social work profession accepts its share of responsibility for responding to the distress of refugees, and strives for the fullest possible involvement of refugees themselves in meeting their needs” (http://ifsw.org/policies/refugees/). Key areas of knowledge are outlined and a measure of the success of intervention is seen to be the provision of ‘durable solutions’ to the problems faced by refugees, together with “the achievement of self-sufficiency, economic independence, spiritual and intellectual fulfillment” (http://ifsw.org/policies/refugees/). The IFSW explicitly supports the work of the United Nations and believes in the value of working in partnership with other NGO organizations to lobby for social and political changes in this field.
The Office of the UNHCR was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees (http://www.unhcr.org/). The site links directly to the Geneva Convention 1951, and includes a brief history of the UNHCR and describes the main areas of work it undertakes. The ‘Figures at a glance’ page (http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html) is particularly helpful.
Human rights legislation is a fundamental resource for social workers when advocating for their clients. In the context of refugee work, as argued by Hugman et al. (2010), it provides a powerful and essential counterbalance to national or regional legislation and policies, which would seek to exclude or marginalize asylum seekers and refugees. In addition to the obvious sections on human rights, this site has good links to other topics including an interesting and innovative link to the UN Cyberschoolbus with its interactive declaration of human rights and moving stories by children whose rights have been abused.
Easily navigated, the Cyberschoolbus is definitely worth boarding and links one to the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and another to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two national organizations featured in this research paper are concerned either to set standards for good social work practice, or to see that social workers have resources for achieving the standards expected of them when working with refugees. The (American) Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) makes a pertinent, but generic statement that social workers
- understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination;
- advocate for human rights and social and economic justice; and
- engage in practices that advance social and economic justice.
(CSWE Educational Policy and Accreditation standards, Educational Policy 2.1.5). There is no direct mention of refugees as such here, but the standard is clearly relevant.
The (English) Social Care Institute for Excellence features a comprehensive guide to good practice with refugees and asylum seekers based on an extensive review of British research publications and a practice survey. Good practice occurs in a context of respect for the strengths and resilience of refugees and asylum seekers. Emphasizing the importance of good information and advocacy skills, this report is a very helpful resource for practitioners (SCIE, 2010).
Finally, a research project featuring dialogues with women refugees in Finland offers a politically aware, gendered analysis, with practical recommendations for ways of working with refugee women (Pittaway and Van Genderen Stort, 2011). The women participants’ strongest message was that service provision aimed at assisting refugee integration has to be grounded in a deep understanding of the impact of these experiences on their lives. Many of the women commented that racist and xenophobic behavior and language served to keep the horror of these experiences alive (Pittaway and Van Genderen Stort, 2011: section 1, p. 7). This report models excellent and innovative research methods, provides many links to other research together with a set of excellent recommendations for social workers in this field.
The international human rights and social work agencies and organizations provide a global setting for principled social work practice with refugees. The few chosen to feature here have offered a range of information and links featuring practice standards, research, and a gendered approach which, in this field, is essential. The next section looks at core concepts and theoretical frameworks for practice.
Core Theories and Concepts
A number of theoretical frameworks and models exist to support the kinds of analysis that social workers will find useful when working in this field. Kunz (1981: pp. 49–51) categorized three types of refugee according to their reasons for leaving their countries of origin, reasons which he predicted would affect their resettlement experiences. The three different groups he recognized are ‘majority-identified’ refugees who identify with their homeland but not with its government; ‘events-alienated’ refugees, often religious or racial minorities who rarely entertain the hope of returning home; and ‘self-alienated’ refugees, who for various reasons no longer wish to identify with their nation.
George (2002) categorized models of settlement service delivery as theory based and practice based. Theory-based models include models of cultural competence, antiracist models, ecological models, and empowerment approaches. Practice-based models focus on the different stages or phases of immigrant settlement and adaptation.
Perhaps the most used theory-based model is the ecological model, which social workers are familiar with in many contexts. It ensures that the practitioner takes a holistic approach to their interventions, contextualizing refugees in international and national settings. The importance of a macrolevel analysis for working with refugees was eloquently expressed by a respondent in a New Zealand research project who commented that:
You have got to be able to have a structural analysis, you have got to be able to have a global analysis, you have to have political reasons. Because in this sector…if you only have case work skills, you only have…a micro-base approach to your work, it is not going to work, it will be very soul destroying.
Nash et al., 2006: p. 350
Also within George’s theory-based category, empowerment approaches can build on strengths-based practice (Saleebey, 2006) as well as on the social justice principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Valtonen described social work in Finland as developing a new field of practice, which involves indirect social work and provides a ‘pivotal link’ (2001: p. 959) as social workers use their expertise to liaise skillfully between the clients’ world, bureaucracies, and local community groups. Her study emphasized professional social work responsibilities for humanitarian and social justice work in this domain and identified key skills for social workers – in particular, crosscultural skills.
