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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.

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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 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.

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Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is a Red Pepper web editor.

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