Social Work with Refugees and Migrants

  • Maree HigginsEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Social Work book series (SOWO)


Migration, and particularly forced migration, creates unique psychosocial vulnerabilities that bring affected individuals, families, and communities into contact with social workers and mental health systems. Longitudinal studies with migrant and refugee communities indicate that mental health often remains low years after resettlement in Western countries, particularly due to marginalization and social exclusion which layers upon experiences of trauma and loss. Conversely, unique resilience factors are also present in migrant and refugee communities, including their constructions of health and illness and community values and beliefs. Notably, the biomedical model, which is dominant in the field of mental health, tends to pathologize and medicalize distress and may denigrate or ignore diverse perspectives on health and illness. Broader economic, social, and political factors that impact so profoundly on mental health of migrants and refugees are also often ignored by service provision that is underpinned by biomedical models of care. This chapter draws upon scholarly evidence to explore these intersecting themes and then propose essential knowledge, skills, and values for mental health-focused social work. The chapter describes how social workers can integrate clinical and critical perspectives in practice and, by harnessing lived experience and cultural expertise of people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, enhance power and autonomy; restore individual, family, and community well-being; facilitate safe and effective intercultural interactions; and advance principles of social justice. It argues for a model of mental health practice that is deeply attuned to diverse constructions of health and illness, holistic, justice-oriented, and informed by expertise from below.


Refugees Migrants Mental health and illness Lived experience Risk factors Cultural shape of resilience Transforming the foreign 


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social SciencesUNSW SydneySydneyAustralia

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