Asylum seeker dispersal highlights need for greater cultural awareness

Last week, a senior social work lecturer said poor training given
to social workers in north east England working with asylum seekers
was hampering their ability to deliver culturally sensitive

Lin Harwood, of Northumbria University, said through her
involvement in a campaign to improve asylum seekers’ rights she had
heard many stories of social workers being inadequately prepared
for work with applicants.

Little understanding of the trauma and subsequent mental health
problems experienced by asylum seekers, poor knowledge of
immigration law and an inability to interpret other cultures were
among the main problems reported.

Harwood says the sudden arrival of asylum seekers in a region with
little ethnic diversity has overwhelmed service providers and
created a need for more training in cultural sensitivity.

Moreover, the problems Harwood describes are unlikely to be
confined to the north east but to many predominantly white areas in
England which overnight receive groups of asylum seekers dispersed
by the National Asylum Support Service (Nass).

In the past three years Sunderland has received more than 7,000
asylum seekers. Last year alone more than 5,180 were dispersed
there by Nass. With plenty of empty housing, the number is set to

Racial tensions in the city hit the headlines two years ago when an
Iranian asylum seeker was murdered and social workers and other
service providers have struggled to deliver in an environment of
hostility directed at the new arrivals.

Harwood says: “It [lack of cultural awareness training] makes it
difficult to think about what it is like to be an asylum seeker.
They deserve better preparation for this work.”

In theory, this issue seems to have been addressed. The General
Social Care Council’s (GSCC) guidance on the new three-year degree
says universities must include training on the law regarding asylum

“All social care workers have to respect diversity and different
cultures under the code of practice and universities must ensure
that students are given knowledge and understanding of different
lifestyles and communities,” says chief executive Lynne

“They must have respect for different religious and cultural
traditions and practice experience of delivering social work
services to a range of service user groups. Not all students will
work with asylum seekers but they should develop the skills to
support any vulnerable group.”

But how can the GSCC’s ambitions be realised in areas such as the
north east where the opportunities to develop practice skills in
dealing with ethnicity are so few?

Harwood says: “It is possible for a student to do this course
without ever coming into contact with a black person, and there are
many practice teachers who have never worked with a person from an
ethnic minority.”

Inevitably, given the low numbers of people from ethnic minorities
in some regions, there are several practical problems around
organising placements, not least of which is finding them to begin

Konnie Lloyd, co-chairperson of the National Organisation for
Practice Teaching, says it is difficult, though not impossible, to
find placements for students working with asylum seekers because
they have traditionally been dealt with by the voluntary

But she adds that local authorities should be forging relationships
with the voluntary sector in order to arrange placements at them.
For places such as Sunderland, though, this does not provide a
solution because even the voluntary sector will be in its

But Mike Leadbetter, head of the Practice Learning Taskforce,
dismisses the argument that social work students need face-to-face
experience of asylum seekers in a practice setting.

“I don’t believe that social workers need direct experience of
dealing with every group,” he says. “People become paralysed by the
ethnic dimension in these situations but it is crucial to look at
the ways in which people are similar. The bedrock of social work
provides enough skill to deal broadly with issues that are common
to all people.”

Practice is, however, important – a fact recognised by the 70-day
increase to 200 practice learning days under the DipSW. So
important is it that the Practice Learning Taskforce has been set
an ambitious target of a 50 per cent increase in placements by

In the absence of the opportunity to do a practice placement in a
setting with asylum seekers, the onus is on universities to ensure
the theoretical element of their courses is as relevant as

At Northumbria University the degree includes a module dedicated to
work with asylum seekers and a range of workshops on dealing with
interpreters, while the course at Huddersfield University is
informed by a group of asylum seeker children.

But for those social workers who completed their training many
years ago the prospects for learning about this new client group
are even slimmer. Tight training budgets and heavy workloads often
rule out up-to-date training for many social workers.

By April 2005 the title social worker will be protected in the same
way as that of doctor or accountant, so anyone describing
themselves as such will be breaking the law if they are not
registered with the GSCC.

Alongside the new status given to the job will be a responsibility
on individual workers for their learning. But this in itself is no
guarantee that social workers will keep up-to-date in all areas.

Evidence from GPs, who are responsible for their own learning, has
shown that they are likely to choose to spend their allotted number
of study days increasing their knowledge of issues they consider
key to their work.

In the past this has resulted in the neglect of areas such as child
protection because many GPs consider it a peripheral part of their
everyday job. Will social workers with the freedom to choose what
they want to train in select an issue they may feel is a small part
of their work?

With the continued dispersal of asylum seekers to areas such as the
north east, the need for cultural training is crucial. Steps made
by universities such as Northumbria and Huddersfield to make their
degree curriculum inclusive of asylum issues is evidence that
training providers are recognising the need for specific

But for the many workers already based in social services
departments in areas serving predominantly white populations
opportunities to learn more about asylum issues are likely to
remain scarce.

Ratna Dutt, director of the Racial Equality Unit, says that,
despite the decades of work on equality, public bodies have yet to
crack the issues involved. She believes that councils should be
more outward-looking and call on the help of those experienced at
dealing with diversity.

In some areas collaborative work is taking place. Wrexham, for
example, is part of the North Wales Consortium, a group of councils
which share knowledge about asylum seekers and issues affecting

But although clear attempts have been made to provide good services
for asylum seekers, Harwood is clear that more needs to be done
because “some of these people will grow older here and stay – it is
not temporary”.

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