Towards a radical and critical model of practice with migrants?

Please consider donating a small amount to keep our projects in the UK and France alive and thriving. We rely on every small act of generosity to enable us to provide the level of support each and every young person and family we work with receives. Your donation will power positive and radical social work with migrants and refugees.

This blog was originally written by one of our founders, Nick Watts on his blog following a refugee social work conference. We are bringing it here to start the debate on what radical and critical practice might look like with refugees and migrants for World Social Work Day. 

I had the pleasure of taking part in an amazing conference, ‘Social work with refugees and asylum seekers: Defending our values and developing our practice’. Organised by BASW and of course, the awesome Social Work Action Network. The whole conference was one big opportunity to learn, reflect and consider what a practice with all migrants, not just refugees and asylum seekers might look like going forwards (Thanks NELMA for reinforcing this one!). I learnt so much I left in a bit of a headspin, so I decided to blog to reflect on the day and provide some thoughts as to what a radical and critical approach might have to offer. 

I feel there are three major themes that arose from the conference:

  • The migrant narrative. How our ideas and beliefs about migrants in the UK have developed, in turn shaping state and state agent responses in legislation, policy, practice and basic treatment of migrants. Also, how the response of society impacts on the oppression of migrants entering the United Kingdom.
  • The political discourse. How toughening ideologies since New Labour and the care versus control idea has impacted on practice, legislation and policy. Also how the ties between social change, social action and interactions with the state has developed a tough climate in which to practice anti-oppressively within the sometimes competing aims of statutory and legal duties.
  • The internal conflict in practice. The duties and responsibilities within local authorities and the conflict with the values and ethics of change agents.

Exploring these themes — Learning from experience

Throughout the day this was explored both through the content of the day and the content that surrounded it. One of the best sessions of the day that highlighted this was the presentation by Gulwali Passarlay, author of ‘The Lightless Sky’ chronicling his own journey and experience as a refugee. For me, there were key messages on our values to take from his story. He spoke of the degrading and sub-human processes relating to asylum in the United Kingdom, the doubts of his age, the mechanisation of practice and the effect this had on his experience of professionals. He describes a system that does not care for human narrative and stories, that reduces them to blunt conversations in public domains — A system that cares only for satisfying requirements of legislation. He comments on a system in a way that reduces it to a child welfare concept that caters only for those that are secure in status, something I will return to shortly.

There has been a steady decline in the positive conception of migrants, particularly lately. The narrative and construction of migrants has been reduced to one of a burden on our resources. The fears around terrorism and security fuelled by misplaced distrust in cultural identities, as opposed to the actual fear of violence. Couple this with moral panic around disorder, national security it has created a climate in which policy and legislation has wildly swung into the domain of control, triggered by New Labour crime and immigration policy from the late 90’s onwards in response to what were perceived to be collective fears and panic.

Instead of controlling any problems that may be present, these policies and legislative decisions have done little but fuel what is now the current construction of the migrant. A process of othering that has demeaned, oppressed and segregated migrants from mainstream society — including mainstream provision and entitlements. This has created in the United Kingdom many smaller, insular communities that further the destructive narrative surrounding the migrant and make ‘integration’ (I use this term very lightly) very challenging from those who decide to settle here.

The narrative fuels and reinforces boundaries, barriers and indeed borders.

Implications of the law

Nowhere is the reinforcement more apparent than it is in legal frameworks that underpin the problem. Lord Alf Dubs keynote highlighted plainly the difficultly in positive legislation, in this case around asylum and children being enacted. I certainly don’t want to live in a world where this trumps humanity. Facing an uphill battle in the face of conservatism and oppression, Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, or the ‘Dubs Amendment’ finally provided for vulnerable children. Once again, in recent weeks however, the definition of what can be considered vulnerable is ever decreasing. 

Then there is the Prevent Duty . Firstly, just to quash any miscommunication here — Of course it is really important to protect against terrorism, of course it is important to legislate and create strategy to reduce violence. But myself and many other don’t feel the prevent duty achieves this. Instead, all it does is reinforce racism and lead to kneejerk reactions.

