chapter  9
6 Pages

Refugees and asylum seekers: The social work role

ByMONICA DOWLING, PARISSA SEXTONE

Research in this country and overseas (Valtonen* 2001; Hessle* 2007) raises questions about the policies of governments, and welfare agencies, in the complex immigration and social welfare environments in which social workers operate. Where good social work practice exists, it does so despite negative circumstances. The common picture from research is one where workers feel guilty, resentful and frustrated because they do not have the legal knowledge or expertise to offer a good service and where service users are neglected and vulnerable (Hayes and Humphries 2004). Humphries* (2004a) cites work by Duvell and Jordan (2000) who interviewed members of asylum teams in London and reported that staff often lacked preparation and training for work with refugees, while research in Greater Manchester found that although local authorities could claim a special grant for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, young people were often not supported because the relationship between asylum teams and social work teams was not clear. Jordan and Jordan (2000) also found that some social workers do not accept that social problems faced by asylum seekers are any of their business, while some local authorities avoided their responsibilities under community care and national assistance legislation. Team members were aware of and concerned about the trauma experienced by young refugees but had little knowledge of their immigration status or the legislation. Poole and Adamson (2008) looked at the difficulties faced by the Roma community arriving in Govanhill, Glasgow without employment. They were unable to make any claims on public funds given the primary legislation developed by the Department of Work and Pensions and the Home Office (Home Office 2008). This limited their access to emergency payments from social work in times of ‘destitution’. Such restrictive legislation created a tension between professional social work ethics and the principles of anti-discriminatory practice on the one hand, and the day-to-day realities of trying to work with excluded minority ethnic groups on the other. Furthermore, changes in the role carried out by social workers and others in acting as agents of the Home Office through taking steps to confirm immigration status, can result in aiding deportation. Research with asylum seekers and refugees in North Glasgow (GoWell 2007) found they had difficulties in accessing health services because of problems including language and registration. The research also

identified a range of health needs, many of which were unmet or required involvement of other support, for example, social services, health services and housing. Hayes and Humphries (2004) point out the importance of anti-racist practice and the response of social work agencies. Save the Children’s research (2003) found statutory agencies were not always aware of the extent and impact of racism experienced by refugees and asylum seekers. Black and minority ethnic groups are often diagnosed as having higher rates of mental disorder than the general population, and refugees and asylum seekers are especially disadvantaged (Chase et al. 2008; Browne 2009). Depression is frequently overlooked and these groups are less likely to be referred for psychological therapies (Chase et al. 2008). However, refugee rather than asylum seeker status is necessary to access community mental health teams. Hayes and Humphries (2004) cite examples of good practice from housing providers, including the private sector whose workers were well informed and were providing support and advice which went beyond the provision of accommodation. Housing providers and support workers in this research were often the first to identify mental health problems and were instrumental in helping refugees and asylum seekers to register with a GP. Research evidence from the UK and other countries indicates that social work with refugees and asylum seekers is developing into a new area of practice where information is sought from lawyers, medical practitioners, NGOs and the voluntary sector rather than social work practitioners working with other client groups (Valtonen 2001; Findlay et al. 2007).