The ‘medieval castle approach’: social work and the Irish and Swiss asylum-seeking processes

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Elena Policante University of Galway, Republic of Ireland

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Paul Michael Garrett University of Galway, Republic of Ireland

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Social workers, broadly conceived, are engaged in assisting asylum seekers. Grounded in a small empirical study encompassing the Republic of Ireland and Switzerland, the article comments on the wider context and issues relating to asylum, migration and social work. The findings incorporate themes stretching across six interrelated dimensions: the practitioners’ own backgrounds; the lack of professional social workers; the dependence on volunteers; inadequate resourcing and high caseloads; inadequate supervision; and categorisation. All these issues are significant for social work education and for a profession that needs to exhibit more interest in questions of migration and more of a commitment to human rights.

Abstract

Social workers, broadly conceived, are engaged in assisting asylum seekers. Grounded in a small empirical study encompassing the Republic of Ireland and Switzerland, the article comments on the wider context and issues relating to asylum, migration and social work. The findings incorporate themes stretching across six interrelated dimensions: the practitioners’ own backgrounds; the lack of professional social workers; the dependence on volunteers; inadequate resourcing and high caseloads; inadequate supervision; and categorisation. All these issues are significant for social work education and for a profession that needs to exhibit more interest in questions of migration and more of a commitment to human rights.

Introduction

On the cusp of the global COVID-19 pandemic, figures released by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA, 2019) revealed that the number of migrants reached 272 million in 2019. This amounts to an increase of 59 million since 2010. In the ‘more developed regions’ of the Global North (Europe and North America, plus Australia, New Zealand and Japan), ‘almost 12 of every 100 inhabitants are international migrants’ (UNDESA, 2019: 1). In more recent years, it is also clear that ‘forced migration’ (involving refugees and asylum seekers) has grown much faster than voluntary migration (UNDESA, 2019: 1). In 2017, North Africa and Western Asia hosted 46 per cent of refugee and asylum seekers globally, most of which (close to 90 per cent) resided in the West Asia sub-region. Sub-Saharan Africa hosted almost 21 per cent (5.9 million), and Central and South Asia, along with Europe, each hosted close to 13 per cent of the global total (3.9 million each). North America hosted 3.8 per cent (1.1 million). Generally, in terms of international migrants (not specifically refugees and asylum seekers), most appear to move to other countries within the region of their birth. According to UNDESA, more international migrants from the South reside in the South, rather than in the North. About two fifths of all international migrants have moved from one developing country to another.

These statistics run starkly counter to (frequently political charged) perceptions in the Global North, where the notion is often promulgated that the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers are intent on reaching the most economically prosperous parts of the earth. This discourse is frequently imbued with ‘fearful images of the alien invasion of Europe’ and is ‘merged with ideas of civilizational clash, White cultural vulnerability and demographic decline’ (Gilroy, 2019). Common-sense perceptions of such matters are often a result of the inclination of right-wing populists to curate or ‘manufacture’ ignorance in order to advance their cause (Slater, 2012). Indeed, Luca Fazzi and Urban Northdurfer (2021) have undertaken important research in Italy highlighting how some social work practitioners have been won over by the toxic forces of right-wing populism.

In March 2020, a number of European governments (including Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia and Spain) shut their borders with neighbouring European Union (EU) countries, cancelled international flights or imposed border checks in an emergency attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Such measures were supplemented by the temporary closure of the EU’s external borders to most non-residents. This crisis has, therefore, prompted radical changes in how the flow of migrant labour is regulated.

Nevertheless, more embedded discourses circulating around seemingly impermeable border practices need to be examined in a little more detail. Prior to the pandemic, Mezzadra and Neilson (2012: 67) highlighted the prodigious and increasing presence of migrants in the ‘European space’. This is partly attributable to the fact that capital has an enormous thirst for labour power and racist discourses about migrants can, in fact, impede employers’ access to an adequate supply of this market commodity. For example, certain sectors, such as that dominated by agri-business, are reliant on migrants (Palumbo and Corrado, 2020). During the period of ‘lockdowns’ in 2020, despite the lack of labour mobility prompted by the pandemic, British and German companies arranged special flights to bring in Romanian seasonal farm workers. More pervasively, in recent years, the lower echelons of the labour market have become filled by floating populations of poorly paid migrant workers, who have undertaken a large proportion of ‘dirty, dangerous and demanding’ (DDD) and ‘caring, cooking and cleaning’ (CCC) jobs. Indeed, since the outbreak of the global pandemic, most ‘border restrictions have been conditionally or de facto unequally enforced’ (Aradau and Tazzioli, 2021: 4). This was mostly glaringly revealed in the UK, where a ‘travel ban’ was imposed on ‘people who exit the country “without a reasonable excuse”. The “reasonable excuses” to leave the UK included carrying out “activities related to buying, selling, letting or renting a residential property”’ (Aradau and Tazzioli, 2021: 4). Such ‘asymmetries have also concerned those who continued to be forcibly moved, as deportation flights have continued throughout Europe’ (Aradau and Tazzioli, 2021: 4). Thus, borders – and the practices shaping and associated with them – might be better understood as mechanisms and processes for regulating global labour flows. Conceptually, therefore, certainly prior to the pandemic, we cannot convincingly speak of an uncomplicated dynamic of ‘exclusion’. Rather, it is better to analyse the complex and differential forms of ‘inclusion’ giving rise to identifiable strategies of evaluating, filtering and selecting individuals.

