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The Migrant Crisis: Rediscovering the Politics of Hope

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More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 alone. This has been the largest movement of people fleeing persecution in modern European history. The political and humanitarian crisis we have been witnessing is fuelled by conflicts in Northern and Eastern Africa, in the Middle East and Central Asia. The constant flow of images of destruction, death and devastation from regions affected by conflict can only serve as a reminder of the horrors of colonial and sectarian politics. European governments have been historically involved, one way or another, in all those conflicts. Unashamedly, they still do. Let’s not forget that what is described at the moment as the removal process of ‘vicious and evil regimes’ in most cases refers to regimes selected, installed and supported by western countries.

The response to the migrant crisis has exposed a fascinating discrepancy between European governments and European societies. In 2015 alone, 3,406 men, women and children instead of finding a safe haven in Europe, died brutally in their effort to reach the continent. This was mainly due to the stubborn and unprincipled decision of European Governments to turn Europe into a Fortress of cruelty and intolerance, refusing to ensure safe passage to asylum seekers. Instead of providing a safe land passage, a number of walls and barriers were erected. Ironically, this happened almost a quarter of century after the fall of the berlin wall, when the people of Europe emphatically pronounced a ‘walls no more’ commitment.

Nevertheless, over the last couple of years we have witnessed a plethora of grassroots responses showing that an alternative Europe already exists. Among others, these were expressed through the spontaneous acts of Greek islanders who despite the economic crisis provided unconditional support to those reaching Greek shores. It was reflected in the way German and Austrian societies warmly welcomed refugees. It was crystalized in the way British and French activists challenged the brutality of their governments that had led to the creation of the Calais ‘jungle’. An alternative Europe of humanity and social justice has been shaped through the small acts of millions of Europeans who refused to accept bigotry, coercion and xenophobia as ‘European values’.

In several cases, social workers supported those movements through their direct work with refugees, awareness raising activities, and solidarity events. SWAN, EASSW and IFSW were instrumental in facilitating and coordinating solidarity activities. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the power of numerous spontaneous and grassroots activities organized by social workers across Europe, outside the radar of established social work organisations. As the EU seems determined to ‘outsource’ the refugee crisis and divert it to non-European countries, in 2016 social workers will need to achieve a far better level of co-ordination and actively work with social movements.

Of course social work’s involvement in supporting refugees, even under the most extreme of circumstances, is not new. Our profession has a very proud history of supporting refugees and extending genuine solidarity with those fleeing war and persecution. Numerous stories of sacrifice are a testament to this fact. To mention but a few, between 1940 and 1943 Irena Sendler, Polish-Jewish social worker saved nearly 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto through the creation of underground networks.

Also, African American social worker, Thyra Edwards, who strongly believed at the universal nature of the struggle against all oppressions, left the US in 1936 and travelled to Barcelona in order to support displaced children through dedicated work at the Rosa Luxembourg Children Colony. She also helped the evacuation of children from Francoist Spain, often through clandestine networks. Janusz Korczak, educator and orphanage director, demonstrated that the true meaning of pedagogy is supporting and empowering the most oppressed people in society when he refused freedom and stayed with Jewish orphans as they were was sent from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp. He stayed with the children and he died with them in the Nazi gas chambers.

Today, Social workers find themselves in a unique position in society, as they are usually among the first to witness the catastrophic consequences of marketization and austerity. They work at the sharp edge of society, at the point where government policies on the most vulnerable people in society come into direct effect. Day in, day out they see how poverty and inequality crush people’s lives and aspirations. They know all too well that poverty and unemployment have never been the result of ‘feeble’, lazy or immoral individuals. On the contrary they recognize that millions of people across Europe have been stripped of the opportunities to well being and happiness on the basis of where and by whom were they born.

In these extraordinary times, social work educators and practitioners, once again are expected to be in the frontline of the academic, political and social struggle for the defence of human rights and social justice. The mobilization of international and national social work organisations has been both crucial and necessary.

Vasilios Ioakimidis is the Programme Leader for the MA International Social Work and Community Development. He has a background in social and community work (qualified and registered social worker). He completed his PhD at the University of Liverpool and has previously worked as a lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and the University of Nicosia, Cyprus. He is also a Visiting Scholar at Zuyd University of Maastricht.

