Social workers need more guidance on how to best bring people through prolonged displacement and uncertainty towards a positive future. Image: Fancycrave on Unsplash.

By David Keegan, CEO

Becoming forcibly displaced throws a person into many challenging situations as they journey towards a better life. They invariably find themselves facing multiple barriers that include physical, social, psychological and economic stressors. Despite this, some refugees remain hopeful, obtain meaningful work, engage with local communities, and help others in similar situations. However, some do not cope and remain trapped in despair and hopelessness.

Ali is a refugee from Afghanistan in Indonesia. He travelled from Pakistan with the hope of getting on a smuggler boat to Australia but arrived just after the Australian government blocked this pathway. He is now stuck in Indonesia with no financial or housing assistance and he is not allowed to work. Ali has been through many dangerous situations and has managed to survive on his journey. He has sourced a share house and relies on some cash-in-hand work and small amounts of money from his family in Afghanistan. He lives a basic life but he remains hopeful – which is of great importance – despite the prospect of being stuck in Indonesia without legal status indefinitely.

Farzad is a refugee from Somalia living in Indonesia with his son. He has been fortunate to receive shelter accommodation run by the International Organisation for Migration. He is uncertain about his safety so he chooses to remain inside the shelter and keep his child from attending a locally run refugee school. Farzad is becoming mentally unwell as a result of his isolation and is demanding that shelter employees purchase groceries for him and his son and take him to appointments with a psychologist. He rings UNHCR every day to find out when he will be resettled.

A man preparing food.
Many refugees and asylum seekers do remain hopeful despite their uncertain futures. Image: Dimi Katsavaris on Unsplash.

As we’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, Nauru and South East Asia, my colleague Ted Thomson and I have struggle to find a practice approach or theoretical framework that is adequate to define and respond effectively to situations like Ali’s and Farzad’s. For these refugees vulnerability cannot be eliminated due to circumstances outside of their control, such as laws or well established cultural norms in relation to gender and sexuality.

Refugees and asylum seekers are subject to significant vulnerability and disadvantage, which includes separation from family, no legal rights to work or education, racism and discrimination due to gender or ethnicity, and uncertain immigration status. Social workers can play an integral role in enabling them to overcome these stressors and structural disadvantages through a strengths-based approach. What is needed is more guidance on how to best bring people through prolonged displacement and uncertainty towards a positive future.

Often access to services is focused on the most vulnerable and the outcomes are measured in relation to how vulnerability or complexity was reduced. In our case, we needed a way to identify and define the most vulnerable of the refugees we were working with. We needed to understand what behavioural factors we needed to influence and how to avoid viewing clients as victims of their circumstances. So we looked to theories like resilience, strengths or trauma approaches to identify what makes someone less vulnerable and more capable. These were inadequate on their own.

They were inadequate because they assumed that as coping skills increased, vulnerability decreased. We regularly see cases where this is not the case. Some asylum seekers in Australia or refugees in Nauru would be assessed as meeting the requirements for resilience, such as good social connections, good communication, knowledge of and access to local resources, employed, etc., yet struggling to remain hopeful and motivated due to prolonged uncertainty in visa status.

A man with silhouette sky behind him.
The stressors that make refugees vulnerable are often outside of their control. Image: Dimi Katsavaris on Unsplash.

We also observed that different approaches were needed at different points in the case management process. For example, those who are coping less, like Farzad, need more instructional and behavioural approaches to provide them with guidance and direction while facilitating increases in their coping mechanisms. They are not in a position to make effective choices on their own and need additional support to access resources. Those who are coping better, like Ali, need support to identify access and use their strengths to maintain coping. They do not need detailed guidance but rather information and tools.

We found no model that was suitable for providing understanding and guidance on this to casework staff.

Much of the work to define vulnerability and complexity comes from developed communities and it seems little has been invested to understand the effect of sustained vulnerability resulting from factors outside the control of individuals and caused by structural inequality. Many refugees live in urban communities in developing countries where legal and social protection is limited and therefore vulnerability remains despite individual efforts.

As a social worker, I’ve worked with many highly vulnerable groups and my practice has been strongly embedded in resilience- and strengths-based, solution-focused approaches that aim to build capability.

But in doing so I’ve seen that these methods – of focusing on internal coping and reconciling familial and social connections – are not always suitable because they do not address the environmental factors that lead to vulnerability.

As I found working with refugees and asylum seekers, trying to define vulnerability and determine appropriate practice approaches can be challenging. Many face prolonged uncertainty and social and political factors outside of their control. Refugees have limited control over factors that contribute to external stressors in their environment and struggle to embrace self-reliance under these conditions. Increasing a person’s internal capacity alone will not lead to self-reliance.

Some individuals who have what’s considered high internal capacity or coping skills manage well and yet others don’t. Some do not cope well despite having low levels of external stress. And I have seen that certain casework practice approaches work better with different people based on their levels of internal coping or external stress.

By unpacking these observations with Ted, we developed a formula for best assessing the vulnerability of refugees and adjusting practice methods accordingly. The result is a model for assessing and responding to sustained vulnerability by seeking to increase internal capabilities and manage external stressors.

A refugee family stands on a beach.
A continuum exists between dependence and self-reliance. Image: Jhon David on Unsplash

We propose that a continuum exists between dependence and self-reliance and that all people can establish a level of self-reliance regardless of their context. For some however, self-reliance may be about managing the environment and developing coping skills. As self-reliance increases, people will experience varying levels of vulnerability and will at times resist. Caseworkers need to be able to regularly assess where their client is at on this continuum and adjust their practice to suit.

HOST will be presenting on this model in detail at the Metropolis Conference in Sydney tomorrow, Tuesday 30th October at 1:30pm.

Further to this, I have engaged with Nicholas Proctor, Miriam Posselt, Heather Eaton and Monika Ferguson at the University of South Australia to undertake a systematic review of literature to identify the enablers of psychological wellbeing among displaced populations living in urban areas in non-resettlement countries. This review, which will be published in the Health and Social Care in the Community journal later this year, highlights three broad categories of enablers to psychological wellbeing. These are outlined below:

1. Future oriented thinking (hope)

a. Basic housing and personal needs met

b. Cognitive and behavioural coping strategies applied

2. Social engagement reflecting pre-migration circumstances

a. Social and emotional support networks exist that resemble pre-migration experiences

b. Engaging in employment and economic activities to pass time and develop skills

c. Education and vocational training to pass time and develop skills

3. Establishing meaning or purpose from their experience

a. Faith, religion, spirituality, and culture

b. Advocacy and activism to help others in like situations

c. Assisting others in practical care

These key enablers are critical for helping displaced people to manage the uncertainties and other external stressors that they face while seeking to rebuild their lives.

We hope to further develop these and collect further data on this in our work with refugee and host communities in the Asia Pacific.

Social Workers play a fundamental role in assisting displaced people to access these enablers and to believe in a future that is not yet realized. HOST International believes that displaced people can make good from their experiences of displacement with the right support and the right skills while they undertake their journey. To become a victim to the circumstances of prolonged displacement is to stop believing that life can be better.