Working With Refugees
Refugees are a special group of migrants. The term is noted in the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which established the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a 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” .
One of the ways the social work profession in the United States relates to the international community is through our long-standing social work with refugees. The particular migration of refugee populations and specialized services to them began with the post-World War II era. This nation’s population is primarily comprised of immigrants and their descendents, and social work’s roots are embedded in the early settlement house movement which helped new arrivals. Later, the welcoming of a legally defined category, refugees, built on the Post World War II experience and moved through subsequent waves of refugees from Viet Nam and later war victims from Africa and Central America. A steady, though fluxing, stream of people escaping trauma in hope of finding a better life is regulated through the United Nations with each country designating the number it will accept from given regions. Just as the term “refugee” is a specialized one, the field of working with the those particular migrants who are fleeing oppression includes several other legally defined categories, each carrying international and federal governmental status which places them in particular streams of service supports. This research webpage provides an overview of refugee-related research as well as links to key stakeholder organizations engaged in supporting refugee-related practice and research. In recent years, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers has garnered significant public attention. Yet many social workers find they have made limited preparations for meeting the needs of refugee clients. This article presents the results of a study conducted at the largest refugee shelter in the US. Fifty-eight adult asylum seekers staying at the shelter were interviewed about their experiences, including trauma and subsequent physical and emotional symptoms. Most respondents experienced trauma in their home country. Additionally nightmares were often reported as psychological sequelae attributed to these traumatic events. Helping professionals can learn from this information and become sensitized to some of the struggles of this population. Understanding that some refugee clients ‘shout with fear at night’ can help us to appreciate the lasting impact trauma can have and can guide our work with this vulnerable yet resilient population. Helping professionals are challenged to become better versed in the at-risk position of asylum seekers and engage in advocacy to encourage greater protection of this population.
The large scale displacement of people by war and other civilian conflicts depresses many refugees. They are evicted from their homes unwillingly, which makes them get traumatized. They seek refuge in camps which do not have conducive conditions for human settlement. They are forced to live in abject conditions characterized by overcrowding, poor hygiene, insufficient shelter and inadequate food supplies (Singh, 2005, p. 290). This makes it difficult for refugees to engage in beneficial activities, that can help them sustain themselves and their families. All these factors exert a lot of pressure on refugees, which affects them psychologically. Procter (2005) reveals that refugees witness a lot of traumatic incidents, which affect the way they relate with other people (p. 198).This makes some of them to lose trust in people and other social systems around them because of the suffering they have gone through. Mental health problems in refugee populations make it hard for them to settle in countries they have migrated to. Some refugees may become timid and unfriendly to locals living in areas they have been resettled. The severe psychological trauma they are exposed to makes it difficult for them to cope with social and cultural changes in areas they emigrate to. Refugees also face other forms of difficulties such as unemployment, inadequate housing, cultural differences and xenophobic prejudices. These factors make them resent their new homes because they feel that locals in these societies are not willing to accommodate them. Silove (2002) states that some refugees start recollecting past traumatic events, which impact negatively on their progress ( p. 291). Some refugees have difficulties in dealing with emotional grief due to the deaths of their close family members and friends. They do not get enough opportunities to deal with their tragic past.
In summary, the NASW Code of Ethics (2009) mandates social workers to obtain education and information about issues pertaining to ethnic and cultural diversity, to not support or facilitate means of discrimination, and to work to prevent and eliminate such discrimination through social and political action. A policy statement on immigrants and refugees from NASW (2015) promotes social work education, practice and advocacy around global migration and refugee resettlement and supports policy changes that would better support various refugee groups, including families and children.
Papadopoulos, R. K. (2001). Refugee families: issues of systemic supervision. Journal of Family Therapy, 23, 405-422.
Procter, N. G. (2005). Emergency mental health nursing for self-harming refugees and asylum seekers. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 14 (3), 196-201.
Silove, D. (2002). The asylum debacle in Australia: A challenge for psychiatry. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry,36 (3), 290-296.
Singh, R. (2005). Therapeutic skills for working with refugee families: An introductory course at the institute of family therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 27, 289-292.