Refugees

Approaches to support refugees and asylum seekers, steps in a practice approach, adapting practice to young people


This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Refugees and Asylum Seekers


Refugees arriving as permanent residents receive support when they arrive and have much greater access to services and financial support than do asylum seekers. Refugees are not subject to the punitive and excluding policies to which asylum seekers (especially those who arrived by boat) are subject. They experience basic safety in Australia. So, in broad terms, social work practice with refugees tends to focus on areas of ‘second generation’ rights (education, health etc.). The social worker works to improve the clients’ situations and access to entitlements etc. (AASW, 2020).


In working with asylum seekers, social work practice is concerned with first generation human rights (fundamental political rights) for clients, in a context where these rights are denied by the government itself. Social workers must therefore work directly against the dominant oppressive system that is represented by the government and some government departments. This is a more political and advocacy-based area of work, attempting to confront and change systems and policies (AASW, 2020).


The scope of social work practice with refugees and asylum seekers includes:

  • Strengths-based comprehensive psychosocial assessments

  • Strengths-based community assessments

  • Building empathic relationships and working with refugees and asylum seekers in an ethical, respectful, client-centred and strengths-focused manner

  • Linking of individuals and families to community networks

  • Facilitating coordination and cooperation across health, welfare and other systems to ensure good outcomes and assist client aspirations

  • Advocacy

  • Specialist culturally sensitive counselling with regard to loss and grief, torture and trauma, and in suicide prevention

  • Addressing the particular psychosocial needs of asylum seekers who typically experience long periods of uncertainty and may eventually not be deemed to be refugees (AASW, 2020).

Keegan (2018) suggests the Host Vulnerability Matrix as a way of increasing internal capabilities and managing external stressors of refugees and asylum seekers. Taking both dimensions into account at the same time can lead to a more targeted intervention and therefore a more effective outcome. People move through quadrants (commencing at 1) and, as they do, interventions change to accommodate the new situation. Keegan also warns about creating dependence—practice needs to be regularly reviewed and adjusted to prevent this.

Key Issues Facing Families


Saunders et al. (2015) suggest the key issues facing families include: the cultural differences in parenting practices and the challenges that these presented; the difficulties children experience learning to live bi-culturally, and the concerns parents have about their children living in a new country. Nearly a third of the families participating experienced multiple and complex issues such as mental and physical health problems, intellectual disability and family violence. Many families have limited English skills. Unemployment and low income are common experiences for families. Access to services and use of mainstream services could be problematic.


It is not uncommon for refugee and asylum seeker families to have an inverted hierarchy where English-speaking children hold the power over oftentimes depressed, traumatised, single mothers who have never been in charge of parenting in their home countries and have no experience of it (Keegan, 2018).


Implications for Practice


In 2010 Pe-Pua et al. conducted a comprehensive study around how to meet the needs of Australian Muslim families and produced a comprehensive 131-page report on their findings. Both Saunders, et al. (2015) and Kivunja et al. (2013) also recommend various approaches to support refugees and asylum seekers. The following material draws on these papers.


Recognise there may be major diversities between refugees, even those from the same country

  • Do not consider all members of a cultural group as homogenous. There may be different experiences for one community, one family, and one individual to the next.

  • Assume a stance of openness, humility, curiosity and wanting to know more about the client. Treat him or her as an individual rather than simply the member of a cultural group.

  • Recognise there may be countless cultural, ethnic, geographic and religious origins within refugees arriving from the same country.

Value both the refugee and wider community and community leaders

  • Build the capacity of all community leaders.

  • Focus on change at the community level. The community is often the first resource to be used when problems arise. Refugee children may be raised at the community level.

  • Link refugees with the informal wider community networks that often provide support to refugees; this will increase the social capital of refugee families through the development of informal and formal relationships.

  • Ensure refugees are linked to mainstream services as well as early settlement services; provide culturally appropriate education material for mainstream services, if necessary.

Value the family

  • Keep families together; assist with managing family conflict that may arise.

  • Take into account cultural values.

  • Assist with developing culturally appropriate parenting practices that fit with Australian culture.

  • Fast track family reunions where possible.

Faith and spirituality

  • Recognise there may be a myriad of approaches to faith within a given refugee community, depending both on official streams and denominations and on personal adherence to these creeds.

