by Michele Kelly, Ph.D., LCSW
Interest in international practice among social workers has been growing in recent decades. According to McLaughlin (2012), paid international humanitarian jobs are highly competitive. Furthermore, it is difficult to get an international job unless one has years of international, as well as domestic, social work experience (McLaughlin, 2012). With this Catch-22, how does one get the international experience that is required for the international job? And, the domestic social work experience? It might surprise social workers interested in international practice that there are opportunities to obtain experience in both international and domestic social work without ever leaving the United States. These opportunities can be found in work with refugees at one of the many refugee resettlement programs scattered throughout the United States.
Refugees are a special group of migrants. The term is noted in the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which established the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, 1951).
Lee’s (1966) classical theory of international migration is referred to as the push-pull theory. It posits that people migrate in response to “push” factors in the country of origin and/or “pull” factors in the country of destination. Push factors are generally negative, such as poor economic conditions, lack of opportunity, discrimination, political oppression, and war (Congress, 2009; Potocky-Tripodi, 2002). Refugees are viewed as being “pushed” out of their countries by oppression and war.
Currently, there are approximately 12 million refugees worldwide. Most recent refugees have been from Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia Herzegovina, Liberia, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Angola, and Sierra Leone.
The UNHCR has three “durable solutions” for refugees. One solution is for the refugee to voluntarily return to his or her country of origin. The vast majority of refugees prefer to return to their home country when conditions there allow. Another solution is for the refugee to integrate into the host country where he or she has sought initial protection. Some refugees cannot go home or are unwilling to do so because they will face continued persecution. Then, the UNHCR will help resettle refugees in a third country as the only safe and viable durable solution.
There are 10 traditional countries of resettlement: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. The United States is the world’s largest country of resettlement. It routinely accepts more refugees for resettlement than all the other countries combined.
The UNHCR works with the United States government to identify those refugees most urgently in need of resettlement. The Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) oversees The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program through U.S. embassies worldwide. The State Department determines refugee admission levels and develops application criteria. Applicants for refugee admission to the U.S. must meet the following four criteria:
- meet the definition of a refugee as determined by U.S. government officials;
- be among those refugees determined by the President to be of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.;
- be otherwise admissible under U.S. law; and
- not be firmly resettled in any foreign country.
The State Department then presents eligible cases for adjudication by officers of the Department of Homeland Security United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (DHS/USCIS). DHS/USCIS officers travel to the country of asylum to interview refugees who fall within the priorities established for the relevant nationality or world region. The DHS/USCIS officers then interview potential applicants to determine whether or not they are refugees as defined under U.S. law.
Refugees are then selected by the United States government officials. Upon completion of security and medical screenings, the DHS/USCIS officer may approve the refugee’s application for resettlement. Upon approval, arrangements are made for the refugee’s referral to and placement with a U.S. voluntary agency.
The Role of Volags
These voluntary agencies or “volags,” are non-governmental organizations that are mostly religious or community-based organizations and see the care of resettling refugees as part of their core mandate. The most active volags are the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), International Rescue Committee (IRC), World Relief, Immigration and Refugee Services of America (IRSA), Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and Church World Service (CWS). In addition, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Service of the Episcopal Church of the USA and the Ethiopian Community Development Center (ECDC) are also active.
The volags are expected to provide the following services to the refugees approved for resettlement: sponsorship; pre-arrival resettlement planning; reception upon arrival; basic needs support for at least 30 days, including housing, furnishings, food, clothing, and community orientation; English language classes; and case management with referrals to social service providers, including health care providers and employment counselors.
Stages of Migration
The process of migration consists of three major stages. These stages are: premigration and departure, transit, and resettlement. The premigration and departure stage involves the decision-making process of who leaves and who is left behind. This stage entails many losses with numerous separations from family and friends. Furthermore, refugees do not know when, if ever, they will be able to return to their countries. Thus, leaving behind family and friends is particularly painful, as they know they may never see them again.
Refugees often leave under hurried, chaotic, and dangerous conditions. In many cases, refugees flee in the midst of armed conflict. They may witness or be victims of violence during this time. In some cases, refugees leave in mass movements. Because refugees flee under chaotic conditions, they usually must leave all of their possessions behind.
The Kosovar refugees with whom I worked described soldiers knocking on the door and orders to leave their home immediately or face death. Most left leaving all of their possessions behind, including their identity papers.
The transit stage involves the journey—safe or perilous, short or long in duration. Many Vietnamese “boat people” with whom I worked told of perilous journeys through shark-infested and pirate-controlled waters of Southeast Asia. Many told of losing family members in the ocean. This stage may also involve a stay in a refugee camp or detention center of short or long duration. Many of these “boat people” ended up in refugee camps in Hong Kong and various countries in Southeast Asia. Then, the refugees had to wait for a foreign country’s decision regarding their final relocation. Many Vietnamese refugees waited years before they were able to relocate to a third country, such as the United States.
The resettlement stage is the stage during which a social worker in the U.S. will encounter and work with refugees. Some of the tasks that a social worker will need to attend to are reception upon arrival, basic needs support for at least 30 days, and case management with referrals to various social service providers. There are many cultural and emotional issues that need to be addressed, as well. Such issues include the discrepancy between expectations and reality; opportunities available; stress and the migration process; adaptation to the cultural norms of the new country; health and mental health issues; language, education, and employment issues; changing family dynamics; and finally, the relations between newcomers and established residents.
Although I was acquainted with several Lost Boys of the Sudan and was told of the limited educational opportunities available to them in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, I was impressed with how seriously they took the educational opportunities available to them once they resettled in the U.S. and how they struggled while both working and attempting to meet their educational goals. Many succeeded. Several became physicians, nurses, and social workers.
It is easy to underestimate the difficulties that refugees face in resettlement and adaptation. Almost all face what one Vietnamese scholar called the “seven main agonies” (Congress, 2009) of resettlement: culture shock; a language barrier; collapse of their support systems, including family; loss of status, loneliness, and cultural disorientation; lifestyle differences and value differences; unemployment or underemployment; and often, resulting emotional and mental health problems.
Social workers encountering refugees during resettlement or in the years following the official resettlement period will need to assist them in coping with these multiple cultural and emotional challenges, as well as their needs for help with housing, job searching, and other basics (Healey, 2008).
Opportunities are available in the United States at the many refugee resettlement programs scattered throughout the country. After several years of working with refugees, one can gain the experience that will well position oneself for international humanitarian work—and all without leaving home.
Congress, E. (2009). Introduction: Legal and social work issues with immigrants. In F. Chang-Muy & E. P. Congress (Eds.), Social work with immigrants and refugees: Legal issues, clinical skills, and advocacy (pp. 3-37). New York: Springer.
Healy, L. (2008). International social work: Professional action in an interdependent world. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lee, E. S. (1966). A theory of migration. Demography, 3, 47-57.
McLaughlin, A. (2012). How to snag a job in international social work [Electronic version]. The New Social Worker Online.
Potocky-Tripodi, M. (2002). Best practices for social workers with refugees and immigrants. New York: Columbia University Press.
UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3be01b964.html [accessed 13 July 2013].
Michele Kelly, Ph.D., LCSW, is an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, Department of Social Work, where she teaches policy and macro social work. She spent several years working with refugees in a Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program.