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How Social Services Across Europe are Supporting the Integration of Unaccompanied Children

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Photo Credit: @AP

The European Social Network (ESN), in co-operation with its Swedish member, the National Board of Health and Welfare, organises the seminar ‘Migrant children and young people – Social inclusion and transition to adulthood’, in Stockholm on 23-24 October to address challenges in integrating unaccompanied children and young people in communities across Europe.

According to Eurostat figures, in 2015 and 2016 over 2.3 million asylum seekers arrived in the EU. It is expected that about 1.3 million of those will be granted refugee status.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 25.9% of migrants entering Europe are children, of whom 34% are unaccompanied.

The challenge is huge for local social services, most of them squeezed from years of austerity policies. The European Social Network, which monitors social services across Europe, has been working on the issue of unaccompanied children for several years to support the role of local and regional social services in ensuring the successful integration these vulnerable children in our societies.

With more than 130 participants from 18 countries already signed up, the seminar ‘Migrant children and young people – Social inclusion and transition to adulthood’ promises to be a unique opportunity to share insights on migrant children and young people’s inclusion in local communities and their transition to adulthood across Europe.

The registration is open to any individuals and organisations with an interest and expertise on the topic.

Also, the European Social Network is interested in hearing from people with direct experience of migration themselves and will fund the participation and accommodation of members of organisations representing unaccompanied children in care, young migrants or migrant families.

The programme

Based on a questionnaire that was conducted earlier in 2017, ESN collected data and examples of how local public social services are supporting the inclusion and transition to adulthood of unaccompanied children and migrant young people across European countries.

On top of local practices, several international organisations will take us through the policy instruments that have been developed so far to support unaccompanied children and migrant young people. International organisations confirmed so far are the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the OECD, the WHO and UNICEF.

The Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, as well as other representatives of national authorities, local authorities, NGOs and the media, will also be part of the debate. More information on the programme, the speakers and how to register can be found on this page, or do not hesitate to contact Valentina Guerra, ESN Policy Officer.

ESN and its work on unaccompanied children

The European Social Network (ESN) brings together people who plan, manage and deliver local public social services, together with those in regulatory and research organisations. It supports the development of effective social policy and social care practice through the exchange and transfer of knowledge and experience.

ESN has been working on unaccompanied children and young people since 2005, when a first report was published on the theme of the social inclusion of young asylum seekers and immigrants. Some of the issues highlighted in the report are still of relevance today, and even more so given the exceptional number of unaccompanied children and young people reaching EU countries since 2015.

Therefore, ESN published a second report in 2016 analysing the impact of the refugee crisis on local public social services in Europe and addressed the support for unaccompanied children at the launch of our publication “Investing in children’s services: improving outcomes”.

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Grenfell Tower: Three Months On

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If you aren’t still angry about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, you probably haven’t been listening. For (perhaps international) readers who have not yet heard this story – the story of an inferno in a London tower block. The story of a hellish injustice, and it both starts and ends with inequality.

The fire at Grenfell broke out back in June 2017. The nation’s horror was bright, the smoke still choking our words, and the broken building breaking our hearts. And yet, in the wake of Grenfell’s black ashes, the nation’s indignation has been sparked by other tragedies. However, Grenfell has not been forgotten.

Allow us to go from the beginning.

The affluent borough of Kensington, West London, is known for hosting numerous high-end eateries and shops, alongside the famous Royal Albert Hall. On average a person will pay a cool £2m for a house here – which suits those who earn the area’s mean salary of nearly £123k, but perhaps not those who earn the median (which is about a quarter of that). Kensington and Chelsea reportedly the most unequal borough in the country.

Grenfell Tower is – was – a block of 129 flats. Within it lived young artists, working adults, older adults (some with dementia), people with disabilities, schoolchildren. It housed the whole colourful spectrum of life, from infancy through to retirement. Read about the residents. Learn their names; learn their stories. The Grenfell Action Group, established in 2010 to defend “the rights of the residents of Lancaster West Estate”, repeatedly warned that the building in which these people lived was unsafe.

