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Social Work Responses to the Refugee Crisis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2027 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Title: The Refugee ‘Crisis’ – The Response of Social Work and Social Development



According to Article 1, Geneva convention, a refugee is described as ‘someone who 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’ (Hutchinson, 2018). As an individual who was born and raised in Barbados, which is considered one of the smaller islands in the Caribbean region, the existence of a refugee ‘crisis’ appears to be so far-fetched. It would seem that Barbados, and by extension the Caribbean region, is somehow unaware of the existence of, or lacks an understanding of what a refugee ‘crisis’ is. It was interesting to discover, that (Chatty 2014, p.78) highlighted that in 1971, a group of anthropologists framed the Barbados Declaration calling for the protection of the rights of indigenous people not to be dispossessed or assimilated by the nation states they found themselves in. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) was set up at this time followed shortly thereafter by Cultural Survival in 1972 and its accompanying journal (Cultural Survival). This would imply, that in responding to the current refugee ‘crisis’, social work professionals and those actively involved in social development should have a clear understanding of the professional values and ethics that are associated with a particular society or culture. This would also suggest that any given response should be realistically applied within the specific context being identified. Here is a brief examination of how the response of social work and social development has impacted the refugee ‘crisis’. It is important to note that over the years there continues to be some limitations and challenges to these efforts.

A Brief Overview of Social Work Values and Ethics

Williams & Simpson (2009) made reference to an IFSW and ISAAW written agreement that states that, ethical awareness is a fundamental part of the professional practice of social workers. Their ability and commitment to act ethically is an essential aspect of the quality of the service offered to those who use social work services. (IASSW and IFSW, 2004) describes the social work profession as one that promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work. Definitions were given for two of these fundamental principles. Human rights and human dignity: Social work is based on respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and the rights that follow from this. Social workers should uphold and defend each person’s physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual integrity and well-being. Social justice: Social workers have a responsibility to promote social justice, in relation to society generally, and in relation to the people with whom they work. Clearly, the importance of social work values, ethics and principles must consistently be utilised at the core of the profession’s operations.  

Key Terms Identified

  • Refugee ‘crisis’
  • Fundamental principles
  • Values
  • Ethics
  • Human rights and human dignity
  • Social justice
  • Repatriation
  • Services
  • Support
  • IFSW (International Fereration of Social Workers)
  • IASSW (International Association of Schools of Social Work)

The Social Work and Social Development Response

Healy (2008, p.239) stated that “there is a strong current of criticism that social work values and ethical codes are too grounded in Western-oriented individualistic values to the exclusion of other perspectives. It is undeniable that issues of values and ethics become complex and controversial as one moves among various social and cultural contexts”.

(Cox & Pawar, 2013 p. 453) presented two case studies that highlighted the needs of the refugee women in Guatemala and Argentina with the emphasis being on support groups and repatriation.

  1. Women’s Organization in Guatemala

Mama Maquin is an organization created by Guatemalan refugee women in Mexico. Among other activities they raise the consciousness of refugee women about their rights as women and take action on these rights, participate in the creation and implementation of necessary services, are involved in the peace and repatriation talks, and ensure that Mama Maquin organizations within Guatemala are present to receive and assist refugee women and their families on return. (Example taken from WCC, 1996, p. 66)

  1. Program for Chilean Women in Argentina

In a program for refugee women from Chile exiled in Argentina, an NGO focused on integrating the women within Argentina, while not losing sight of their eventual return to Chile. The NGO implemented labour scholarships that trained women through on-the-job experiences as apprentices in a trade, or through technical training in workshops or businesses. It also supported and encouraged the creation of support groups. Within these groups, the women were quick to organize a range of activities for themselves. (Example from NGO Working Group on Refugee Women, 1989, p. 163)

