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


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 languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)402-421
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2022
Externally publishedYes


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


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