Social workers and refugee service users (re)constructing their relationships in a hostile political climate

Lior Birger*, Yochay Nadan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)402-421
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • Social work
  • asylum seekers
  • professional boundaries
  • refugees
  • social exclusion
  • social work practice


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