The voice of the social worker is as silenced and oppressed as that of the asylum seeker
Opinion: Five key things need to change
‘To be effective, the systems dealing with asylum seekers in both the Department of Justice and in the social work profession require major reform.’ above, Asylum seekers, refugees and human rights supporters protesting as part of a national day of action to end direct provision living for asylum seekers. Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES
Asylum-seeking families and their social workers are caught between two systems, the child protection system and the immigration system.
The child protection system is concerned solely with the welfare of the child, whereas the brief of the immigration system is a legalistic one, established to deal unemotionally with the Government’s policy on immigration into Ireland.
The separate operation of these two systems leads to a catastrophic state of affairs because those charged with the duty of care towards such families are unable to effectively deliver a meaningful service to them. For social workers there are inherent conflicts in doing human rights work when there are competing Government policy objectives to manage migration and provide social welfare.
The international definition of social work states: “The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing. Underpinned by theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments” (International Federation of Social Workers).
Social workers whom I interviewed in the course of six years’ research for my doctoral thesis felt current practice does not enable them to live up to this ideal since they must operate within the remit of child protection guidelines and procedures and in collaboration with the Department of Justice.
Within these systems the voice of the social worker is very much as silenced and as oppressed as that of the asylum seeker.
One social worker who accompanied a young person to an interview with immigration officers said: “It is very difficult to know what your role is when you work with the Department of Justice. In fact I often wondered what my role was. The officers there do not recognise you as a colleague, another professional or an equal. When I was in the room with the young person there was no acknowledgment of my presence in the room. They made me feel it was a Department of Justice process.”
Another social worker said: “It is a very secretive system and even though I wrote to them about the young people I was working with, the responses were vague and mostly in one-line sentences. They do not tell you much.”
The difficulties of working with the immigration section was highlighted by one social worker: “They are doing one thing and you are doing another. It is as if the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. For example, one minute you could be working with a family and the next minute you are told they have been deported. With the lack of resources it is difficult to invest time in working with these families when you do not even know if they will be there the next day. You simply cannot practise interagency collaboration working with immigration officers. It is a difficult system to collaborate with and makes you feel very disempowered.”
Hiqa, the organisation charged with responsibility to inspect institutions where there are vulnerable people, has been effective in other areas and has ordered the closure of some children’s and older people’s residential homes. Whether its remit can extend to direct provision centres is so far unclear.
The way the current system is designed leaves the families in direct provision seeing social workers as government agents working alongside immigration officers – and this leads to a lack of trust between them. So what hope is there for the social workers and these families to have any meaningful working relationship?
To be effective, the systems dealing with asylum seekers in both the Department of Justice and in the social work profession require major reform.
Children First National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children (2011) stresses the importance of those working with children to collaborate with all relevant agencies. My research shows that such collaboration between the Departments of Justice and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is not happening.
There are no winners in this situation. Direct provision is a dehumanised State-sanctioned oppressive system with a very high human cost and a very high financial cost to the taxpayer. The social workers they interact with are caught up in a system where much of what they do is constrained by the systems within which they work.
Adults in these families living at the margins of Irish society, with few or no rights, are not permitted to work. Social workers cannot possibly empower them.
But if those charged with the duty to protect children and to advocate on their behalf cannot meaningfully do so, what hope is there for these families and what hope is there for a profession, whose values are rooted in social justice, to be able to exercise these values?
The answer is “none”. Unless one can put into practice the ethos and principles of the social work profession it makes a mockery of professional intervention.
It is beyond belief that Ireland, which is appalled and ashamed by revelations of past institutional abuse, is now standing by while a new form of abuse is being perpetrated.
Basic human rights principles require that asylum seekers have their case examined within a matter of weeks of arrival in Ireland and, if the case is not genuine, they should be deported immediately. If, on the other hand, their case is found to be genuine, they should be released instantly from the prison of direct provision and facilitated to take their place as members of a free population.
1. The role of social workers in this area must be redefined so they are not perceived to act in the same role as immigration officers.
2. The immigration systems need to be more transparent in dealings with both families and social workers; otherwise all are caught up within systems that are pulling against each other because their remits and interests are opposed to each other.
3. There is need for better interagency collaboration between immigration and child protection services.
4. Political attention must be directed to an immediate reversal of the violations of rights of those in direct provision.
5. As a matter of urgency, Hiqa must inspect direct provision centres so that its reports may function to either precipitate immediate change or, instead, stand forever as a monument to State indifference.
I commend the intention of Minister Frances Fitzgerald to set up a working group to investigate the situation of asylum seekers and their families. The matter is one of urgency. Dr Colletta Dalikeni is lecturer in social care at Dundalk Institute of Technology and a researcher on asylum issues. Her doctoral thesis is: Voices from the frontline: The Experiences of Child Protection Social Workers and Asylum Seeking Families.