Skip to main content

Social work calls for a different response to the current refugee crisis

History, remarks a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. The recent experience of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa fleeing war, persecution and poverty also has the quality of a nightmare.

Already by the first quarter of 2015, nearly 500 refugees had drowned in the Mediterranean, ten times as many as in the same period of 2014.

At least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared after arriving in Europe, according to the EU’s criminal intelligence agency. Many are feared to have fallen into the hands of trafficking syndicates.

And across ‘civilised’ Europe, barbed wire, water cannons and tear gas have become the standard means of greeting people who have often lost everything and endured unspeakable hardship in their fight to survive.

The response of the UK government has been particularly shameful. Only the threat of a revolt by backbench MPs persuaded Prime Minister David Cameron to allow some of the 3,000 unaccompanied minors in camps across Europe into the UK, although the number is unspecified and it’s now unlikely they will not be admitted until the end of the year.

In the face of such suffering it is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless, particularly when governments, the tabloid press and the far right promote a torrent of racism and xenophobia against refugees on a daily basis.

That is only one side of the picture, however. A photograph of dead Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying on a Greek beach last September sparked a huge popular wave of sympathy and solidarity across the world. A survey for the Charities Aid Foundation later that month showed almost a third of people in Britain had personally backed the refugee relief effort in the previous few weeks. It also found more than six million people – 12 per cent of the population – had given money to a refugee charity appeal; ten per cent donated food, clothes or other goods, while a further nine per cent either volunteered their time or backed social media campaigns supporting refugees. The poll findings also reveal that the upsurge in humanitarian support for refugees in Britain extends to more than 1.8 million households, or seven per cent of the population, saying they are prepared to offer a room or space in their homes to a refugee.

As a contribution to that humanitarian effort, the Social Work Action Network in the UK (SWAN) called for a show of social work solidarity with refugees. This solidarity to date has taken various forms. The SWAN conference was devoted to discussion of asylum, immigration and racism, including speakers who have been actively involved in supporting refugees in Calais and Dunkirk. The ‘convoy’ to Calais involved social workers, students and academics from across the UK to show solidarity with the refugees living in the camps (some of them in the squalor of the ‘jungle’) and gathered information from local activists, NGO workers and the refugees themselves to form the basis of a report highlighting issues of need and risk from a social work perspective.

The convoy in particular caught the imagination of social workers and social work organisations. The response from official social work bodies, including BASW has been especially encouraging.

We have no illusions that such small-scale initiatives like the visit or a report from a group of social workers will change the harsh policies of European governments, which with some notable exceptions, have put up the shutters against those fleeing dreadful circumstances. But at the very least it will add the voice of the social work community to those calling for a different response.

No less importantly, it will show that, in the words of our Hungarian colleagues in the New Approach group there, as social workers “we seek to be a professional community that is not afraid to stand up for those in need”.

Iain Ferguson is Honorary Professor of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland and a member of the SWAN Steering Committee