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Frozen journeys: social work with asylum seekers in Greece and Italy during Covid-19

Insights from researchers due to publish their findings later this year

Window Shelter for children in Thrace
Research covers Greece and Italy but learnings are worldwide

Professional Social Work Magazine, 17 August, 2021

A research study during 2020 in northern Greece and southern Italy explored the impact of the pandemic on asylum seekers and social workers. While the topic may sound far away and specific to context, the research team hopes it may prompt reflection on social work experience and responsibilities across borders and in contrasting settings.

Over the past six years, both Greece and Italy have experienced cyclical peaks in arrivals of destitute migrants in much greater volume than the UK. And unlike the UK, most seek transit onwards to other European countries.  

Arrivals are mainly men in their 20s, but also include families and thousands of unaccompanied minors. International movement, national administration, and local direct practice has been locked down or severely restricted by the pandemic - almost like a complex, systemic immune response.

Research participants, both migrant and professional, were anxious about coming forward for interview. Distrust and fear about the consequences of exposure were accentuated by the pandemic. However, the research project still managed to interview 40 social workers online and 30 asylum seekers.  

The research captured a stage in the pandemic that was not a beginning or an end. Asylum journeys were frozen. Social workers working with asylum seekers reflected on the effects of changed practice and tensions in the balance between personal and professional boundaries and resources.

Please do not ask me to speak again about my journey!”

Many asylum seekers and social workers described being paralysed in a limbo of unknown duration, with next steps often blocked. Social workers were seeking to care within controlling systems and routinely heard things they could not resolve.

Professional courage was needed - often evident in accounts of social workers trying to keep their heads above water, breathing all day through masks that were a barrier to both infection and connection. The courage, resilience and hopefulness of individuals seemed to arrive through the interaction of information, connection and co-operation.

Digital connection proved an emotional and practical lifeline for asylum seekers - it provided contact with family, the immigration process, language and learning opportunities, and connection to faith, music, and creative dimensions. Supporting digital connectivity is core to delivering holistic and empowering support, but it is also a vehicle for disinformation, misinformation and hate crime. The interviews suggested that support for protective, safe and reliable connection is limited.

“You people talk of distancing... how to do this in a room with ten others?”

Covid-19 outbreaks have been recurrent in both mainland and island camps. Social workers recognised the dissonance between messaging about infection control and the reality of people living in close quarters.

They acted as buffers, mediators and educators in impossible situations. They faced “endless complaints”  where they have been ordered to work only virtually.

Claustrophobia, suspicion and prejudice

In crowded settings, simmering pressure can erupt in conflict between national groups. Resentment surfaced with perceived inequalities in treatment: lack of space to pray as a Christian rather than as a Muslim, for example. Social workers have been sharply aware of public prejudice and discrimination, exaggerated by fear of contagion.

They listened to asylum seekers’ traumatic experiences, absorbing the frustration and anger of those containing their fears and boredom. People felt forgotten, rejected, and condemned to “do nothing all day…”

The prohibition of normal direct engagement had an impact on the wellbeing of social workers too. Some became increasingly depressed. Being tired, disturbed and sad leads to self-doubt: “Perhaps, after all, I am not right for this work.”

Professional resilience

A social worker’s sense of efficacy reflects their experience of professional solidarity, teamwork and networking beyond the team. Group supervision and group decision-making, where evident, were a core source of professional and personal support and an antidote to professional isolation. But no individual supervision was evident.

Training and previous experience were fundamental reference points, but no training or previous experience was sufficient.

The gravity of ethical challenges during the pandemic have made this feel like practice on another planet.

The potential to influence systemic or political change was absent from social workers’ reflections, but persistent compassion and motivation to survive professionally were noticeable. Some of this endurance seemed to be gained vicariously through the persisting hope of the many asylum seekers consigned to wait and wait.

Social workers continue to help asylum seekers navigate poverty, mental ill health, and barriers to transition, with distinct differences in national reception systems. Each worker’s reflections were shaped within their professional setting and country.  They were able to reframe stress and constraint during the pandemic.

"I learn to see things in a different way," stated one social worker recognising the significance of small positive interactions in a waiting area.

"We learn to appreciate small moments - in the kitchen, for example.”

"They showed thanks in small ways."

Boundaries between work and home, always semi-permeable, came under ongoing tension during the research period due to social workers’ fear for their own families. Limited PPE and variable adherence to rules by asylum seekers led some asylum seekers to appreciate the social workers’ personal worries.

Social workers held onto achievement and meaning: asylum seekers learning the local language; access to educational courses; provision of a creche allowing mothers to meet. As one social worker said: “This is a mission, not a job! I have the same passion, the same commitment.”

Connections

Above all, interviews conveyed the significance of relationship building, of affection, listening, trust building, and warmth. Care includes appreciation of what the clients give, what they have done, and what they can do.

Opportunities for social workers to communicate directly during the pandemic reduced or became virtual. Culture-related gender dynamics were felt intensely in these reduced opportunities: some asylum-seeking men were dismissive of female social workers. Conversely, some women appreciated a social worker who “understands what it is to bear children, to live with a husband”.

Experienced female social workers imbued a protective warmth in their relationships with young asylum seekers, even if this sounds ’maternal’.

These currents become more significant, especially when safe interaction opportunities are few, while the needs to share are deep.

Each of us has a name  is a poem by Zelda Mishovsky, migrant, poet and teacher.

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbours

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

The study has an advisory group in each site with representatives from social work and migrant organisations. Research is being conducted by Prof Theano Kallinikaki (Greece), Professors Elena Allegri and Roberta di Rosa (Italy) and coordinated by Prof. Shulamit Ramon (University of Hertfordshire), Prof. Brian Littlechild and James Cox.

The team would welcome your feedback and reflections on your own practice you can email them at james.cox@socialworkscotland.org