  • Gain basic knowledge about refugees faith, e.g., about the five pillars of Islam

  • Use religious and spiritual interventions effectively

Gender and social roles

  • Use culturally sensitive approaches

  • Understand how gender and social roles are defined. They may be highly defined: men may be constructed to be the head of the household, with the associated financial and decision-making responsibilities, while women may be socially constructed to appear to defer to men, and to take on more domestic and childcare responsibilities.

  • There may be a stigma to seeking social or mental health services, and therefore some women may be less likely to ask for help from agencies.

Medical issues

  • Understand health, illness and treatment in terms of the refugee culture.

  • Be aware and conscious that many refugee families experience multiple and complex issues, such as mental and physical health problems, intellectual disability and family violence.

  • There may be stigma associated with seeking medical treatment.

  • Muslims recognise the body has rights and are encouraged to seek medical treatment. They may consider illness as a divine test or opportunity to purify the soul. Mental illness is often highly stigmatised and private coping or prayer may be used for managing mental illness in preference to professional help.

Education and Employment

  • Assist with access to English language skills.

  • Assist with locating mainstream services that will assist refugees to develop appropriate skills and thereby find employment.

  • Educate refugees on mainstream Australian culture, norms, beliefs and expectations to assist them to become empowered to gain social capital in their new environment.

Working with Young People


In 2005 the Victorian Settlement Planning Committee distributed two documents aimed at supporting young refugee and asylum seekers. Both documents grouped their suggestions under three headings: Understanding, Trust and Social Justice and Access. These documents suggest young people with a refugee background be supported as follows.


Understanding: make an active attempt to learn about what is important to a young person from a refugee background, what their life experiences mean to them and what they would like to do with their life.

  • Focus on the strengths of refugee young people. Help them identify skills and abilities they have gained from their refugee experience. Help them set realistic goals.

  • Find out how decisions are made in the family/community.

  • Find out about various roles and responsibilities that a young person may have in their family. Where appropriate involve families in the development of young people’s education, career planning and pathway choices.

  • Balance the refugee young person’s need for independence with their family and cultural connections.; assist them to live bi-culturally if necessary.

  • Recognise that refugee young people have similar social, emotional, spiritual and financial needs to those of all young people.

  • Provide and promote information to refugee young people in appropriate ways and in accessible formats.

  • Identify the barriers that refugee young people experience in getting access to services and programs, develop strategies to overcome them.

Trust: build trust from a young person’s first contact with a new setting through the provision of a welcoming and safe environment.

  • Provide a familiar point of contact who can build a relationship of trust with a young person and their family in the setting.

  • Clearly explain what you can and cannot offer the refugee young person by being aware of your organisation’s boundaries and climate.

  • Be aware that refugee young people who are survivors of torture and/or trauma may need time to establish trust. The young person may fear authority figures and systems of authority.

  • Engage the refugee young person in practical activities that build trust and help to break down barriers.

  • Young people are vulnerable to racism and racial vilification, which can undermine their capacity for building a trusting relationship.

Social Justice and Access: education, training and employment settings should enable young people to achieve equitable outcomes and assist them to achieve their full potential so they can fully participate in mainstream society.

  • It is important that refugee young people receive a service in venues where they will feel secure and welcome. Ensure services are provided at convenient and appropriate locations and at suitable times (e.g., after-hours).

  • Maintain dialogue between settings to enable appropriate information sharing and monitoring of a young person’s progress.

  • Take a holistic perspective of a young person’s situation and ensure they are linked into broader service networks in order to respond to their particular needs.

  • Ensure young people have opportunities to access education and support services as necessary.

Practice Approach

The practice approach that follows has been drawn from a number of authors using the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) Scope of Social Work Practice document (2020). In 2022 the AASW, NSW Refugee Service and Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma survivors revised the earlier 2005 document to produce a guide for social workers when working with people from refugee backgrounds (AASW, NSS RHS, STARTTS, 2022). This document is available online and is included in the supplementary material below, together with a brief summary of its contents. An outline of the types of visas available to refugees from pp. 9ff would be particularly helpful to social workers in Australia. Pages 22ff have a list of skills for working with people from refugee backgrounds that may supplement or replace the material presented below.

Social work practice with refugees and asylum seekers includes the following.


1. Strengths-based community assessments

  • Recognise there may be major diversities between refugees, even those from the same country. There may be countless cultural, ethnic, geographic and religious origins within refugees arriving from the same country.

  • Build the capacity of all community leaders.

  • Focus on change at the community level. The community is often the first resource to be used when problems arise. Refugee children may be raised at the community level.