In comparison, (Simpson & Littlechild, 2009 pp. 56-57) draws attention to a research summary where Graham (2002), sets out some points relevant for assessment and intervention by social workers with children and families from other ethnic and cultural groups. She examines how African cultural practices have been seen as having a deficit, when they have been compared to Western approaches. She explores how African-centred cultures construct the family in a different way to the dominant UK and European view, which sees the nuclear family as the lens through which parenting and families are judged. Graham argues that these unfair and discriminatory views have resulted in an over-representation of black children in the public care system, the youth justice system and school exclusions. She sets out important areas for social workers to take into account in the African-centred world-view, as an aid to cultural sensitivity, as opposed to cultural relativism. For Graham these are:

  • the interconnectedness of all things;
  • the spiritual nature of human beings;
  • collective/individual identity and the collective/inclusive nature of family structure;
  • oneness of mind, body and spirit;
  • the value of interpersonal relationships.

Graham presents this in relation to African-centred world-views, but her attempts to understand the effect of culture has on how families are perceived is important in relation to how we construct our views, assessments and interventions for families from different ethnic and cultural traditions.


Existing Challenges to Social Work and Social Development

Mupedziswa (1993, p. 123) in fact suggests that, there are challenges facing social workers in the context of the current global refugee crisis. Unfortunately, the profession has not been very actively involved in contributing to the resolution of this crisis, and it has not demonstrated its willingness to respond to the crisis. He further implied that, few social workers have been involved in the field and the social work literature on the subjust is limited. Despite some discussion of the issue, social work’s major professional associations have not organised on the behalf of refugees or made effective representation to those in positions of power and influence who are able to bring about improved conditions for refugees. Mupedziswa added that the profession has not yet developed a specialised body of knowledge related to social work practice with refugees. As a consequence, there is little curriculum content in social work education dealing with the subject. He suggests that, there is a need for social work to articulate refugee assistance as a substantive field of practice with its own goals, methods, and knowledge base. There is an urgent need to include content about the international refugee crisis in the professional curriculum and where is already in place, it needs to be strengthened. Another essential point is that, social work needs to articulate its role and forcefully demonstrate its potential to help address the global crisis.


It has been shown that, in responding to the current refugee ‘crisis’, social work professionals and those actively involved in social development need to have a clear understanding of the professional values and ethics that govern a particular society or culture. This would imply that any intervention should be realistically applied within the specific context being identified. Healy (2008, p. 231) similarly suggests that, globally, social work is therefore a profession that responds to identified social issues, which most scholars believe are becoming more commonly experienced around the world. The specific forms that social work takes in any country, however, are shaped by that society’s views of the social issue and by the possibilities for intervention, including resources, institutional supports, and societal approval.


  • Chatty, D. (2014) ‘Anthropology and Forced Migration’, in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., Loescher, G., Long, K. & Sigona, N. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of refugee and forced migration studies, Oxford: New York, NY, Oxford University Press, pp.74-85 
  • Cox, D. & Pawar, M. (eds.) (2013) International Social Work: Issues, Strategies and Programs, 2nd edn., Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Healy, L. (ed.) (2008) ‘International Social Work: Professional Action in an Interdependent World, 2nd edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Mupedziswa, R. (1997) ‘Social Work with Refugees: The Growing International Crisis’, in Hokenstad, M.C. & Midgley, J. (eds.) Issues in International Social Work: Global Challenges for a New Century. Washington D.C: NASW Press, pp. 110-124.
  • Hutchinson, A. (2018) International Social Work in Refugee Settings, [Lecture to MA International Social Work and Social Development Sem 1, University of Bedfordshire]. 30th October.
  • Simpson, G. & Littlechild, B. (2009) ‘International aspects of social work with children, young people and families’ in Lawrence, S., Lyons, K., Simpson, G. & Huegler, N. (eds.) Introducing International Social Work: Transforming Social Work Practice. Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd., pp. 45-59.
  • Williams, J. & Lawrence, S. (2009) ‘Understanding International Social Work’ in Lawrence, S., Lyons, K., Simpson, G. & Huegler, N. (eds.) Introducing International Social Work: Transforming Social Work Practice. Exeter: Learning Matters Ltd., pp. 10-11.


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