In many countries, social workers are, in fact, occasionally migrants making major contributions to the lives and well-being of communities in which they are now living. Questions pertaining to migration and asylum are, of course, also significant in terms of some of the focal issues pertaining to the provision of services. Along with other state actors, practitioners are engaged in assisting migrants, and this is oftentimes in fraught situations. In what follows, our focus will be on the roles and functions that social work – as we will see, broadly conceived – plays, or fails to play, in two different European countries. However, the next part of the article focuses on the wider context and intermeshed issues relating to asylum, migration and social work. We then briefly refer to the methodology adopted in the empirical work on which this contribution is founded. Next, we refer to our findings, which incorporate the opinions of participants across six dimensions: their own backgrounds as this relates to migration issues; the lack of professional social workers; the dependence on volunteers; inadequate resourcing and high caseloads; inadequate supervision; and categorisation. We then discuss our findings.

The context: asylum, migration and social work

According to Amnesty International (2021), an asylum seeker is someone ‘who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim’. A common ground in the Irish and the Swiss asylum process is the Dublin procedure. The Dublin III Regulation1 provides the legal basis for determining which state will examine an application for international protection lodged in one of the member states by a third-country national or stateless person. This only applies if this country is a safe third country where the Geneva Convention and the Human Rights Convention are enforced, that is, all EU countries, as well as Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland (Fluechtlingshilfe, no date).

The so-called ‘European migration crisis’ of 2015 exposed the weaknesses of the Dublin Convention, as countries such as Greece would have disproportionately carried the ‘burden’. The coercive directive from the EU for member states to share the ‘burden’ of receiving and settling refugees resulted in Ireland taking a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. More generally, those categorised as ‘asylum seekers’ by the naming practices of capitalist racial states are not only presented as a ‘burden’, but also often portrayed as competing with the indigenous and ‘disadvantaged’ population for scarce resources. Hence, the need to control them is presented as essential to the ‘common good’ and to ‘the integrity of the asylum process’ (Schuster, 2003: 253). Stressing the significance of neoliberal capital and globalisation, Luibhéid maintains that contemporary migration is a consequence of restructuring, capital accumulation and global wars that destabilise national boundaries and, along with it, the notions of imagined homogeneity that have been culturally perceived as the ‘life blood’ of capitalist racial states (cited in Fanning, 2002).

In Ireland, the responsibility for asylum policy and its implementation lies with the Minister for Justice and Equality. Several organisations deliver asylum services and aim to provide an efficient and fair system. The International Protection Act 20152 governs the policy on refugees and asylum seekers, and said organisations must adhere to it. Asylum seekers are funnelled into ‘direct provision’ (DP) accommodation for ‘asylum seekers’ (Arnold, 2012; Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, 2021; Ombudsman for Children’s Office, 2021). Kieran Allen (2020: 24) observes that ‘asylum seekers have been turned into a commodity to be used by business to make a profit’. A report produced by the Irish Refugee Council (2020: 9) examining the plight of asylum seekers in hotel-type DP accommodation during the global pandemic found that: 50 per cent of respondents were unable to socially distance themselves from other residents during the pandemic; 42 per cent shared a room with a non-family member; and 46 per cent of respondents shared a bathroom with a non-family member (see also Dalikeni, 2013; Garrett, 2015a; Irish Refugee Council, 2020: 9).

Comparably, Switzerland provides protection and residence for people who face persecution in their country of origin due to their ethnicity, religion or political opinion, or because they cannot return for other humanitarian reasons (Fluechtlingshilfe, no date). The asylum process is under the remit of the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM). An accelerated process has been in place since March 2019. The main changes principally focus on increasing case process efficiency. Federal asylum centres (FACs) provide asylum-seekers with accommodation, legal aid and access to SEM employees under one roof while being processed. Thus, the government is anticipating substantial financial savings (SEM, 2019a; see also SEM, 2019b).

