Social workers offers substantial services to asylum seekers and refugees, and are trained to respond to their complex needs using a framework that emphasises human rights.
Social work practice focuses on the wider understanding of the association between social institutions and family relationships.
The Difference between Asylum Seekers and Refugees
The term “asylum seeker” refers to a person who is seeking international protection, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been resolved.
By contrast, the term “refugee” is used to refer to a person who holds refugee status in accordance to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Since World War II, about 600 000 refugees have settled in Australia; many of them have experienced war or organised violence. Most conflicts since World War II have produced refugees.
Social workers usually provide short-term as well as ongoing psychotherapy treatment to those assessed as suffering from trauma-related symptoms.
Common reactions after traumatic life events include: anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, depression, grief, dissociation, sleeping problems, irritability and/or aggressiveness, emotional stress, eating disorders, psycho-sexual problems, an inability to plan for the future, as well as preoccupation with the past.
Also, some refugees may have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including intrusive thoughts, bad memories, flashbacks and nightmares. Stress-related psychosomatic illnesses are not uncommon.
A person from a refugee background may present with common psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, grief, trauma symptoms, emotional stress or suicidality; the problem behind it may be their experiences of torture and/or trauma and this needs to be addressed.
Asylum seekers can especially be vulnerable to psychological as well as physical distress, because of long and uncertain periods of waiting for a decision about their claim for protection.
Some refugees arrive knowing no one and need to build a social network from scratch. Social isolation is common among older refugees, as they may find it difficult to develop the trust needed to build supportive social networks. Social workers play a significant role in this area too; while not necessarily cultural experts, they try to understand their clients, validate the cultural differences in values, and communicate with them effectively. They focus on establishing rapport.
Social workers have integrative skills to put together the inter-personal and intra-personal practicalities to assist and support the community at large. This is a ‘set in stone’ or principal dogma of social work practice around the world.
Responding to the Unique Needs of Refugees
However, working with refugees is very different. For instance, social workers make efforts to attain fundamental political rights (also known as first-generation human rights) for individuals, in a situation where most governments around the world deny such rights. Particularly, governmental institutions intentionally exclude the asylum seekers arriving by boat, leaving them out from every opportunity.
Therefore, social workers have an obligation to work against some of the heavy-handed governmental oppressive systems. While substantiating the second generation rights, it is also very important to focus on a core work element that is “Irregular Maritime Arrivals (IMAs)” (from 2013 “Illegal Maritime Arrivals” – although it is not illegal to come to Australia to seek asylum under Australian and international law) to change policies and systems. This is an advocacy and political-based area of work. It likewise alters the complexion of therapeutic work responding to traumas caused by a longer period of detention and mandatory detention.
Moreover, refugees and asylum seekers are at risk and open to vulnerabilities. In this regard, the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) outlines a code of ethics that are imperatively useful social work practice guidelines. It highlights:
- Autonomy, worth, and respecting the inherent dignity of all individuals.
- Recognition of human rights for society, community groups, and individuals.
- Provision of humanitarian services that focus on avoiding doing harm and fulfilling duty of care to others.
- Fostering social responsibility, personal obligation, justice, autonomy, and individual wellbeing.
- Being acquainted with collective and reciprocity needs, mutuality, interdependence, as well as respecting group identities.
The ‘Social Work Practice’ standards outlined by AASW emphasises that social workers have appropriate knowledge and understanding of cultural diversity, which will help them to work in an inclusive and culturally responsive way, that is respectful of cultural diversity and differences.
In addition, AASW put forward pertinent social justice ethics with regard to working with refugees and asylum seekers. According to AASW, social workers have the utmost responsibility to fulfill societal needs and promote communal, environmental, and societal wellbeing for refugees. They have a liability to advocate for equal resource distribution, and influence optimistic social changes geared towards social justice.
