Μore than a million refugees came to Europe in 2015, with war in Syria the single biggest driver. Many governments have been slow to act, and some hostile towards the “swarm” (in David Cameron’s words) of humanity. But social workers have not.
As governments have hesitated, social workers have stepped “into the vacuum,” says Vasilios Ioakimidis, senior lecturer in social work at Durham University. “Across Europe, they have managed to take sides, [supporting] migrants and refugees even where public opinion is against them.”
Ruth Stark, president of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), says the profession exists to help people work through changes in their lives – and refugees are experiencing some of the most traumatic changes imaginable.
In the countries that refugees are leaving – and in the massive camps they have established in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon – the social work presence is vital. “A lot of what they’re dealing with are such basic needs as food, clean water and shelter,” says Stark. “It’s people in absolute crisis.”
Lauren Wroe, a social worker from Bristol, is on the Greek island of Leros, volunteering at a refugee camp. She felt it was her role as a social worker to be on the ground supporting vulnerable people. As an independent, self-funding volunteer, she does everything from advocating for better resources for the refugees to showing new arrivals around the camp to providing emotional support.
Although most of the volunteers are not professionally trained, Wroe describes the work they are doing as “lay social work”, unhampered by the bureaucracy that restricts practice in the UK. “People here are able to do a hell of a lot and use a lot of initiative to really improve the conditions in the camp,” she says.
This is echoed by Ioakimidis, who is also vice-president of the European Association of Schools of Social Work. He says grassroots movements of social workers across Europe are getting material aid to the camps, as well as using their skills to advocate for the refugees.
While the social work in refugee camps is about material survival – shelter, water and food – the picture becomes more complex in the countries in which refugees want to stay.
Germany has been one of the more welcoming countries towards refugees. “We are the partners of the refugees,” says Gabriele Stark-Angermeier, deputy chief executive of the Munich branch of the welfare organisation Caritas. “Our role as social workers is to try to help the refugees with their first needs. We are not in the role of the state to register and prove identities.”
The social work role in Munich – which had an influx of 12,000 refugees in just one day last year – has included helping refugees access health services, reuniting family members and, vitally, getting volunteers to teach German. As Stark says, this social work is “about people settling into new communities and how these communities will adapt”.
The crisis has brought into focus the conflict in social work: whether it is a force for social change, or for control. “There is a growing debate in the profession about the role of social workers and how others perceive that role,” says Stark. Wroe points to the example of social workers in the UK having to carry out age assessments on unaccompanied young asylum seekers. “We’re asked almost to be immigration officers,” she says. “Our role is to meet the needs of people in front of us.”
On World Social Work Day, 15 March, IFSW organised a symposium in Vienna to bring together social workers from countries affected by the refugee crisis – everywhere from Afghanistan to Austria. They discussed a plan for social workers to pool information so they can best support refugees throughout their journeys and on their eventual arrival.
This knowledge will be vital, as the crisis shows no sign of abating. As more people settle for the longer term, social work will be crucial in integrating communities and helping people come to terms with what they’ve been through. “The emotional trauma of change is something that social workers know a huge amount about,” says Stark. “But I think there’s also a huge learning curve for social workers in understanding the massive journeys that people are making and the situation they have come from – the fighting they’ve seen, the discrimination, the persecution.”