2. Strengths-based comprehensive biopsychosocial-spiritual assessments

  • Use a psychosocial assessment to gather information about the person and his or her community: family history, social relationships, health, employment, cultural/spiritual considerations, legal issues, education, economic/financial status, housing, ethical issues. This may lead to the involvement of a team of professionals to work with a family or individual.

  • Awareness of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers sourced from both Codrington and Saunders et al. (above) may guide some of the questions used as part of this biopsychosocial-spiritual assessment.

3. Building empathic relationships and working with refugees and asylum seekers in an ethical, respectful, client-centred and strengths-focused manner

  • Assume a stance of openness, humility, curiosity and wanting to know more about the client. Treat him or her as an individual rather than simply the member of a cultural group.

  • Value the family.

Keep families together; assist with managing family conflict that may arise.

Take into account cultural values.

Assist with developing culturally appropriate parenting practices that fit with Australian culture.

Fast track family reunions where possible.

  • Explore faith and spirituality

Recognise there may be a myriad of approaches to faith within a given refugee community, depending both on official streams and denominations and on personal adherence to these creeds.

Gain basic knowledge about refugees faith, e.g., about the five pillars of Islam (see above).

  • Understand how gender and social roles are defined.

4. Linking of individuals and families to community networks

  • Link refugees with the informal wider community networks that often provide support to refugees; this will increase the social capital of refugee families through the development of informal and formal relationships.

  • Ensure refugees are linked to mainstream services as well as early settlement services; provide culturally appropriate education material for mainstream services, if necessary.

  • Education and Employment

Assist with access to English language skills.

Assist with locating mainstream services that will assist refugees to develop appropriate skills and thereby find employment.

Educate refugees on mainstream Australian culture, norms, beliefs and expectations to assist them to become empowered to gain social capital in their new environment.


5. Facilitating coordination and cooperation across health, welfare and other systems to ensure good outcomes and assist client aspirations

  • Understand health, illness and treatment in terms of the refugee culture.

  • Be aware and conscious that many refugee families experience multiple and complex issues, such as mental and physical health problems, intellectual disability and family violence. Mental illness is often highly stigmatised and private coping or prayer may be used for managing mental illness in preference to professional help.

  • There may be a stigma to seeking social or mental health services, and therefore some Muslim women may be less likely to ask for help from agencies.

6. Advocacy


7. Specialist culturally sensitive counselling with regard to loss and grief, torture and trauma, and in suicide prevention

Keegan’s Host Vulnerability Matrix outlined above suggests a way of moving people along a continuum by considering their internal capabilities and external stressors. Keegan suggests two potential counselling interventions at each point of the continuum.


8. Addressing the particular psychosocial needs of asylum seekers who typically experience long periods of uncertainty and may eventually not be deemed to be refugees.


Points to Keep in Mind with Young People


Trust: build trust from a young person’s first contact with a new setting through the provision of a welcoming and safe environment.

  • Building trust will take time; provide a familiar point of contact.

  • Engage the refugee young person in practical activities that build trust and help to break down barriers.

Understanding: make an active attempt to learn about what is important to a young person from a refugee background, what their life experiences mean to them and what they would like to do with their life.

  • Recognise that refugee young people have similar social, emotional, spiritual and financial needs to those of all young people.

  • Focus on the strengths of refugee young people. Help them identify skills and abilities they have gained from their refugee experience. Help them set realistic goals.

  • Find out about various roles and responsibilities that a young person may have in their family.

  • Assist young people to live bi-culturally if necessary.

  • Identify the barriers that refugee young people experience in getting access to services and programs and develop strategies to overcome them.

Social Justice and Access: education, training and employment settings should enable young people to achieve equitable outcomes and assist them to achieve their full potential so they can fully participate in mainstream society.

  • Ensure young people have opportunities to access education and support services as necessary.

  • Ensure services are provided at convenient and appropriate locations and at suitable times (e.g., after-hours).

  • Take a holistic perspective of a young person’s situation and ensure they are linked into broader service networks in order to respond to their particular needs.

