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Mass migration is the big human rights issue of our time

An interview with social work academics from three European countries in the frontline of the 'refugee crisis'...

Refugees human rights social workers international BASW
Women and children at a refugee centre in Greece

The mass migration of people, along with climate change and global inequality, is one of the biggest human rights issues of our time. Indeed, the three are intrinsically linked, with climate change contributing to economic disadvantage and displacement of people around the world.

According to the United Nations, we are witnessing the highest levels of people movement since records began, even more than the Second World War. One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds due to conflict or persecution. Some 70 million – more than the population of the UK – have been forced to flee their home as a result of conflict. Contrary to popular belief, most remain in their home country – 41.3 million, becoming an internally displaced person with less rights than refugees. Just under 26 million are refugees from their country, more than half of whom are children, and a further 3.5 million are asylum seekers. Millions more are stateless without a nationally and denied access to basic rights.

While most refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries - 80 per cent - recent years has seen increasing numbers arrive in Europe, often making perilous journeys at the hands of human traffickers.

It was in this context that a conference on social work with refugees and migrants was held funded by BASW's International Development Fund and hosted by the association's International Committee, Making Research Count and the University of Hertfordshire.

Among attendees were social work academics from three European countries that are in the frontline of the “refugee crisis” which have gone through political turmoil, partly as a result of migration. They were professors Elena Allegri from Italy, Theano Kallinikki from Greece and Darja Zavrisek from Slovenia.

Here they answer questions put to them by Professor Shula Ramon from the University of Hertfordshire and Professional Social Work magazine.

Q1: Given that your countries have been, and still are, more in the frontline of the refugees and migrants influx than the UK, could you share what has been the role of social work in responding to the ups and downs of the influx?

Prof Kallinikaki (Greece): New posts have come into being in this area of work, albeit for short periods and are badly paid. The caseload for social workers in this type of work has gone up considerably. It has also impacted on the health sector in that many refugees and asylum seekers need both urgent and non-urgent health interventions. In some cases operations are postponed until the asylum seeker becomes a refugee with international status as the government refuses to cover the cost of the operation until then, even if doctors have recommended an operation.

Prof Allegri (Italy): There are considerably more social workers in the voluntary sector than in the statutory one, unlike in the UK. As with all three countries, a guardianship system operates, with social workers being in the role of legal guardian in most cases. Social workers, therefore, have a key role in responding to the newcomers, at all phases of the migration wave. 

Q2: What have been the barriers faced by social workers in responding to the needs of these two groups?

Prof Zavirsek (Slovenia): Most barriers are those created by the complex regulations of responding to asylum seeking, where migrants are perceived as a threat to national security, alongside a clear wish not to have new arrivals or to encourage them to stay. For example, although asylum seekers receive food and shelter in the hostels in which they have to stay until their status as refugees has been confirmed, they receive no more than 20 euro per month for all other necessities, which means they cannot travel to the city centre frequently, or have a cup of tea/coffee outside of the hostel.

Usually they are not allowed to work during the first year, and then they have to ask for permission to work. It is impossible to know how long it will take to clear their international status, and for many of them it takes a very long time (about a year or more). Some are refused, and are deported to their country of origin, some attempt to appeal against the refusal. They are allowed to learn the local language in the meantime, though the allocated hours for this task (between 300 to 400 hours in each country) is not sufficient.

Prof Kalinikaki (Greece): Social workers are the port of call for their frustration, as well as their helpers in responding to the many queries the government security staff put to them. Life in the asylum hostel is difficult, given that the living conditions are minimal, and only people with serious health problems may have a room on their own.

Prof Allegri (Italy): Only unaccompanied minors and those few who come legally as refugees fare better in being allowed access to integration opportunities such, such as school and work. Both groups need a lot of psychological support due to the stress caused by the move from their country of origin, be it due to war or economic hardship, and to learn quickly the language of the country in which they stay.

Prof Zavirsek (Slovenia): This type of social work is very stressful for the social workers who try to find less bureaucratic solutions to problems. Some become burnt out, acting only as bureaucrats and don't feel they have time to talk to their clients.

