23 February 2012


Policy Issue

The physical needs of refugees, for food, clothing, health care and shelter, have to be met. However, policies also need to focus on the psychosocial needs and related social functioning of refugees, as those aspects of human well-being are the central concerns of the social profession.

Professional social workers are committed to basic ethical principles, as reflected in the IFSW International Code of Ethics. Not least is their belief that each human being is a person of unique value, whose dignity and right to life and liberty must be preserved. It follows from this that there is a right to seek asylum from persecution. Further, there is an ethical commitment to the development of human potential.

From this value stance, the social work profession accepts its share of responsibility for responding to the distress of refugees, and strives for the fullest possible involvement of refugees themselves in meeting their needs.
Social work’s commitment to the principle of the uniqueness of each person highlights the issue that refugees should not be treated as a homogenous group. They differ in views, food requirements, dialect, personal habits, particular experiences, aspirations and so on.


Although large-scale movements of population have often occurred as a result of wars and conflicts, there were fewer refugees who are the victims of circumstances beyond their control which constitutes a problem than at present. Nowadays, the enormous number of refugees world-wide presents a problem and a challenge for the international community, professionals, governments and voluntary agencies. Central to this are the refugees themselves, fellow humans who have endured ordeals beyond the experience, and perhaps even beyond the imagination of most people. The issues surrounding refugees are matters of justice and peace. Social workers in the vast majority of countries will be required to address the problems facing refugees in their practice.

Internationally, and as defined in the UN 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone who is outside his/her country of nationality and has a well-founded fear of returning because he/she might be persecuted there because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. In practice, the issue is not always clear out. However, for the definition to be operated, some degree of proof that persecution might take place is required. This necessitates a screening process, which normally takes place when and where an individual or a small number of people seek asylum. Mass influxes of people from one country into another may be treated differently; and it is not always clear whether people are fleeing from persecution of some kind, or from hardship. If the refugee concept is not to be discredited, international criteria need to be followed, until changed by general agreement.

In addition to the 1951 UN Convention, the UN Protocol 1967, relating to the status of refugees, defines their rights and duties and contains provision in respect of a variety of matters in day-to-day life, such as the right to work, public assistance, and social security. In many such matters refugees are to receive the same treatment as nationals of their country of settlement or resettlement.

The current refugee problem is a massive human tragedy and challenge, which by 1996 affected over eighteen million refugees worldwide. Refugees are found in every region of the globe, although the distribution is uneven. The problem falls disproportionately on some countries, many of whom are ill equipped in terms of resources, to shoulder the burden. Furthermore, there is nearly a transitory population of 14 million who are at present recognised as refugees crossing borders with little or no access to protection or humanitarian assistance. More than half of refugees are women and children. Women refugees may be abused by the calamity from which they seek to escape, they may also be abused by fellow male refugees, and sometimes even by the service providers in the host countries. There are also differences between countries in that some are mainly involved in the settlement or resettlement of refugees, whilst others are primarily countries of temporary or indefinite asylum.

The process by which refugees become permanently settled in countries other than their own varies. There are refugees who settle in the country in which they first arrive after fleeing their homeland. Others, including some cases of mass exodus, may spend a period between touchdown in the first asylum country and final resettlement will be varied, in experience and length, according to circumstances. A third group may be faced with virtually permanent refugee status in camps or centres provided for that purpose. A final group may, after a time, opt voluntarily for repatriation.

All refugees share common human needs and problems arising from their refugee experience, in addition to their individual situations and requirements. However, the implications arising from the differences in processes have to be taken into account in policy formulation and in social service programmes.

Policy Statement

IFSW believes that the key areas of knowledge for social workers in dealing with refugees are:
Knowledge relating to the trauma of up-rootment separation and loss, hardship and persecution; a knowledge of world conditions which have led to displacement, and knowledge relating to cultural factors, and the effects of xenophobia in the host community.
Ethical principles and knowledge in formulating policy and multi- dimensional social services programmes for refugees.

IFSW recognises the refugees need for economic integration and adaptation, therefore conceive the goal of resettlement as to assist refugees to become self-sufficient. For the social work professional this goal calls for skill in meeting basic needs without creating long term dependence.

IFSW believes that the ideal long-range goal for refugees should be of durable solutions to their problems; the achievement of self-sufficiency, economic independence, spiritual and intellectual fulfilment. The first steps towards these involve either:
Voluntary repatriation or
local settlement in the country where currently located; or
resettlement elsewhere.