In general terms, asylum-seekers require a broad range of services as a result of their background, reasons for flight, age, family status and needs. The asylum-seeking process is often lengthy and covers different aspects of a migrant’s life from the point of arrival through to settlement/removal (Torode et al, 2001). Social workers are part of the process, insofar as they work in statutory and voluntary organisations that seek to support the applicants along their way. Consequently, the social work profession is confronted with difficulties often posed by social, legal and political development processes along with specific issues related to the personal circumstances of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Given this situation, social work – as a ‘field’ and discipline – has to enter into a sensitive debate within the profession in order to address societal inequalities.

There is very limited research that provides a comparison of practice with asylum-seekers in statutory and voluntary spheres. Nevertheless, there are significant disparities in these two practice settings. Statutory work is constrained by government legislation and policies, leading researchers to argue that social work has become ‘co-opted into … surveillance and control’ (Robinson and Masocha, 2017: 1519). On the other hand, even though they are (seemingly) independent, voluntary organisations are often funded by the government, which potentially compromises their autonomy. Social workers have what is often – if rather blandly – described as a dual function of care and control. That is to say, they can find themselves trapped between providing care for the client and, often pulling in a different direction, the legislation and policies of the organisation they are working in. Böhnisch and Lösch (2008 [1973]) describe this as the Doppeltes Mandat (literally, ‘double mandate’). More theoretically, Bourdieu perceived social workers as ‘agents of the state’, who are ‘shot through with the contradictions of the state’ (Bourdieu, quoted in Bourdieu et al, 2002: 184; see also Garrett, 2018a: ch 7). Hence, he pays particular attention to the ‘real institutional dilemmas haunting “street-level” bureaucrats’ (Stabile and Morooka, 2003: 337), recognising that many social workers are likely to ‘feel abandoned, if not disowned outright, in their efforts to deal with the material and moral suffering that is the only certain consequence of rampant neoliberalism’ (Bourdieu, quoted in Bourdieu et al, 2002: 183; see also Garrett, 2010; 2015b; 2019; Marthinsen et al, 2021). One of the main problems confronting practitioners is that they ‘must unceasingly fight on two fronts: against those they want to help and who are often too demoralized to take a hand in their own interests, let alone the interests of the collectivity; on the other hand, against administrations and bureaucrats divided and enclosed in separate universes’ (Bourdieu et al, 2002: 190). Furthermore, social workers are confronted with the effect of stressful life events, such as fear, anger, incomprehension, despair and often post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies show that stress in day-to-day work has an impact on their well-being and health, and thus on the quality of care. Even though all these stressors are known, supervision in social work with asylum-seekers is a neglected topic in research (Robinson, 2013).

The existing literature critiques the fact that there is a lack of substantial information and teaching on social work courses for practitioners to draw on, and this leaves the newly qualified, in particular, unprepared to deal with the practical and ethical issues that arise when working with asylum-seekers (Williams et al, 1998). Nonetheless, over 20 years ago, Torode et al (2001) outlined different perspectives that can be drawn on by social workers and other practitioners in their practice with oppressed populations. First, in order to deliver social work, practitioners cannot ignore oppression. Anti-oppressive practice analyses discrimination and highlights the links between personal, cultural and societal levels. Torode et al (2001) acknowledge that multiple oppressions often coalesce; therefore, social workers need to develop awareness and practices to address the intersectional hardships that clients can experience (Williams, 2021). However, Humphries (2004: 105) argues that social work needs to stop pretending that what it calls ‘anti-oppressive practice’ is anything but a gloss disguising the often-pernicious practices that it is responsible for delivering.

Second, Torode et al (2001) maintain that interculturalism and multiculturalism are perspectives for social workers to draw on in their practice. Social workers have to be aware of cultural differences in their practice (for a critical engagement with this question, see also Garrett, 2014). They have to be open-minded and seek to understand both the culture of the asylum-seekers’ country of origin and the immigration experience, including circumstances leading to their departure (Healy and Link, 2012). Multiculturalism emphasises the importance of raising awareness, developing knowledge and creating a safe environment for sharing information. Interculturalism emphasises a two-way approach to resolve the concept of ‘sociocultural dissonance’, which illustrates the dual perspective asylum-seekers find themselves having to grapple with. On one hand, they are in a new country and therefore in a new cultural environment, while on the other hand, they remain embedded in their own culture. As a result, a degree of incongruence can exist between the two cultural environments (Torode et al, 2001).