Enduring assistance encompasses a combination of concrete support within a socially responsive – along with inclusive – practice framework, which recognises the influence of previous trauma. Furthermore, it correspondingly acknowledges the significance of family, and seeks to utilise the potencies of persons, families, and communities.
To carry out such challenging work, individuals associated with social work practice must provide and receive applicable/adequate social work administration that reassures reflective practices and enduring professional development. It includes:
- Migrant resource centres and refugee resettlement facilities
- Rehabilitation and treatment services for trauma-afflicted survivors
- Facilities for refugees living in the community, and advocacy services for them
- Services for asylum seekers and refugees in detention, both offshore and onshore
- Health, education, legal and family support services
- Political and policy-making role within state government institutions and multicultural units
- Academia, research, and teaching
Social workers employ a wide range of research, knowledge, theories, and skills to ensure an holistic and comprehensive analysis of their client’s circumstances.
The assessment procedures range from the analysis of brief targeted needs to holistic risk and psychosocial assessments underlining the full range of strengths and stressors. Such assessments support and reinforce the targeted interventions, to resolve the intense emotional and psychosocial issues that are affecting the individual’s health, wellbeing, and development.
Using the multi-systematic approach and human rights-based practices, which integrate the cultural, spiritual, economic, political, social, and physical aspects, the humanitarian practices make social workers unique working individuals who do whatever it takes to provide public-spirited and benevolent services to asylum seekers and refugees.
The Role of Advocacy
Their advocacy communication skills make them key valued educators in providing fundamental human rights services to the needs of asylum seekers and refugees, keeping in view the basic principles of ethics such as proportionality, justice, efficiency, and respect for autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and health maximization. Consequently, social work plays a collective role in work with asylum seekers and refugees.
A clinical social worker is a social worker who specialises in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness, emotion disorders, and other behavior disturbances. Individual, group, and family therapy are common treatment methods.
A range of comorbid psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic disorders, are particularly prevalent among asylum seekers and refugees.
Suicidality is linked to immigration-related stressors, including cultural stress, social marginalization, conflict between generations, and PTSD, as well as other psychological factors. People from refugee / asylum seeker backgrounds may have a distrust of authority figures, among them medical professionals.
In addition to trauma and emotional distress experienced by children and adults from refugee backgrounds, adults may have also suffered conflicts, family separation, and significant violation of human rights, including torture and/or physical and sexual abuse.
Additional stressors may arise as a result of the asylum experience such as unsafe journeys, long detention periods, and living in an uncertain environment.
There is clear evidence that immigration detention, especially long-term detention, is detrimental to health and mental health in all ages, both in the short and long term, and social workers are there to provide substantial support to people from refugee backgrounds. They support people from refugee backgrounds to restore safety and enhance control, and reduce the disabling effects of worry, fear and anxiety by providing basic needs such as health/mental health care, welfare, education, accommodation, social networks, etc.
Author: Nenad Bakaj, MHumServ (RehabCouns), BSocWk, DipAppSci (Comm&HumServ), AMHSW, MAAC, MAASW, JP (Qld)
Nenad Bakaj is a Brisbane based Clinical Counsellor, Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Life Coach and Bigger Bite Out Of Life Trainer with a keen interest in positive psychology, mental health and wellbeing, and is continually developing his professional skills and knowledge. Nenad enjoys working with adolescents and young adults, as well as older clients, and feels it is a privilege to be able to support them. In the counselling room, Nenad aims to build rapport with his clients to assist them to reach their health, relationship, personal and life goals, and a happy and fruitful life.
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- Alston, M, McCurdy, S & McKinnon, J (eds) (2018) Social Work: Fields of Practice, South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press
- Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) – www.aasw.asn.au
- Queensland Program of Assistance to Survvs of Toture & Trauma (QPASTT) – www.qpastt.org.au
- Service for the Treatment & Rehabilitation of Torture & Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) – www.startts.org.au
- UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees – https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html
- World Organisation Against Torture – www.omct.org