by Sophie Shall
During my time in both the voluntary sector and in statutory social work, I have encountered families that are vulnerable to immigration restrictions and who are suffering as a consequence. I have heard shocking stories about the treatment of migrants: from those accommodated far from their support networks and children’s schools, to a mother asked to ‘give’ her children to her abusive ex-partner.
The 1998 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child determined that ‘the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration’ of all actions concerning children in social welfare institutions. However, I have observed first-hand that immigration law is often prioritised at the expense of the child’s wellbeing. This process marks migrant children as ‘outsiders’, giving them different connotations from the innocence and vulnerability naturally attributed to children.
High workloads, bureaucracy and stress mean that on a day-to-day basis it is easy for social workers to forget the wider context within which our practice lies. Of particular significance is the way in which central government policies aimed at reducing migration have become entrenched in local authority procedures and practice.
Through this, social workers have been asked to become what Yuval-Davis calls ‘everyday bordering agents’, assisting the state in the surveillance and refusal of services to a large number of migrants, including children. Equally when a family has come into contact with social services due to concerns about the welfare of a child, children with unstable immigration status may be at more risk of harm. This is because their concerns may not be prioritised by social workers due to a sense of powerlessness when faced with the immigration system.
‘Intimidating and traumatising’
The introduction of no recourse to public funds (NRPF) teams within local authorities has changed the way that social workers interact with migrant families. Frequently these service areas include an immigration officer from the UK Border Agency who attends assessments.
This can often be intimidating and traumatising for families, partly due to their role being unclear to migrants but also because there is a collective narrative within these communities regarding being overwhelmed and mistreated by officers. This cultivates fear, particularly in families who may have already experienced significant hardship.
Being classified as ‘having no recourse’ means that people subject to immigration control have no entitlement to welfare benefits or public housing: only families who can prove that they are ‘destitute’ are able to receive state support, ensuring that they remain in a cycle of poverty.
In order to gain insight into how social workers can alter their behaviours to offer a real and responsive duty of care to migrant families, I believe that it is essential to understand the perspective of the people most impacted by immigration policies. Discussions with seven women with NRPF status who asked for local authority support suggested that, sadly, negative interactions with social workers far outnumbered positive ones.
One of the most prominent experiences was that migrants felt disbelieved and unsupported. One mother described her social worker asking her why she could not care for her family: “they made me feel… I’m not a good mother, I’m not a good person, you know?” She was so stressed by the assessment process that she broke down and ended up having to be hospitalised, with no one to care for her children.
In joining the social work profession I believed that I was going to be working to improve the lives of children and families. For me, it was devastating to learn that I can also unknowingly contribute to harming them.
Trust and honesty are described as being at the centre of relationship-based social work. However, throughout my social work training, trust was framed as a one-way process; painting service users as passive, and giving social workers a choice about whether or not to trust their narratives. I believe that this speaks to a wider issue: the unchallenged power dynamics between social workers and migrant families, which is in part because social work practice stems from government policy.
This is important when considering the way in which social workers embed hostile environment policies into their practice, and suggests that whilst there are ways to uphold genuine anti-oppressive social work values, there are wider systemic issues that need to be addressed.
Generally the migrants I spoke to suggested that they could be better helped if they were not discriminated against or judged, and felt that social workers showed them a lack of respect. I believe that this judgement comes from our implicit biases, which have been influenced by our education and the media, as well as policy.
Acknowledging such biases will ensure that we are able to see migrants primarily as people, giving us clearer understanding of the experience of the family. This includes being culturally sensitive to the way in which other people choose to live their lives and structure their families. The women I spoke with described this as having the ability to positively impact their mental health, as it places them and their families at the centre of the work, rather than giving primacy to immigration laws.
Whilst social work intervention is often individualistic, studies with migrants have pointed to family, ethnic and community groups as important sites of agency and participatory citizenship for migrant women. Working with such groups I have seen how these can support and empower families and provide them with valuable networks. I have also viewed the benefits of allowing accompaniers to attend local authority assessments with families.
As social workers, I believe that we should be choosing to show true solidarity towards migrants through signposting towards, and where possible facilitating, such compassionate environments.
Sophie is a newly qualified social worker and campaigner for migrant rights. They tweet at @_sohall_