The third perspective described by Torode et al (2001) is social exclusion. It acts as a means of subordination through which some groups of people achieve a privileged position at the expense of other groups (Healy and Link, 2012). Social workers have, therefore, a central role in the fight against social exclusion which can also be connected to the process of ‘belonging and othering’. Robinson and Masocha (2017) describe the othering of asylum-seekers as ‘xenoracism’, which refers to a racism grounded in ideas circulating around culture and notions of ‘foreignness’ (see also Garrett, 2015a; see also Marovatsanga and Garrett, 2022).

Trying to discover more: methodological note

Our contribution is rooted in a comparative study on the role of social work within different asylum-seeking processes in two countries. Particular challenges come with this design frame, for example, issues circulating around language, customs, value systems and the institutions that exist. Nonetheless, these differences can themselves provide insights, which are displayed through qualitative interviews with the practitioners (Thomas, 2013). Given a paucity of social work literature on providing comparative studies on the theme of asylum, this article briefly explores the perspectives of practitioners, and it may signal or hint at directions for possible further research.

Grounded theory was assessed as useful, functioning as a methodological and analytical tool that can be used to develop inductive and ‘grounded’ insights into the lived experiences of research participants who are working to explain and render convincing portrayals of social processes (Timonen et al, 2018). Hence, a qualitative framework was used and semi-structured interviews were conducted with practitioners working with asylum-seekers in both Ireland and Switzerland (Thomas, 2013).

The research participants in Ireland were initially identified and accessed via an experienced social worker who was embedded in support networks comprised of national and local front-line workers engaging with asylum-seekers. Additionally, several emails were sent to different support services in Switzerland and Ireland, targeting individuals who, because of their work location, were likely to be competent and reliable reporters and narrators. A significant number of support services for asylum-seekers in Switzerland are Church-run and this is reflected in the sample of research participants. Furthermore, only practitioners from the German-speaking part of Switzerland were interviewed because one of us (the first author) has Swiss German as her first language. Gender, generation and ethnicity are also connected to the plurality of ‘voices’ included in our small sample of interviews.

The research participants are derived from ‘fields’ often interacting with, but also beyond, social work (see Table 1). As is apparent, not all the research participants comfortably fit within the official designation of ‘social worker’. Many can be better understood as performing the type of ‘popular social work’ discussed by Jones and Lavalette (2013). As they maintain, only those ‘approved and inducted through state-regulated training courses and sanctioned by state authorities are permitted to use the title’ in many countries (Jones and Lavalette, 2013: 148). However, they pointedly claim that the ‘predominant form of social work in many contemporary capitalist societies must be recognised and named more precisely as state-directed social work’ (Jones and Lavalette, 2013: 148, emphasis in original). Moreover, they assert that it is in the practice of ‘popular social work rather than in state-directed social work that we find the values and principles encapsulated in the international definition’ of the profession (Jones and Lavalette, 2013: 2013).

Table 1:

The eight research participants

Alias Gender/sex Occupation and background Nationality
Lena (IE) Female Recently changed from the chairperson of an organisation to a support worker French
Nancy (IE) Female Direct provision support officer Russian
Silvia (IE) Female Project officer, helping asylum-seekers prepare for their interviews with the migration office, support work and so on Irish
Alice (CH) Female Retired social worker, working as a volunteer support worker Swiss
Antonio (CH) Male Consultant for legal protection, helping asylum-seekers prepare for their interviews with the migration office. Serbian
Jane (CH) Female Theologian, head of a community cafe and support worker Swiss
Pierre (CH) Male Protestant pastor providing counselling for people in asylum centres and head of a community cafe Swiss
Samuel (CH) Male A former intern in a foundation that runs several asylum centres and presently a social work student Swiss

Constituting one of the core approaches within qualitative analysis, the method utilised for analysing the data garnered through those semi-structured interviews was that of ‘constant comparative method’ (CCM) (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Strauss, 1987; Glaser, 1992). In addition, a Bourdieusian lens was applied to our findings because we believe that his interconnected concepts of ‘habitus’, ‘field’ and ‘capital(s)’ can help us to understand better the social reproduction of inequalities.

Ethical considerations were at the heart of the research project from which this article is derived. Informed consent and agreement were required by respondents, all of whom are anonymised, prior to their taking part in the project. Moreover, the research project was undertaken in compliance with the research ethics of the University of Galway. The eight interviews, five in Switzerland (CH) and three in Ireland (IE), took place in March 2020.