One example of Prevent use was a child in a school who was drawing a picture of his house and he described it as a ‘terrorist house’ (he meant terraced of course). Instead of actually listening to what the child was trying to say, this was referred through the safeguarding chain and led to a prevent response. There are countless examples of completely needless othering, criminalisation and discrimination at the hands of the Prevent Duty (Thanks Michael Lavalette)

One of the fundamental flaws of the prevent duty and strategy that surrounds it is how extremism has been defined, both in past and present:

Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance to different faiths and beliefs.

Previous descriptions and iterations of extremism defined by New Labour included for example, upholding or believing in Sharia Law. (This would include practices such as only eating Halal for example, as this is enshrined in Sharia Law). This difficulty in interpreting a definition of extremism within a climate of fear and insecurity around borders, national security and violence I would argue leads to net-widening. Definitions become so vague and so much fear is instilled into those that the duty applies to that referrals increase and oppression intensifies. This creates a very insecure environment for migrants to live within. The danger of the ‘British Values’ definition is that value systems indeed differ by time, place and culture (Rokeach’s work is a good further read). The term ‘British values’ will mean different things to even different British people, making the term highly subjective and subject to massive degrees of interpretation by the state — Allowing the duty to cover a whole host of things. With this duty applying basically to all people who have contact with the public — Education, Health, Social Care, police and local authorities, it presents an increasing danger to freedom of speech, with poor implementation and training leading to a countless number of fruitless referrals into the scheme, a mechanism that directly oppresses individuals. This leaves practitioners between a rock and a hard place — With many issues pressing firmly on the foundations of care ethics and the values inherent to person centered working.

And then there is Gatekeeping…

Credit to NELMA again here (I am a new fan of NELMA). They painted a picture of destitute migrants struggling to access services under S17 Children’s Act 1989. Specifically as many with insecure immigration or conditional statuses have no recourse to public funds. Their discussion highlighted plainly the limitations of S17 and how it is left open to wide interpretation, thinking that can also be applied in discussions around service thresholds, defining need and so on. They focused on the barriers that local authorities can throw up when families approach children’s services for support when they have no recourse to public funds. Even though S17 CA 89 leaves no requirement for recourse.

They also broached the interesting narrative of ‘deserving vs. undeserving migrants’. If you listen to any speech on immigration by Theresa May, this is evident. We construct the deserving migrant as the professional who comes over here and earns a high wage. Where the undeserving one is likely the one who has experienced trauma and hardship, whose only desire is a better life (now you tell me who is really deserving!). This narrative is incredibly harmful, reflecting the discourse of policy and legislation. It presents another layer of othering, a sub-class of migrants.


These are just some of the topics that surrounded the conference yesterday, but they paint a clear picture of a harmful political and social narrative that oppresses migrants and fuels a moral panic toward immigration, asylum and most of all, humanity. Values are incredibly hard to define yet are used as a mechanism to increase surveillance, perpetuate fear and other classes of individuals. Confusions and lack of clarity in legislation lead to a process of net-widening leaving many vulnerable and open to state intervention. The processes that underpin our immigration system are inhumane and do not respect fundamental rights of dignity and privacy. These instruments, policies and indeed the social narrative leaves little room for the rights of migrants and leads to a hardening of the ideologies surrounding migration.

In the current climate and with a resurgence of the far right, there is no sign of anything getting any softer any time soon. As Gulwali rightly pointed out at the conference, the United Kingdom is to blame for much displacement and as such, has a moral duty to support all migrants, particularly those that are vulnerable and displaced as the result of conflict. Yet now, more policy is being enacted that increases control and oppression, marginalising the most vulnerable in our society.

There are countless opportunities to intervene with critical and radical methods of practice that challenge the status quo. But there are challenges in the conflicting priorities and values between social action and the state. Those operating in this conflict face challenges to anti-oppressive practice, but I would argue have a duty in the best interests of the individual to challenge the injustices in the system.