Q3: What have been the facilitators available to social workers?

Prof Zavirsek (Slovenia): The right to use public health services, to learn the local language and to use social centres by refugees and asylum seekers, and the right to primary education for children and adults helps the task of social workers. Some of the social centres run creative activities and are successful in aiding integration with the local population. Social workers who work in these centres are less frustrated than those who work in the statutory services.

For example, they run meetings with friendly policemen who explain the fines system for bikes, cooking competitions, crochet clubs. They also recruit volunteers, who tend to be young people of the same age as most of the asylum seekers and refugees.

Prof Kalinikaki (Greece): Social workers are helped by existing solidarity and support networks of people coming from a specific country and websites such as, created by the UNHCR.

Good supervision and good team relationships also act as facilitators for social workers. Special educational programs on the legal and psychosocial issues of migration help too, though they don’t happen that frequently. Special projects are helpful but tend to be time limited.

Q4: How did the mass media respond to the refugee and migrant crisis and the role played by social workers in it?

Prof Allegri (Italy): Refugees and migrants are perceived as victims, but only the first category is perceived as deserving victims. Most asylum seekers are seen as undeserving victims.

In general, the mass media in each country has become more negative in its attitudes to asylum seekers since 2015, inciting negative responses by the population.

Prof Zavirsek (Slovenia): Mass media does not even mention social workers and their work.

The plurality of religions in the migrant population is hardly ever represented by the media, leading to all newcomers seen as Muslims which is not the case.

Prof Kalinikaki (Greece): Newspapers and television are also divided by their underlying ideologies, which impact on the way they represent news and views on migration, a minority of which is positive. 

(Prof. Ramon commentary: All three countries have become more right wing, less democratic and more nationalistic, and this is expressed also in their media representation about refugees and asylum seekers.

In this context, we need to  remember that in two European comparative studies on the media and migrants, media attitudes in the UK have been the most negative, even though it has proportionally to the size of its population the smallest number of refugees and asylum seekers than any other European country.)

Q5: How would you like to see your government respond to refugee and migrants in the future?

Prof Allegri (Italy): I would like my government be less bureaucratic, less nationalistic, and less afraid of migrants as a risk to national security.

Prof Kalinikaki (Greece): I would like to see a greater focus on the punishment of smugglers.

Prof Zavirsek (Slovenia): I predict that the future will bring more migration due to environmental disasters.

Q6: How would you like to see the international social work community respond?

Prof. Zavrisek (Slovenia): I would very much welcome international networks focused on this issue, and to be supported much more openly by organisations representing social work internationally.

I would like my national organisation to be more supportive than it is.

Prof. Allegri (Italy): More attention and training in anti-discrimination, human rights and ethnicity for social workers is necessary.

Prof Zavirsek (Slovenia): I am very unhappy about the criminalisation of solidarity in Europe.

Q7.The influx has had phases. How would you characterise the phase we are currently experiencing?

Prof. Kalinikaki (Greece): Some countries, such as Greece, have actually seen an increase in the number of arrivals by boats, with up to 500 people arriving on one day.

Prof Allegri (Italy): Although fewer migrants arrive in Italy in 2019, the number of people dying or “missing” upon arrival by boats is still high (928).

Prof Zavirsek (Slovenia): Although the number arriving in Slovenia is lower than before, and many of the asylum seekers leave Slovenia for other countries. The increase in nationalism and negative attitudes towards refugees and migrants is worrying.

Social workers too are divided by those who have become more nationalistic, and those who became more globalist. The overall tendency of social workers to focus on individuals rather than on groups is an obstacle in this case.

A minority of social workers have become members of re-activated social movements again poverty and displacement, urging support for poor countries by both European governments, and the media.

Q8 How do social workers respond to political conflict?

Prof. Zavirsek (Slovenia): Most social workers are motivated to work with individuals, and do not see a role for themselves as professionals in a political conflict.

This tendency militates against responding to communities in a way that put them in political conflict.