Listening to the practitioners: our findings

As mentioned, the research participants came from different Irish and Swiss organisations and from a variety of backgrounds. However, as is apparent, they did not necessarily originate in these two jurisdictions, and three, in fact, had migration backgrounds themselves: Lena and Nancy were both situated in Ireland but were from France and Russia, respectively; and Antonio was based in Switzerland but originated in Serbia. These respondents stated that their own ‘journey’ of coming to a new country and experiencing the process of having to ‘reinvent’ themselves helped them to relate better to asylum-seekers. They also referred to their own experiences of having to learn about a new culture and ‘figuring out’ how to get support as being a motivating factor leading them to work with asylum-seekers. The research participants without a migration background all had a profound interest in different aspects of working with asylum-seekers: Jane (CH), for example, remarked that there were lots of “nice encounters … where I can learn from a wide variety of cultures. I have not been abroad and had experiences with staying away for a long time…. So, I feel like I have a chance for the world to come to me.”

Lack of professional social workers

Having regard to the personal backgrounds of the research participants, it became apparent that there is a significant lack of ‘professionals’ working with asylum-seekers. Most had a social work type of background, but not many had an explicit social work qualification:

‘In that sense, we are not social workers. I personally come from completely different background…I moved to Switzerland rather recently, but I have been running an NGO [non-governmental organisation] prior to that so I know, I understand the social aspect of it’. (Antonio, CH)

Dependence on volunteers

Most support services for asylum-seekers in both Ireland and Switzerland appeared to be very much ‘volunteer dependent’. All the research participants highlighted how valuable volunteers were for the continued delivery and upkeep of necessary services. Moreover, a number of volunteers were found in organisations that were run by the Church. Five out of the eight research participants, most of them from Switzerland, were either employed by, or received additional funding, through the Church. One respondent who was working for the Church, amplified this aspect:

‘Of course, there are many volunteers in the Church who simply have a heart for that, but I don’t know whether that is religiously connoted. Could be…The Church is a good player [which] can organise things [and it is a type of] movement that can be organized well’. (Pierre, CH)

Another interviewee argued that it was easier for the Church to grant money and help asylum-seekers because they did not have an overt mandate from the state and, therefore, are perhaps less restricted and more able to dissent from ‘official’ policy and practice (see also Garrett, 2021a; 2021b; 2022).

Inadequate resourcing and high caseloads

These issues, regarding the lack of social work professionals and dependency on volunteers, can be linked to a lack of resources, namely money and time. Most of the research participants criticised the unwillingness by the Irish and Swiss governments to make the sufficient and necessary funding available. Relatedly, another issue in working with asylum-seekers that respondents highlighted was the challenge of managing immense caseloads. This prompted them to become, and to remain, severely hampered in their ability to build supportive relationships:

‘And there are far too many cases … professional integrity is compromised all the time. Social work is, here, is just like, Jesus! Why would you go into it? It’s just so hard.… kind of like, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You want to stay in it because there’s nobody else, but you can’t, you can’t.’ (Silvia [IE])

Inadequate supervision

Another finding connected to the shortfall in resources and lack of time was related to the sheer paucity of professional supervision. Seven out of eight research participants mentioned that they did not have any supervision, or else it was insufficient or they had to make an effort themselves if they wanted to receive any supervision. One respondent stated that she and her colleague did not need supervision because they felt that they had enough experience and informal support. Maybe not every person needs traditional forms of ‘supervision’, in the professional social work sense of the term, but all the research participants stressed the need for informal supervision and regular exchanges among colleagues.

Categorisation

Relatedly, an issue that was mentioned by almost all of the research participants was the crudely problematic categorisation of asylum-seekers into ‘economic’ and ‘war’ migrants. As one participant stated: “All the asylum process is about fitting into this category or this category” (Silvia [IE]). Another theme common to both the Irish and the Swiss asylum-seeking processes that emerged from the interviews related to the timelines dominating the asylum-seeking adjudication process and the lives of those seeking asylum: how long asylum-seekers might require accommodation through either DP or FACs; the time spent waiting for interviews and determination of their status; the time frames for lodging an appeal; and so on. One of the research participants evoked the image of a ‘castle’ when she commented:

‘It’s like this, like a medieval castle approach. There is a castle, and we are sitting there, and as a castle, you cannot live without the peasants living around, growing food and doing all the labour for you, but then even if something comes up, if an attack comes and you just raise the bridge and fuck the peasants, I mean, we’re in this castle and we’re okay. And we do not take the peasants in, we take the food, and we leave them to drown or whatever. I sense that a lot … in some Swiss people who are prone to this anti-migration approach.’ (Antonio [CH])

In what follows, we discuss the findings and relate our comments to the five themes that our research respondents engaged with in the interviews.

