Narratives of power and powerlessness: cultural competence in social work with asylum seekers and refugees

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With increasing international migration, social workers have not only been confronted with growing diversity, but also with the effects of displacement, trauma and immigration controls in the lives of their service users. Although the ongoing debates on migration, migrant integration and social cohesion have facilitated a growing literature on, and demand for cultural competence in social work, little progress has been made to arrive at an agreement of what exactly is required from social workers in cross-cultural encounters. This paper draws from the qualitative element of a mixed-methods study on social workers’ experiences of cross-cultural practice conducted in Glasgow, Scotland in 2016. By focusing on social workers’ experiences of accommodating and negotiating cultural differences with asylum seekers, this paper illustrates how social workers are moving beyond the cultural lens in understanding difference and disadvantage. The findings suggest that whilst culture continues to influence social workers’ encounters with service users, addressing cultural conflicts requires social workers to understand the complex power relations which asylum seekers are subject to both within and beyond the care relationship. Practice perspectives on the challenges and successes in cross-cultural social work illustrate the interplay between cultural and structural considerations involved in social work with asylum seekers.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Work
Early online date21 Nov 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Nov 2019


  • cultural competence
  • social work practice
  • asylum seekers
  • diversity
  • structural inequality


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