The Grenfell Action Group did the best they could – created a community collective, campaigned, gathered evidence and shared stories. Nobody listened. The tower, built in the 1970s, received a “refurbishment” in 2014.  Cheap combustible cladding was used to cover the outside of the building – largely reported as a way to improve the appearance of the tower, for wealthier local residents. Their home was airbrushed with death.

Leaked documents suggest that the cladding was deliberately downgraded (from fireproof to combustible) to save £300,000, at a time when the council was actually in surplus of around £2.74 million. They had also recently given the rich (who payed full council tax) a £100 tax rebate in their “overachieving efficiency drive”.  The cladding material is banned in continental Europe and the United States – in late June, Chancellor Philip Hammond suggested it may even be banned in the UK.

The Grenfell Action Group tried, again and again, to bring fire risks to the attention of those with the power to spare their lives. That particular post ends with chilling prophecy: “ONE THING IS CERTAIN – THEY CAN’T SAY THEY HAVEN’T BEEN WARNED.“A fire risk assessment back from 2012 noted a range of out-of-date fire safety checks. The cladding was unsafe. Rubbish and waste blocked fire exits.  Reports to the government dating back to 2000 suggested that non-combustible external cladding should not be used on buildings. It’s all there.

The fire started in a flat on the 4th floor, apparently due to a malfunctioning refrigerator, around midnight on the 14th June. Approaching 1 AM, the first call to firefighers came in. Eventually, around 40 fire engines with around 200 firefighters were tackling the blaze. Despite their best efforts, it was not enough. Of course, the cladding was not responsible for the onset of the fire. However, it accelerated the blaze phenomenally. It wasn’t until 5pm the next day that firefighters reached the top floor.

However, it cannot be understated how much the power of the Grenfell community shone through – from offering shelter, food and taxi rides, to supporting grieving and traumatised individuals, to helping each other escape from the tower itself. Humanity was not lost from the side of the residents and locals. It wasn’t lost from the rest of the public. The Grenfell community was always there. It was never a blight. It was home.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, initially suggested it would take three weeks for survivors to be found a new “home”. Later, this was recast as a promise offers that everyone would have offers of housing. As of 1st August 2017, only 45 “offers of accommodation” were made, with 12 families being rehoused. Some survivors ended up searching for private accommodation such as one man because his wife couldn’t leave the hospital until they had a home to go to. Others are now currently “bidding” for council housing.

As of the end of August, Freedom of Information requests have suggested that £4.2 million was spent by the council on hotels for survivors. And that’s not the only money in questionable status. Around this time, over half of the funds raised by charities after the fire were “available” for distribution. However, just over two-fifths of the money raised by charities to support survivors of the fire has actually reached the intended recipients. There was over a £16 million shortfall as of early August, but there have been some improvements since then.

The Metropolitan police have confirmed that the Grenfell Tower “tragedy” amounts to corporate manslaughter. Note how the “tragedy” is referred to as an “incident” or “disaster”, because heaven forbid we actually mention the people who created this situation.

Sir Moore-Bick, Judge presiding over the inquiry into the fire has suggested that his work will not give survivors the justice they deserve. The scope of the inquiry is only allowed to ask questions about the fire, but not the context of how flammable cladding was purchased for prettiness).  Residents have not been consulted on the inquiry, and the  – despite promises from the Prime Minister that they would be. So what now? How do we help?

We have the charity football match Game4Grenfell, the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” charity single with various celebrities and other public characters offering their support, condolences, and sympathies. We have empathetic stories about the futures missed, the A-levels passed, the art displays. We also have first-person accounts bluntly calling out what amounts to a context social cleansing which created this tragedy.

“I want to urge everyone in the media with the power to do it to give the individuals who work with and for you the space to do something, anything, in the wider community we communicate with.” – Journalist John Snow

What you are reading, then, is an article trying to harness media power. Firstly, it’s an article trying to prevent Grenfell’s ashes fading away in the wake of other, more recent tragedies and governmental abuses. Secondly, it’s an article to say: charity intervention is still not going to change the underlying causes.