Discussion

As mentioned earlier, three out of eight research participants have a migration background and could relate to displacement on a personal level as a result of their own diasporic experience. These practitioners feel that they are able to relate to asylum-seekers through their own life events. This may have resulted in a more informed perspective, better equipping such practitioners in their work with asylum-seekers (Torode et al, 2001). In their investigations in Ireland, Marovatsanga and Garrett (2022) have also found that white Irish social workers were more attuned to the lifeworlds of Black African migrants if they, themselves, had diasporic experiences. In our study, the other five participants who did not have diasporic experiences all indicated a marked interest within their working and personal lives in issues related to culture and diversity, and this may have aided them in raising awareness, developing knowledge and creating a safe environment for the asylum-seekers (Williams et al, 1998; Healy and Link, 2012).

Turning to our main findings, first, we can note that professional social work was a largely absent presence in work often being undertaken with asylum seekers in Ireland and Switzerland (see also Prasad, 2019; Wroe et al., 2019). This lack of involvement in practically assisting asylum seekers, and not simply being involved if child protection issues arise, can be connected to an urgent need for the profession to re-energise a ‘human rights’ orientation (Reynaert et al, 2022). The social work endeavour, though frequently complicit in human rights abuses (Maylea, 2020), also has a history of promoting human rights that can be traced back to, for example, Jane Addams in early twentieth century. Such pioneering work has ensured that human rights activity is at the core of more socially progressive forms of professional social work. Burdened with the ‘double mandate’, social work operates at the interface between state and individual, and is therefore particularly important in the identification of, and work against, injustice and the deprivation of human rights (Torode et al, 2001). The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) definition of social work situates the aspiration to safeguard and promote human rights as central. As the IFSW (2014) maintains:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels.

However, Ife (2012) argues that the term ‘human rights profession’ might be an oxymoron within a social work context. If the ‘very idea of a “profession” carries with it disempowering practice, then it is incompatible with a human rights perspective’ (Ife, 2012: 261). That is to say, social work as a ‘profession’, regulated by the state, continually risks – as our findings indicate – coming into conflict with human rights because of the potentially inappropriate use of the power it might wield at the behest of the state (see also Illich et al, 1977). Indeed, Ife’s perspective alerts us to the fact that social workers must remain self-critical and reflexive in their often-far-too-easy recourse to, what we might term, ‘human rights talk’.

Second, it appeared that many support services for asylum seekers across the two jurisdictions were very dependent on volunteers. This can be connected to a shortage of resources, which leads to a lack of social workers and professionals generally, thereby generating a system increasingly reliant upon a more expansive role for volunteers. Perhaps volunteers are less at risk of compromising their ethical integrity in comparison to social workers. That is to say, they may not have to seek to calibrate and balance factors pertaining to – in broad terms – care and control because they are not technically employed and are not subject to having to enforce statutory measures (Scherr, 2015; Prasad, 2019). Nevertheless, they move in the same legal and policy frameworks as those dubbed ‘professionals’.

As we have seen, a significant number of organisational forms of support were provided by the Church. The Protestant Church appeared to be more involved than the Catholic Church. One explanation for the centrality of the role of the Church was suggested by one of the research participants: the Church does not have a legal mandate to undertake its work; therefore, it may possess greater autonomy and freedom than the state sector (Robinson and Masocha, 2017). What is more, state provision, as Allen’s (2020) commentary on the Irish situation makes glaringly clear, is oftentimes outsourced to the ‘for-profit’ and business sector imperatives (Doras, no date; SEM, 2019a). In contrast, Church organisations may operate under different ethical considerations based on four core principles: leitourgia (worship), diakonia (welfare work), koinonia (community) and kerygma (education/pastoral care) (EKS, 2018). In neoliberal times, such principles can even become somewhat subversive (see also Conneely and Garrett, 2015). However, we also noted that many volunteers situated in Church-based structures were middle-class, and in theoretical terms, we can connect this to the notion of ‘habitus’. On account of their structural positioning and access to particular forms of capital, they might also be viewed as relatively ‘privileged’. This is not, of course, to criticise or decry their work, but if the Church wishes to develop a more socially and economically pluralistic group of volunteers, it will be necessary for it to give greater consideration to how it attracts and nurtures them. Relatedly, future research in Ireland and Switzerland – and, indeed, elsewhere – might also concentrate on the role played by other religions, such as Islam, in providing ‘on the ground’ support for those caught up in the asylum-seeking process.