George’s (2002) second category of models of settlement service delivery, the practice-based model, promotes an understanding of the stages of migration and points up the challenges refugees have endured to arrive at a particular point. If social workers are to work successfully with them to facilitate settlement into a new country, this is also something they need to be aware of. George cited Cox’s (1985, 1987) example of the stages approach involving premovement, transition, settlement, and integration, as well as a continuum model in which newcomers move from acclimatization, followed by adaptation and leading to integration (George and Fuller-Thomson, 1997). The stages approach has been taken up by social workers as a useful framework, which emphasizes matters of significance to the people they work with. Practice-based models also distinguish between services run by ethnic communities for their own people and services run by mainstream agencies for newcomers (George, 2002).
These frameworks are helpful in that they identify and clarify a variety of complex variables involved in settlement work with refugees. Many of the issues which these models and frameworks are designed to address are reflected in subsequent research by Nash and Trlin (2004) and Ager and Strang (2004). The latter developed an evaluation tool, ‘Indicators of Integration,’ based on research funded by the Home Office to develop a framework thatwould,without being prescriptive, facilitate the planning and evaluation of local projects designed to assist refugee settlement.
From the research, a framework for the indicators is structured into 10 domains, which represent the key factors involved in the process of integration work with refugees. These domains are categorized under four headings and within each domain there are further indicators that provide criteria for assessing integration pertaining to that particular domain (Ager and Strang, 2004: p. 5). The framework, while informed by research findings, is also intuitively perceptive for anyone who has worked in this field.
The four headings are as follows: The first, ‘means and markers,’ which refer to the four domains that are essential for settlement leading to integration. These are housing, employment, education, and health. These domains are self-explanatory, and without achievement within each of them, refugees cannot be said to have settled into their new community. The second heading is ‘social connections’ and it refers to social bonds, social bridges, and social links. These links are reminiscent of the ecological framework; in that, social bonds are the connections within a specific (microlevel) community, ethnic, religious, or other, while social bridges are the connections made with the members of external and different types of communities (mesolevel). Social links are (macrolevel) connections made with institutions at local or national levels and include state services. The social domains link well to the work of Valtonen (2001) referred to above.
The third heading ‘facilitators’ includes two domains, which again are predictably identified as ‘language and cultural knowledge’ and ‘safety and stability.’ Again, these domains are self-explanatory. The fourth heading ‘foundation’ as indicated by its name is a particularly important one, and contains a single domain, which is ‘rights and citizenship.’ The authors have included helpful examples of how the domains can be used at practice and policy levels, making them user-friendly for the busy practitioner or policy-maker.
This carefully structured framework can be used when presenting research into social work roles and practices. The author has found that recurring themes emerge from research into social work with refugees across time and place. Findings consistently indicate that refugees experience similar needs and requirements and that practitioners describe comparable levels of knowledge, resources, and interventions in approaching their work.
Social Work Roles and Practices
For example, George (2002) reported on research carried out in Canada to develop an appropriate model for settlement services designed to meet the needs identified by the service users themselves, as well as by social workers. She identified “full and equal participation of newcomers in Canadian society” (George, 2002: p. 468) as the aim of the Canadian Council for Refugees. As mentioned earlier, participation continues to rank high on the list of essential components of a successful settlement strategy. George (2002) distinguished two ways in which one can view settlement: first, as a two-way process in which both newcomers and the host society have to adapt to one another; and second, as the provision of settlement services, which can be seen as a duty based on human rights (George, 2002: p. 468). This fits well with Ager and Strang’s (2004) ‘rights and citizenship’ domain and accords with the work of Lacroix (2006: p. 22), when she observes that “How we start linking the international context to local experiences is of particular concern for the social justice side of social work.”
George (2002) noted that the Canadian Council for Refugees identified values such as inclusivity, empowerment, respect for newcomers, cultural sensitivity, collaboration, and reliability of services as important in resettlement work. These values reflect those expressed in the United Nations Summit for Social Development – Ten Commitments (cited by Healy, 2001: p. 288). They are values that every refugee recognizes as essential for their well-being and dignity. A later research project, sponsored by the UNHCR and the University of New South Wales, Centre for Refugee Research, Australia (mentioned above), used a participatory approach to collect the stories and opinions of women refugees in Finland, concerning the stages of their lives as refugees. The research team set out to produce a model for government and civil society to use when working with refugees toward their settlement, with particular emphasis on women and children. The women “consistently recommended that they be involved in solution identification and implementation, and that their previous expertise and knowledge be utilized to assist their own communities” (Pittaway and Van Genderen Stort, 2011: p. 11).
This very useful research project has good detail and stresses some psychological needs for recognition by host workers and society, of traumas and hardships undergone before arrival in host country. Ten global core protection areas proposed by the UNHCR Gender Unit have been identified by UNHCR research using the Regional Dialogues method in India, Colombia, Jordan, Uganda, Zambia, and Thailand. Finland adds an industrial nation-state to the mix. In this set of dialogues, the women talked particularly of their experiences of seeking asylum and settling into Finland. The report compares the global core protection issues and those for Finland and shows a close comparison between them.