When we do our post-mortem, we can’t just think about the specifics of the blaze. We need to include the socio-cultural fuel: poverty, inequality, contempt for the poor, an ignorance of people’s lived experiences. For example, the Grenfell Action Group documented first-hand what was going on, yet their stories which still has fewer views that mainstream second-hand sources.

Do we live in a country where tax rebates are paid for in blood money? Do we live in a country where we unashamedly let empty, million-quid houses lounge comfortably next to our crowded, deathtrap towers? Do we live in a country which still has nearly 230 other high-rise buildings at risk due to cladding?

Are you angry now?

Follow Grenfell Media Watch online, write to your MP, keep tabs on what the people in power are doing. Keep asking where the charity money has gone. Stop demonsing the poor, and/or immigrants, and/or people on benefits. Accept that, through no fault of their own, whole swathes of our society need a bit of a leg-up. If you hear other people doing the demonising, call them out. Read people’s own stories, in their own words, and believe them. Amplify the voices of people who are perfectly able to speak for themselves.

Grenfell is cold, but our hearts aren’t. Let us show more solidarity and support than just our sympathy and disbelief. Let’s continue to stand alongside each other.

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Britain: We Need to Talk About the Benefits System

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Whether we want to admit it or not, the benefits system is hurting people. It’s killing people, and something has to be done.

Examples of how the benefits system can kill include incidences of people starving to death in their own homes to the 600 benefits-related suicides that have been reported so far (and this is a conservative estimate). The suicides and other deaths related to benefits have been reported again and again.  Reportedly, over 200,000 have been physically attacked as a result of claiming benefits, and, although it is not easy to unpick the reasons for this, approaching two and a half thousand people have died after being deemed ‘fit to work’.

A 2016 conference, Psychologists and the Benefits System: Time to Get Off the Fence was dedicated to just this topic. The British Psychological Society is also one of five official therapy/mental health organisations which have signed a statement opposing welfare sanctions due to the lack of evidence that they work, and the potential for harm.

After all, mental health has always been a social and political endeavor. If mental health professionals stay silent about our deadly benefits system, so deadly that the UK has been investigated by the United Nations for grave and systematic violations of human rights, are they not siding with the status quo?

A report from Cradle2Grave, a campaign against the abuse of human rights of people who rely on the state for financial help, highlight the shocking number of suicides which have been linked to welfare cuts.

In more than one case, it was the coroner themselves who suggested that the main cause of death was worry about benefits. A 2015 report from mental health charity MIND found that, as a result of the benefits system, job centre, and “help to work schemes”, around eight out of ten people:

  • Felt less able to work (76%)
  • Required more support from mental health services/GP as a result (86%)
  • Had worse self-esteem (83%)
  • Had worse confidence (82%)

And nearly a quarter of people were hospitalised or sectioned (i.e. legally detained) for mental health crises whilst on such schemes.

If this is the case, why is the rhetoric (and indeed, “commonsense”) view of people on benefits so at odds with reality?

One theory suggests that ordinary, compassionate people are able to stigmatise others because they feel that stigmatisation is justified (Crandall, 2003). British media has long been complicit in creating a culture whereby it is easy to stigmatise people on benefits, which creates fertile soil for this kind of thinking.

Stigmatising other people can be justified in two main ways. The first way is through the acceptance of a natural social hierarchy. The idea of a natural hierarchy is based on evolutionary theories, and is known as Social Darwinism – some people are intrinsically ‘workshy’, maybe worklessness runs in families (spoiler: it doesn’t), and so on. This image of the ‘benefits brood’ is designed to create a culture where an anti-welfare stance is the commonsense, rational way of seeing the world.

Secondly, stigma can be justified by suggesting someone is to blame for their own circumstances. This can include believing that the world is fundamentally just (i.e. people get what they deserve), and victim-blaming (poor people are lazy, make bad decisions and can’t plan properly, have too many children, spend frivolously, and are a burden on society). All of these stereotypes play out in empirical research into the matter.

Societal stigma can also lead to people who are on benefits repeating the same debunked myths about benefits, in order to distance themselves from the stereotype (i.e. “I’m a real/good/proper claimant”). This means that from all angles, this dangerous welfare narrative is being played out.