Third, inadequate resourcing and high caseloads were a dominant theme in conversations with the research project’s participants. The lack of adequate funding was a major problem, acting as a barrier preventing access to services both for supportive organisations and to the asylum-seekers themselves. There were also pervasive concerns about a lack of time to undertake the work. However, the participants in our small research project were all committed to trying to ‘make the best’ out of whatever little funding and time they possessed. Relatedly, ‘processing’ time was a huge issue for those seeking to pursue asylum claims. The accelerated processing time frames in Switzerland made it harder for the practitioners to get to know the applicants, build a trusting relationship and help bring their claims for asylum forward. On the other hand, applicants may wait for years in Irish DP centres, which were originally introduced as a ‘short-term’ solution for processing and accommodation. This prolonged limbo leads to agonising and wasted existences (O’Reilly, 2018). Such concerns were viewed as highly problematic by all the research participants. Returning to the work of Bourdieu, we might view all this as a consequence of what he perceived as a ‘conservative revolution’, which ‘ratifies and glorifies the reign of … the financial markets, in other words the return of the kind of radical capitalism, with no other law than the return of maximum profit, an unfettered capitalism … pushed to the limits’ (Bourdieu, 2001: 35; see also Garrett, 2010). Asylum-seekers and those working with them, starved of resources and human attention, continue to live with the consequences of this ‘revolution’.

Four, almost all practitioners criticised the lack of supervision. They are confronted with the effect of stressful life events, such as fear, anger, incomprehension, despair and often post-traumatic stress disorder. This can lead to secondary trauma and ‘burnout’ (Steinlin et al, 2018). Our findings indicate that adequate supports, such as supervision, are simply not in place. Nevertheless, supervision would offer practitioners a safe place to talk about and process the emotional impact of their work (Pühl, 2017 [2016]). Supervision is, in fact, a core practice activity within the social work profession, and it is absolutely necessary.

Five, categorisation – and the classificatory keywords used – emerged as a core theme (see also Garrett, 2015c; 2017a; 2018b). Today, the ‘asylum seeker’ category of migrant is mostly framed as a ‘social problem’, and imposition of the term may even be viewed as a form or ‘symbolic violence’. According to Bourdieu, symbolic violence helps us grasp how people respond to the descriptions or labels attached to them by the powerful. Not physically violent, it still constitutes a form of violence that damages and degrades, and it achieves this by insidiously imposing the naturalness of a particular worldview reflecting an unequal social order and an asymmetrical distribution of power. Bourdieu (2000: 169) emphasises that this type of violence is ‘all the more powerful because it is, for the most part, exercised invisibly and insidiously through familiarization … and prolonged experience of interactions informed by the structures of domination’. As a form of diminishment and disparagement, symbolic violence is not simply confined to language, as it tends to impinge on all interactions between the dominant and the dominated. Therefore, Bourdieu’s conceptualisation highlights the ‘mundane nature of suffering’, assuming the form of petty, daily humiliations and ‘routinized types of misery’ (McNay, 2014: 34–5). Often inseparable from enforced material poverty, symbolic violence is not just an ‘identifiable event or specific injury but rather a diffuse and persistent background state of affairs’ (McNay, 2014: 34). Relentlessly injected into the everyday life of those awaiting adjudications on their migration status, it can prompt in victims ‘feelings of shame, boredom, hopelessness’ (McNay, 2014: 29).

The process of categorising could be seen as a distinguishing between the ‘deserving’ (who ‘belonged) and the ‘undeserving’ (who are ‘othered’) (Harmon and Garrett, 2015; Brockmann and Garrett, 2022). If we apply Bauman’s (1991) theoretical lens here, the categorising of asylum-seekers can also interpreted as a dehumanising act (see also Garrett, 2012). This, in turn, justifies labelling them as ‘undeserving economic’ migrants and sending them back to their countries of origin. These mechanisms of excluding people and making them ‘other’ have become normalised (O’Reilly, 2018). Arguably, this is rather hypocritical for Switzerland and Ireland given both nations have consistently witnessed, even encouraged, their own citizens to leave for plainly economic reasons (Freise, 2007). Switzerland, for example, benefited immensely from both economic emigration and immigration, particularly after the Second World War. In terms of the latter, the euphemistically called ‘guest workers’ were harshly treated and expected to leave after a certain amount of time (SFA, 2019). One of us (the second author) has also investigated the Irish migration experience (Garrett, 1998; 2000; 2002; 2004; 2005; 2007).

