Social care for refugees and asylum seekers

The Social Care Institute for Excellence presents best practice in working with refugees and asylum seekers with a human rights-based approach

The Social Care Institute for Excellence presents best practice in working with refugees and asylum seekers with a human rights-based approach

Refugees and asylum seekers face adversity before, during and after their arrival in the UK. They have complex, interwoven needs and are likely to require a wide range of social care services. Many may be unclear about their entitlements and how to access services.


A refugee is an individual to whom the UK government has offered protection in accordance with the Refugee Convention 1951 and granted leave to stay.

An asylum seeker is a person who has asked for protection but has not received a decision on their application to become a refugee, or is waiting for the outcome of an appeal.

Creating a framework

A human rights-based approach to social care will ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are treated with dignity, equality and respect.

Securing organisational commitment to promoting the wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers is an important first step.

Multi-agency partnerships built around the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, at both strategic and operational levels, will facilitate access to and development of appropriate social care provision.

Creating a local strategy using the joint strategic needs assessment framework will enable local authorities to plan and develop services for populations of refugees and asylum seekers, as well as other migrant populations.

Service user involvement

Involving refugee and community organisations and refugees/asylum seekers in the design and delivery of services is good practice and will result in better service provision. Local refugee and community organisations are a vital resource that should be nurtured and sustained. These groups have a crucial role in the design and delivery of local services and building inclusion.

Workforce development

Social care staff may need training to ensure expertise in and a focus on working with refugees and asylum seekers. This could include setting up local authority specialist teams. Training and supervision should be available for social care providers, interpreters and other practitioners.

Monitoring and review

Equalities monitoring is an essential component of performance monitoring and is required by equalities legislation. Commissioners and social care providers need to ensure that current monitoring systems include refugees and asylum seekers.

Gateways and signposting

Refugees and asylum seekers often have low awareness and take up of social care services. Imaginative ways to provide information about and ensure access to services are needed.

Primary care and asylum seeker and refugee organisations have an essential role in signposting and supporting refugees and asylum seekers to access services. Information needs to be made available in appropriate, accessible formats. Refugee and community organisations can play an invaluable role in providing information about rights.


Advocacy is needed at both an individual and community level to ensure people know what is available, support access to a choice of appropriate provision and facilitate participation in decision-making. The children’s commissioner for England has recommended that all children should be appointed an independent guardian who can act as an advocate and help them to participate in reviews. Anyone detained in psychiatric hospital under the Mental Health Act is entitled to independent mental health advocacy.

Eligibility criteria

Local authorities have a duty to assess all individuals (including refused asylum seekers) if they appear to be in need of care services under section 47 of the NHS and Community Care Act 1990.

If asylum seekers are not eligible for social care services they should be assessed under the Human Rights Act to establish whether it would breach their human rights not to provide appropriate services.

Culturally sensitive service provision

Services need to be culturally competent. This includes ensuring provision of culturally specific forms of support, including faith-based approaches. Access to robust, competent and culturally competent interpreting services is essential. Interpreters need to understand the situation of asylum seekers and refugees and the context for service delivery.

Social inclusion and independence

Interventions should recognise and build on the strengths of refugees and asylum seekers. Community and refugee organisations often facilitate peer support networks and provide English language classes and other education and support that can help promote social inclusion and well-being.

Children and young people

All these points apply equally to children and young people. For children in families, good practice in meeting their needs will be intertwined with the response to the needs of their parents. There are some additional considerations specific to children and young people:

● The provision of safe, age-appropriate accommodation under section 20 of the 1989 Children Act.

● Support for refugee families – including a focus on child welfare, not just on child protection.

● Action to address child poverty where families are living in poor quality housing and have insufficient means to support themselves.

● Support for children who are caring for a parent with social care needs.

● Assessment and access to appropriate services for children and young people who have been trafficked.

● Independent age assessment and assessment of the child’s social and cultural needs and detailed medical and psychological observation.

● Access to age-appropriate training and education and leisure activities.

● Consideration of the process of transition from children’s to adult services.

Further reading

Social care TV film – Refugees and asylum seekers

Case study: Leeds Asylum Support Netweork

The Leeds Asylum Support Network has developed a range of projects to support refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

The Befriending project provides volunteer befrienders who visit isolated asylum seekers and refugees regularly for periods of six to 12 months. The aim is to help them get to know the city, integrate into the local community and access other services, and alleviate the emotional stress caused by past trauma and the asylum process.

The English at Home project offers one-to-one home tuition by volunteers for asylum-seeking pregnant women, new mothers and mothers of young children. Asylum-seeking women often cannot leave home because of cultural barriers and because they cannot afford to pay for childcare, and so are unable to enrol for English-as-a-second language classes in the community.

The aim is to help women access mainstream services by improving their English language skills, and to provide a minimum level of advocacy and interpreting and orientation into the UK.

The Short Stop scheme aims to support the many refugees and asylum seekers who experience homelessness at some point during their asylum claim. Short Stop volunteers provide a hot meal and a bed for the night to people who have nowhere else to go.

LASSN also supports the Leeds Refugee Forum to provide a collective voice for refugee community organisations in Leeds and promote refugee integration and community cohesion in the city.


Research abstracts

Author HILL Lindsay

Title Inter professional learning to prepare medical and social work students for practice with refugees and asylum seekers

Reference Social Work Education, 28(3), April 2009, pp298-308

Abstract Social workers and medical practitioners, particularly those in general practice, provide services for individuals who experience social exclusion. This paper describes the genesis and implementation of a series of innovative inter-professional workshops for medical and social work students, focusing specifically on marginalised groups.

Author BLIGHT Karin Johansson et al

Title Promoting mental health and preventing mental disorder among refugees in Western countries

Reference International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 11(1), February 2009, pp32-44

Abstract This literature review focuses on mental health promotion and mental disorder prevention among adult refugees in the European Union and other Western countries. Two areas emerge as important for further action: limitation of stressors during and after migration, and identification and treatment of past trauma. Refugee migrants are at high risk of poor mental health (including mental disorder and suicide) and social exclusion.


Title Does every child matter? Children seeking asylum in Britain

Publisher Refugee and Migrant Justice, 2009. 28p, bibliog

Abstract This report asserts that children seeking asylum in the UK today are very poorly treated. It looks at children going through the asylum system and at what happens to them if their claim is refused. Recommendations are made for fair decision-making with proper representation, more humane treatment of children, and stopping children falling through the “protection net”.

This article is published in the 8 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Social care for refugees and asylum seekers

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