Social work and conflict zones – how the profession can help

World Social Work Day takes place each year to raise awareness of the profession’s impact, and the hard work and diligence of those within it.  

As well as being World Social Work Day, 15 March 2022 also marks the twentieth day since Russia invaded Ukraine. Social work as profession is strongly rooted in promoting human rights and social justice, dealing with traumatised individuals and communities, and families in need. 

The significant impact of the war on the global and regional economy will in turn contribute to increasing levels of poverty, which is going to impact the most vulnerable in our society – and social workers will play a huge part in helping those affected.

Intensity and volume of work

It’s been reported that nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion started – but this number will only rise. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) estimates that as many as 10 million people may need professional support to rebuild their lives. People who sought refuge in other countries are physically safe but emotionally and psychologically they may not feel safe for months or years to come due to the trauma and loss they have experienced. They have left everything behind – in many cases, loved ones included. We should not underestimate the amount of work that we as a profession will need to do to help people deal with the trauma and ultimately rebuild their lives.

Dealing with varied and complex needs

Social workers often manage and facilitate support plans and work alongside schools, housing and health services. They also advocate for families and individuals to ensure that they have access to resources, and make sure that unaccompanied children and young people are safe and looked after. Working with whole family systems with consideration of each individual’s needs, work could be very intense and complex. It will be vital for professionals to have understanding of trauma informed practice.

Every new wave of refugees is likely to carry with it more traumatic experiences. Refugees often spend days travelling to a border under huge stress, with some concerned about whether they will be able to cross a border easily, especially if they don’t hold a European passport. All services need to be mindful of the issues that individuals will have.

Providing immediate and long-term support

While we might think that escaping a war zone would bring a feeling of relief, social workers and all other associated professionals will have to be aware of trauma responses. Typically, when refugees arrive, they are physically and emotionally exhausted, and they could be disorientated or appear hostile. It is not unusual that they behave in what appears to be an erratic way. They may not want to talk to anyone and prefer to isolate. Some of the behaviours may be misinterpreted as a lack of gratitude or aggression, when in fact these are trauma reactions. They are in an unfamiliar environment, concerned about welfare of those left behind, or those they may have become separated from. Sources of practical and emotional support that they have relied on for years in times of crisis are accessible no more. And this is likely to be the most significant crisis they have experienced to date.

Displacement as a result of war and its related consequences is life-changing. Immediate support often involves ensuring that refugees have shelter, food and clothes, and some will need medical attention. But there is an ongoing need for psychological support and legal advice too, and others will have pre-existing additional needs that need addressing. In addition, parents will be under huge stress and may struggle to help their children without additional support. Trauma-informed parenting skills may need to be considered, and something that social workers can help to implement.

We might think that the hardest work will need to take place straight away, but supporting people long term will be just as challenging, and equally as important.

Self-care and support for social workers

Social workers often stay involved to co-ordinate long term support plans to help refugees to settle and integrate. They provide direct support to victims and their families as well as working in partnership with colleagues from other services. But social workers also need support themselves to be able to work in such extreme circumstances. Social workers walk with people through processes which are very traumatic and upsetting, and the intensity and volume of work could be overwhelming. Therefore, it is important that they develop good self-care skills and are well supported within their organisations. This is something we strongly promote among our students and graduates, and what we advocate for in anyone considering a career in social work too.

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Want to make a rewarding and positive contribution to society? 

Social workers support children and families through child protection procedures, fostering and adoption and youth justice to name but a few. They also support adults with issues including disability, drug and alcohol dependency, mental health, homelessness and safeguarding. You'll spend over 170 days on real-life placements with adults and children, so you’ll graduate ready to start your professional career.

Study BA (Hons) Social Work