According to Bourdieu (1991: 236) – whose conceptualisation of ‘symbolic violence’ we discussed earlier – the State is crucial to this ‘labour of categorisation’ and the delineation of ‘social issues’ (see also Garrett, 2018b). This process is reflected in how it and its agents impose the ‘legal and administrative categories of “asylum seekers”, “refugee” and “economic migrant” which confer different rights and entitlements’ (Loyal, 2003: 83). Relatedly, the individuals who are targeted for categorisation risk becoming mere ‘specimens of a category’ (Bauman, quoted in Wardhaugh and Wilding, 1993: 7; see also Garrett, 2020). As Abdelmalak Sayad (2004: 279) asserts, it is ‘as though it were the very nature of the state to discriminate … between the “nationals” it recognizes … and “others” with whom it deals only in “material” and instrumental terms’. Crucially, such bureaucratic categories engender and embed systematic patterns of discrimination that are then potentially reinforced in micro-level or face-to-face encounters. The wider political and policy environment, and the affective register in which it is located, can also contaminate practitioner ethics and scramble priorities. At the century’s commencement, the death of Victoria Climbie in the UK was entangled in factors related to her status as a migrant. Although this has been insufficiently investigated and commented on, her death may have been partly attributable to state agencies seeking to repatriate her and her aunt to France. In short, the understanding that the ‘welfare of the child is paramount’ was rendered secondary to the politics of welfare retrenchment and immigration control (Garrett, 2006). Indeed, more recently, Natalia Farmer (2021) has highlighted how social workers are transmogrifying into ‘border guards’ within the more encompassing patterning of immigration control.

Conclusion

The aim of the empirical research that informed this article was to undertake a small-scale study exploring social work and the Irish and the Swiss asylum-seeking processes. This contribution does not, of course, claim to be representative of what is occurring ‘on the ground’ in either country. In short, this has been merely a modest, qualitative and exploratory study, undertaken with eight respondents practising social work. Nevertheless, their perceptions and opinions are still thought-provoking, insightful and extremely relevant for the field of social work education and practice.

In terms of education and practice, this article may perhaps also signal a need for migration to become more central within social work education. Located in Canada, Ransford Danso (2016: 1744) highlights social work’s long association with questions of migration, and he argues that issues relating to immigration ‘enabled the profession to forge an international identity during its nascent stages’ in the 1920s. The involvement with immigration became more pronounced following the Second World War. During this period, many social workers with knowledge of migration-related difficulties worked with those displaced. Nonetheless, he argues that the quest for professional status resulted in social work losing its ties to migration and issues encountered by migrant groups. Today, therefore, this knowledge has become relatively dissipated. Hence, following his scoping work, Danso (2016: 1745) reports on the ‘near absence of migration content from social work curricula’. The profession’s awareness of the dynamics associated with migration is also notably ‘under-theorised in social work today’ (Danso, 2016: 1745). Consequently, he calls for a new, core and ‘domain-specific field of specialisation’ within social work education, which is able to address the ‘unique features and manifestations of migrants and refugees at all geographical scales’ (Danso, 2016: 1751). This would entail the evolution of a framework that focuses on the ‘characteristics, impact and interconnections among five contexts: pre-migration context (source region), intervening or in-transit context (interstice); post-arrival context (destination area), post-return context (home country); and “shuttling context” (the context created by migrants commuting between destination areas and home countries)’ (Danso, 2016: 1753).

We also view the issue of human rights as having been at the heart of this article. Webb (2009: 313) adds that the ‘rhetoric of human rights serves as a distraction from and support for a radically unjust world order dominated by global capitalism and the great power of neo-liberalism’. Scherr (2015) states that in the case of social work with asylum-seekers and refugees, there is an acute discrepancy between the fundamental principles of human rights and social justice because of the profession’s integration into the structures of states that are likely to have differing dominant imperatives. Whilst attentive to such critiques, social work with asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants ought to be concerned with human rights, solidarity and safeguarding (Wroe et al, 2019). More than this, it is pragmatically and strategically sensible to deploy human rights discourses at this conjuncture. This has become especially important in an Irish context given that the revised Social Workers Registration Board Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics for Social Workers (CORU, 2019), produced by the state’s registration and regulatory body for social work and related professions – CORU – has deleted reference to the term ‘human rights’. It used to be featured six times (CORU, 2011). This stands in stark comparison to the Swiss code of ethics for social workers (AvenirSocial, 2010), which mentions human rights ten times and states that ‘the principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work’ (AvenirSocial, 2010: 9). The core message is that social work must, both with asylum-seekers and others, be a human rights-based profession, and this must be tangibly evidenced in praxis within the field.

Notes

1

Regulation (EU) No. 604/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council, available at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2013:180:0031:0059:en:PDF

2

International Protection Act 2015 (No. 66), available at: www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2015/act/66/section/39/enacted/en/html

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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