Better information and awareness may be one way to dispel these harmful stereotypes (necessary, perhaps, but unlikely to be sufficient). For example, people usually that ‘benefits’ means out-of-work, disability or child benefits. Newspaper stories reinforce this image. So do TV programmes such as On Benefits, Benefits Street, Benefits: The Millionaire Shoplifter, Skint, Dogs on the Dole, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, Undercover Benefits Cheat, Myleene Klass: Single Mums on Benefits and Benefits: Too Fat to Work  (yes, they are all real programmes). As such, government welfare figures can be easily misconstrued and used to political advantage.

Contrary to the popular image, benefits as an umbrella term include fuel payments, cold weather payments, carer’s allowances, bereavement benefits, over-75 TV licenses, Income Support and more. Notably, the bulk of Income Support being towards lone parents and carers, and less than 10% of Income Support is made up of incapacity benefits. Benefits are mostly spent on pensions (approaching half of the welfare budget, at 42%), whereas unemployment benefits account for 1% of welfare expenditure.

There is an entrenched public understanding that the benefits system is riddled with fraud. The public believes that 24% of benefits claiming is done so fraudulently. Interestingly, ‘benefit fraud’ is only used as a term for people claiming benefits. When companies assessing fitness to work make fraudulent claims that someone is fit to work in one in five assessments, or three out of four assessments for people with mental health problems (these are researched facts), we do not call this ‘benefit fraud’.

So, given ‘fraud’ as a term applied solely to the individual claimant, data suggests that there is no widespread issue with fraud in the benefits system. According to the government’s own statistics, benefit fraud by claimants is 0.7% of total benefits expenditure (£1.2bn). The public belief that around a quarter of benefits claims are fraudulent is, therefore, a 3329% overestimation. Benefits-related administrative errors, to give some perspective, take up double the amount of money spent on claimant fraud. The figures for tax evasion and avoidance can also be used for comparison here: the cost of the ‘tax gap’ in the UK reaches £122bn per year (over 10,000% the cost of fraudulent benefits claims).

Another myth is that benefits are ‘too generous’. In 2013, a study from the University of Edinburgh found that there is no link between the wellbeing of people without paid employment and the amount of money they get in benefits. Additionally, it is not the first study to reach this finding (see Veenhoven, 2000). In fact, cultural factors such as perceptions of people on benefits (i.e. stigma) have a much bigger impact.

Rather than being ‘too generous’, for years now multiple organisations have been stating that benefits cuts are causing material harm, especially to the most vulnerable of society. This includes housing charity Shelter, disability charity SCOPE, domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, child abuse charity NSPCC, a whole host of mental health organisations, and anti-austerity organisations such as UK Uncut, Sisters Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts, Black Triangle, and Psychologists Against Austerity (now Psychologists for Social Change) to name but a few.

These ideas – the poor are deserving, benefits claimants are fraudulent and the whole system is a drain on society, the benefits system is too kind and generous, most of our welfare system is spent on people too lazy to work, have to to be quashed. People’s health and mental health is suffering. People’s lives are being destroyed. People are dying. People are killing themselves.

Is this the kind of world we can live in, with good conscience?

We do not have to accept things the way that they are. We can join or support the organisations mentioned above. We can join in talks, discussions, marches, and events (or publicise these events when we can’t go to them ourselves).

We can write to our MP’s, sign petitions, talk to our friends and family, support films such as the recent I, Daniel Blake, avoid reality TV demonising people on benefits, call out the false narratives when we hear them. We can be aware of the facts (and ideally, share the facts!) to reduce stigma. We can offer a helping hand, we can be aware of the impact of losing benefits and try to offer a listening ear to someone who feels like a drain on society. We can look after each other.

Perhaps is it is not just psychologists who need to ‘get off the fence’. We all do, for humanity’s sake.

References

Crandall, C. S. (2003). Ideology and lay theories of stigma: The justification of stigmatization. In Heatherton,T. F., Kleck, R. E., Hebl, M. R. & Hull, J. G. (eds.) The social psychology of stigma (pp. 126-150). New York,NY: Guildford Press.

 

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