Supporting Material

(available on request)


Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). (2020). Scope of social work practice: Refugees and people seeking asylum. Retrieved from https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/8529


AASW, NSW RHS, STARTTS. (2022). Working with people from refugee backgrounds: A guide for Social Workers (2nd ed.). Sydney: Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), NSW Refugee Health Service (NSW RHS), & Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). https://www.startts.org.au/media/Working-with-people-from-refugee-backgrounds-A-guide-for-social-workers-2nd-Edition_2022.pdf


pp. 9ff outline the types of visas available to refugees: refugee and humanitarian program, temporary protection and bridging visas. This is followed by implications for social workers that suggests taking time to understand the client’s visa status will help the social worker to:

  • understand the refugee’s needs and anxieties, for example if your client is an asylum seeker, you can anticipate that they may have considerable anxiety and stress as they go through the refugee determination process. They may be afraid of being sent back, unable to set medium to long-term goals and lack of access to family reunion. This has been identified as a suicide risk factor. Similarly, Women at Risk entrants and those who came under the Emergency Rescue Program are likely to be especially vulnerable and have complex needs;

  • determine their eligibility for services. For example, asylum seekers and refugees have access to different services based on their specific visa status.

pp.14ff examines the impact of the refugee experience on refugees and the consequences / implications for settlement


pp. 19ff examine strategies that social workers can use to assist in recovery from trauma.


pp. 22ff: Skills for working with people from refugee backgrounds

  1. Adopt a cultural safety approach: learn about clients’ cultures and examine how personal values of the social worker may interfere with clients and the services offered. Reduce the power in the relationship. This involves abandoning the ‘expert’ position, being willing to listen and learn from clients, engaging with community leaders, seeing clients’ strengths, using interpreters, and other things mentioned in the document.

  2. Use a trauma-informed approach

  3. Ensure confidentiality

  4. Adopt a cross-cultural communication approach

  5. Work appropriately with interpreters

  6. Use telehealth and other virtual service delivery if necessary

  7. Make effective referrals

  8. Keep up to date with current world events that may impact on refugees

  9. Look to engage in and support community development opportunities when possible

  10. Organise and facilitate groups if necessary

  11. Respond to DFV where necessary

  12. Advocate for individuals as necessary

pp 31ff discusses the client helper dynamic and the importance of boundaries.


pp 34ff discuss working with specific refugee populations:

  • refugee communities

  • women from refugee backgrounds

  • men from refugee backgrounds

  • families from refugee backgrounds

  • children from refugee backgrounds

  • older people from refugee backgrounds

  • people seeking asylum in the community

  • people from refugee backgrounds with diverse genders, sexualities and bodies

  • people from refugee backgrounds with a disability

pp 48ff discusses working with people from refugee backgrounds in different settings:

  • settlement services

  • community health

  • hospital

  • incarceration / detention

  • child protection

  • mental health

  • regional and rural areas

  • legal service

  • working with your own community and maintaining boundaries

  • education

pp 62ff has additional resources that may be useful


Codrington, R., Iqbal, A., & Segal, J. (2011). Lost in transition? Embracing the challenges of working with families from a refugee background. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 32(2), 129-143.


Keegan, D. (2018). Towards self-reliance: A model for assessing and responding to sustained vulnerability. Social Work Focus, 3(4), 22-23


Kivunja, C., Kuyini, A. B., & Maxwell, T. (2013). Settlement experiences of African refugees: A case study of the Armidale, Tamworth and Coffs Harbour Regions of New South Wales, Australia. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 0(0), 1-16.


Pe-Pua, R., Gendera, S., Katz, I., & O’Connor, A. (2010). Meeting the needs of Australian Muslim families: Exploring marginalisation, family issues, and ‘best practice’ in service provision. University of NSW, Kensington: Social Policy Research Centre. Retrieved from https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2010-12/apo-nid23469.pdf


Saunders, V., Roche, S., McArthur, M., Arney, F., & Ziaian, T. (2015). Refugee communities intercultural dialogue: Building relationships, building communities. Retrieved from http://www.acu.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/1119195/Refugee_Communities_Intercultural_Dialogues_Building_Relationships_Building_Communities_Report.pdf


Tomasi, A-M., Slewa-Younan, S., Narchal, R. & Rioseco, P. (2022). Understanding the mental health and help-seeking behaviours of refugees.Australian Institute of Family Studies: Short article, July 2022.https://aifs.gov.au/resources/short-articles/understanding-mental-health-and-help-seeking-behaviours-refugees


Victorian Settlement Planning Committee. (2005). Good practice principles: Guide for working with refugee young people. Retrieved from https://immi.homeaffairs.gov.au/settlement-services-subsite/files/good-practice-principles-guide-for-working-with-refugee-young-people.pdf


Victorian Settlement Planning Committee. (2005). Building pathways: A framework to support transitions for young people from refugee backgrounds. Retrieved from https://immi.homeaffairs.gov.au/settlement-services-subsite/files/building_pathways_framework.pdf