IFSW stresses that attention must be given to the effects on and the needs of those refugees who are caught up in long-term indefinite “holding” situations. If goals and service provision are conceived to narrowly, in terms of achieving economic self-sufficiency, some needs, and a sizeable number of refugees, are likely to be neglected.

IFSW advocates a multi-dimensional approach to policy and programmes, including those for refugees situation in limbo, whose psychosocial needs also deserve a response, even under such uncertain and limiting conditions.

IFSW notes that after resettlement, troubling experiences of the past may cause adjustment problems. Goals may be conceptualised, in psychosocial terms, as; involving preservation/restoration of personal identity and a sense of continuity of existence; morale maintenance/building; and development of individual potential. Psychosocial goals are more likely to be achieved by programmes which reflect:

Cultural sensitive and relevant responses, with reference to refugees themselves and the host country; involvement of the refugees in programmes and task planning and accomplishment; and awareness that all activity takes place in the context of separation and loss, which may have been compounded by the experience of violence.

IFSW recommends that practical services, before settlement or resettlement, should include:

Cultural orientation; adult literacy; language training; health care; skill development to enhance employment prospects; family life education; child care and education; development of creative abilities; recreational facilities; specific services for special or vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied women and children, elderly people, people with disabilities; and counselling, including counselling on re-adaptation for refugees who apt for voluntary repatriation.

IFSW recommends further, that special attention must be given in the case of refugees held in limbo, to:

Morale maintenance; appraisal of limited options; establishment of a sense of community within the camp/centre; income-generating skills and opportunities; and sensitisation of the local population to the continuing presence of the refugees and to their needs.

IFSW appreciates the fact that the refugee community plays an important role in its own resettlement, providing members with direct and indirect forms of support. In this situation the active involvement of the refugees themselves remains crucial.

IFSW believes that once the goal of settlement or resettlement has been achieved, ethically sensitive service are required in order to facilitate adjustment. These include:

Housing provision, based on a policy which allows for reasonable proximity to people of the same ethnic group in order to maintain cultural identity; language training; career counselling; vocational training; social and recreational facilities to reduce any sense of social isolation; facilitation of self-help groups; health care; income maintenance; provision for unaccompanied minors, based on child care policy which recognises the importance of maintaining culture as an important aspect of self-identity; use of para- professionals drawn from the same ethnic group, including from the refugee population; interpreter services; specific mental health programmes; counselling services; provision for relatives who join refugees under Family Reunion policies; and public education programmes.

IFSW supports the principle of co-existence or integration within a pluralistic society, rather than assimilation, where refugees would be expected to merge with the host culture.

IFSW supports the emphasis placed on providing specific services for special or vulnerable groups, such as women and unaccompanied children, torture and trauma victims, elderly people and people with disabilities.

IFSW believes that the social work profession has a responsibility to actively search for alternative policies and systems to address the worldwide refugee concerns. IFSW believes that working closely with other non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty, Red Cross and Red Crescent, World Council of Churches and International Council of Voluntary Agencies is an important step in formulating policies and lobbying for durable and feasible solutions.

IFSW believes that the role of social work in relation to refugees includes but is not limited to:

  • work with individuals through counselling and community development
  • administration
  • preparing people for repatriation
  • preparing receiving countries for returnee’s
  • working with individual asylum seekers
  • lobbying countries and world forums for the improvements to the reception of refugees

IFSW believes that work with refugees needs to be part of the mainstream of social work education and practice. Therefore, IFSW recommends that formal social work education include refugee studies, cross-cultural counselling and access to specialised training in the counselling of refugees and victims of torture and trauma.

IFSW will promote:

A partnership model of practice, with refugees fully involved at all stages of problem resolution and prevention; ethnically sensitive social work education and training, including special references to the experiences and needs of refugees, recruitment of people from minority groups, including refugees, into the professional, paraprofessional training for members of ethnic groups, including refugees, and co-operation with ethnic support systems, relevant in- service training, refugee advocacy by social workers, aiming to educate the public, influence government, and the policies of other agencies; effective interagency co-operation, nationally and internationally, and systematic research and programme evaluation.

IFSW supports the desirability of primary prevention through development and assistance programmes in regions of the world where disasters, conflicts and dire poverty are likely causes for mass exodus.

Approved by the IFSW General Meeting, Hong Kong, 21-23 July 1998