They stressed also the importance of better policies for family reunification. Again, one notes the same themes coming through as from other research.
A small, supplementary selection of authors whose research is particularly relevant to social work intervention in this field includes Weaver and Burns (2001) on understanding the traumatic experiences faced by refugees and asylum seekers; Nash and Trlin (2004) who explored the experiences of generic social workers and NGO workers involved in settlement work with clients who were refugees or migrants in New Zealand; Hagelund, and Kavli (2009) on the importance of employment for refugees when they begin the arduous process of settlement in a new country; Al-Qdah and Lacroix (2011) on Iraqi refugees in Jordan with useful practical ideas; Kreitzer (2002) on the participation and planning of refugee camp programs by Liberian refugee women; and finally, not to leave out the significant but often neglected area of religion, Benson et al. (2012) have researched a study of newly resettled Hindu Bhutanese refugees in the United States.
There remains one challenging matter, raised forcefully by Hugman et al. (2010) and Humphries (2004) who, in different ways, remind social workers of the dilemmas they face in upholding their professional ideals when working in this field. Humphries (2004: p. 93) argues that in relation to implementing immigration policy, “There is no clearer an example of the transformation of social work from a concern with welfare to a position of authoritarianism than in this field, paralleling a more general change in the profession towards a culture of blame and enforcement.” In the context of international social work, Hugman et al. (2010: p. 633) ask: “Are social workers engaged in international social work exerting effective political pressure (within their own nation-states) behind their desire for a more equitable global society?” or “is a borderless social work likely to be egalitarian or another nightmare of (inappropriately) universalizing language?” Social workers engaged in settlement programs cannot avoid these questions, for they will inexorably be involved in advocacy, in family reunification issues, leading to international social work with refugees and asylum seekers.
This research paper offers a necessarily brief guide to the terrain of social work with refugees. It began with defining terms, as a preliminary to looking at international conventions, and statements by human rights and global social work organizations. These are referenced using accessible Web sites, to enable readers to deepen their knowledge of the histories, politics, and values that inform the refugee world. With this foundation material, the author has used a macro-, meso-, microframework to organize a presentation of useful theoretical material at each of these levels, material which practitioners need to be aware of when working with refugees. Finally, research into aspects of refugee settlement in diverse countries has provided a selection of examples of social work practice and refugee experience.
Above all, this research paper is intended to provoke curiosity and to raise some of the ethical and professional issues that make social work so interesting.
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- Al-Qdah, T., Lacroix, M., 2011. Iraqi refugees in Jordan: lessons for practice with refugees globally. International Social Work 54, 521–534.
- Benson, G.O., Sun, F., Hodge, D.R., Androff, D.K., 2012. Religious coping and acculturation stress among Hindu Bhutanese: a study of newly-resettled refugees in the United States. International Social Work 55, 538–553.
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- Kreitzer, L., 2002. Liberian refugee women: a qualitative study of the participation in planning camp programmes. International Social Work 45, 45–58.
- Lacroix, M., 2006. Social work with asylum seekers in Canada: the case for social justice. International Social Work 49 (1), 19–28.
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- Pirjola, J., 2009. European asylum policy: inclusions and exclusions under the language of universal human rights language. European Journal of Migration and Law 11 (4), 347–366.
- Pittaway, E., Van Genderen Stort, A., 2011. Protectors, Providers, Survivors. A Dialogue with Refugee Women in Finland. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales, Australia. http://www.unhcr.org/4ec3d7606.pdf
- Potocky-Tripodi, M., 2002. Best Practices for Social Work with Refugees and Migrants. Columbia University Press, New York.
- Powell, F.W., 2001. The Politics of Social Work. Sage Publications, London.
- Refugee Council, 2004. Hungry and Homeless: The Impact of the Withdrawal of State Support on Asylum Seekers, Refugee Communities and the Voluntary Sector. Refugee Council, London.
- Saleebey, D., 2006. The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, fifth ed. Pearson Education, Australia.
- Sainsbury, D., 2006. Immigrants’ social rights in comparative perspective: welfare regimes, forms in immigration and immigration policy regimes. Journal of European Social Policy 16 (3), 229–244.
- SCIE, June 2010. Guide 37. Good Practice in Social Care for Refugees and Asylum Seekers. http://www.scie.org.uk/publications/guides/guide37-good-practice-in-social-care-with-refugees-and-asylum-seekers/
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- UNHCR, 20–22 June 2001. Respect our rights: partnership for equality. In: Report on the Dialogue with Refugee Women. Geneva, Switzerland. http://www.unhcr.org/3bb44d908.pdf
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- Valtonen, K., 2001. Social work with immigrants and refugees: developing a participation- based framework for anti-oppressive practice. British Journal of Social Work 31, 955–960.
- Weaver, H., Burns, B., 2001. I shout with fear at night. Understanding the traumatic experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. Journal of Social Work 1 (2), 147–164.