Summary: This article explores the relationship between social workers and adult Eritrean refugee service users in the context of a hostile political climate and restrictive state policies. It examines the implications of politics and policies on the formation of this relationship based on findings from a qualitative study conducted in Israel and Germany. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 38 participants – 16 Eritrean refugees and 22 social workers who work with refugees. Findings: Despite different political, social and organizational contexts, especially in the asylum policies towards Eritrean refugees, our thematic analysis yielded two main themes common to both countries: First, changing relationship structures, in particular moving away from a ‘traditional’ conceptualization of the social work relationship towards ‘informal’ practices. These included modifications of the setting, of professional boundaries and of the therapeutic language. Second, shifting power relations, characterized by a friend-like dynamic, which enabled more egalitarian relations, and a parent–child dynamic, which included increased power imbalances and dependency. Implications: An increased understanding of the role of restrictive policies, everyday racism and exclusionary political discourse in the reconstruction of the user-worker relationship dynamics could inform social work education and practice. Beyond the refugee arena, establishing informal relationship structures could help to reduce power differentials, increase trust-building and improve therapeutic outcomes with refugees and other service users. The possible risks of informal relations, such as misunderstandings or worker burnout, are also discussed.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Lior would like to thank the Minerva Fellowship for the generous support as Doctoral Fellow in 2020.
© The Author(s) 2021.
- Social work
- asylum seekers
- professional boundaries
- social exclusion
- social work practice