Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Social Workers Without Borders

Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

March 1, 2017
6 min read


Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is a Red Pepper web editor.


  share     tweet  

Social Workers Without Borders was formed by social workers from across the UK in March 2016. It is an organisation of social care practitioners, students and academics who believe that our professional social work skills and knowledge can be utilised to minimise risk and promote the rights and dignity of those affected by borders. We see the ‘refugee crisis’ as a result of structural oppressions here and overseas and as a crisis of care – not a crisis caused by those who flee.

We want to use our professional voice and wisdom to act in solidarity with those whose lives are affected by borders: refugees, asylum claimants, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, people without documents and those with irregular immigration status. While we want to use our professional voices as social workers to add weight to this work, we want to keep at the heart of this project the experiential wisdom of those at the borders, in the camps, in the asylum process, in detention centres and who have been granted refugee status.

We are locally active through regional forums in the UK and in France, working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have recently been displaced from the Calais refugee camp. We are working on consultation projects with local refugee groups to find out what the barriers are to accessing services. We want to act as a bridge between the users (or would-be users) of services who are affected by borders and the statutory social care sector.

In Calais we sent regular teams of social workers and social work students to the refugee camp until its demolition in November 2016. Volunteers from our organisation visited the camp weekly, primarily working with separated children. Forty ‘best interest assessments’ were undertaken by qualified social workers, which are now being used to support the children’s legal cases, in collaboration with with the legal firm Duncan Lewis. The purpose of the legal challenge to the Home Office is to argue that it is in many of the young people’s best interests to be relocated to the UK.

There have been many challenges to doing this kind of social work ‘outside of the state’. We are all busy with our jobs, and this work is completely voluntary. The NGO networks in Calais were initially impenetrable. They were very protective of the refugees they had been supporting and there was an apparent distrust of social workers who were perceived as being ‘agents of the state’.

We could see the need for a safeguarding strategy in the camp and we have the skills and background to work effectively with young people and vulnerable adults. But we encountered a kind of competitive tendering for the work in Calais among the existing charities and NGOs that we were very surprised to see – probably because, for now, we work in public services. Within local authority social work, hierarchies are already established. We have the medical model dominance, social care and then voluntary sector agencies. However, working in the non-statutory sector, power dynamics are ever shifting.

A highlight has been working with Duncan Lewis, an excellent legal firm, to conduct the 40 best interest assessments. These have so far contributed to the safe passage to the UK of four children.

Prior to working with Duncan Lewis we supported the volunteer ‘legal shelter’ in the Calais camp, which resulted in several more young people gaining legal sanctuary in the UK. We are continuing this work on a voluntary basis and welcome financial support to continue sending social work volunteers to France.

We have been groundbreaking in that we have allocated professional social workers to each of the young people we assessed, who now act as their keyworkers and advocates. This means that the whereabouts and welfare of these young people can be followed up. This is the model we wish to see extended to every unaccompanied child across Europe in the first instance, then around the globe.

In the UK, we have been overwhelmed by the amount of support from inside and outside of the profession. Our professional association, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), has been extremely supportive and we co-produced a conference on social work and refugees with them in September 2016, alongside Social Work Action Network, who have also been invaluable in their support, advice and encouragement of our organisation from the outset. It has been great to travel around the UK speaking to social workers about how they can ensure that services are available to all, regardless of immigration status, and that to do this, we may need to challenge managerialism and engage in social work activism, to find that our audience is as passionate about change as we are.

In 2017 we plan to firm up the structure of our organisation. This is a very grassroots group based on voluntary direct work, campaigning and workplace organising. We intend to expand our work in three areas: campaigning, social work education and training, and direct work. We aim to promote a reality-based narrative gathered from our own experiences of supporting refugees. Our campaign will include an option for social workers to ‘Go the Extra Mile’ to support vulnerable migrant, asylum seeking and refugee clients, sharing innovative and good practice ideas.

Social Workers Without Borders has received attention from all over the world and we want to grow an international network of social workers who are willing to challenge stereotypes, exclusionary legislation and proceduralism and managerialism in the workplace to provide the best service and advocacy for people who are affected by borders.

We spoke at a conference on separated asylum-seeking children at Goldsmiths this summer and the host was thrilled to have a social work activism group. We don’t have many. Not only that but ours is about promoting radical, social justice and solidarity-based practice both within statutory services and outside the confines of the state. We are traversing a line between activism, professional practice and volunteering and so far we have been pleased and encouraged by the response. We have discovered that many within our profession are ready to return to our ethical social work roots.

Find out more at Social Workers Without Borders’ temporary website at socialworkerswithoutborders.org. If you can help with web development or fundraising, please get in touch. We’re raising money to mount a legal challenge on behalf of refugee children – support our crowdfunding appeal here.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is a Red Pepper web editor.


#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


48