Module 2Why is Refugee Resettlement of Interest to Social Work Practice?


United Nations Policy on Refugees

Although people have been displaced from homes and communities throughout history, an official definition of refugee first appeared in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees when a refugee became identified as “a person who, because of well-founded fear or persecution, finds himself outside his State of nationality, unable to obtain the protection of that State” (Ahmad, 2009, p. 2). In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and increasingly restrictive immigration laws and policies in host countries around the world, a broader definition of forced migrants was conceptualized which encompassed refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) (Bakewell, 2007). That being said, refugees are seen as having a special status for admittance to potential host countries. [See link]

Since 2015, Europe has experienced increased migration because of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations in nearby countries (Edwards, 2018). The United Nations High Committee on Refugees (UNHCR, 2018) reports that more than half of all refugees (54%) worldwide came from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.They found that asylum seekers primarily migrated to destination countries including Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan; and recent have also sought asylum in Germany, the U.S., Sweden, and the Russian Federation. Most who seek protection may not be able to return to their home country in the foreseeable future. For many, communities in these destination countries have become their new home. To become neighbors, colleagues, and friends, they need access to a variety of social services to help them integrate into those communities.​

A Human Rights Perspective​

According to the 2018 UNHCR’s Global Trends study, our world is experiencing the highest levels of forced migration ever recorded because of oppression, poverty, conflict, and violence. By the end of 2017, approximately 68.5 million people worldwide were considered “displaced” (Edwards, 2018). As a result, our world continues to face significant humanitarian challenges. Refugees’ lives are radically uprooted and they are exposed to tenuous, transitory living situations with uncertain futures. They often are in need of safe drinking water, food, clothing, money, basic housing, medical/mental health care and legal representation. Once settled, however temporarily, refugees must be able to navigate a host community’s language, laws, and culture, gain access to education and job training, plus engage in social activities. Edwards (2018) quotes one refugee as saying: “No one becomes a refugee by choice; but the rest of us can have a choice about how we help” (para. 13). [See document Global Trends—Forced Displacement in 2017]

At the same time, host communities are asked to provide these basic medical, educational, vocational, and social services to assist refugees integration into a new environment. This requires human, financial and governmental resources. Social workers must be prepared to help develop appropriate services for refugees across multiple settings and levels of social work practice to address the complex needs facing refugees as well as those living in host communities. In addition, social workers need to understand the stressors facing everyone involved. 

Social workers also often confront differing positions and world-views about immigration. Political and interpersonal tensions and conflicts in communities can be unavoidable. Social workers need to work collaboratively with other service providers to develop new strategies to implement diverse, sustainable social programs that foster mutual growth for refugees and residents of host communities alike.

Social workers can benefit from utilizing a human rights perspective grounded in the tenets of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international agreements, and the pertinent laws of destination countries to create comprehensive approaches to address the complex needs of refugees and communities. 

To better understand refugee policies and community based interventions in Germany that was the location of this study, the following paragraphs include brief summaries of policy positions on refugees from The United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and the United States (US). [See Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

United Nations Policy on Refugees


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948 (UDHR, 2006). Charter members of the UN were keenly aware of the hardships and suffering refugees could endure because of the effects of war and persecution; therefore, it was critical to include the rights of persons displaced by violence. As a part of this mandate, refugee and asylum needs are addressed in Article 14 of the UDHR as follows: 

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. (p.3)

With the added Resolution 319 A (IV) in 1949, the General Assembly at the UN established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) whose main task is to provide international protection to people fleeing persecution and conflict. [See document UN General Assembly Resolution 319 IV]

The UNHCR Geneva Convention 1951 (amended 1967)​

The UNHCR Geneva Convention explicitly addressed global refugee protection. According to its Article 1, a refugee is defined as a person who experiences:

…a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. (p.14) [See document: UNHCR 2010]

The International Organization for Migration

A critical challenge facing global communities is how to address the relocation of people forced from their communities because of climate change. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), an organization related to the UN, addressed this in 2008 by releasing its working definition of “environmental migrants”.

Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad. (Curtis, 2017, para. 8)

Because global policies addressing refugees do not address people forced from their communities because of environmental effects of global warming and destruction, designing global policies to identify and resettle environmental refugees while supporting host communities appears to be an urgent need as coastal shores disappear, food supplies are depleted because of drought and flooding, and people are unable to sustain a way of life. It will take creative and bold people, institutions and governments to find viable solutions for sustaining our planet and all those who live on it. [See link]

European Union Policies on Refugees

The Dublin Convention of 1990 produced the first Dublin Resolution as a European Union (EU) law requiring Member States adhere to certain agreed upon rules when processing refugees seeking asylum in their countries under the Geneva Convention. It has been continually updated to develop and improve common practice standards to regulate the passage of refugees and asylum seekers to assure their fair treatment within EU Member States. In 2016, members of the EU proposed to revise this agreement (Dublin IV) because of the strain host countries experience with the large influx of refugees. [See link] and also [See link]

Federal Republic of Germany Policy on Refugees

The right to asylum is a constitutional right in Germany grounded in Article 16a of the German Basic Law that grants victims of political persecution an individual right of asylum (Library of Congress, 2016). Under that law, an asylum seeker is allowed to stay in Germany if she or he is granted political asylum, refugee status, subsidiary protection, or if the agency declares a deportation prohibition. The Asylum Act and the Residence Act (AsylVfG) are the two most important immigration laws in Germany that provide rules for the admission and handling of refugee claims, and there have been several amendments to these and other laws due to the current refugee crisis (Library of Congress, 2016). [See link]

Refugees who enter the Federal Republic of Germany are transferred to a reception center and their asylum application is submitted to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) where each refugee is interviewed about her/his travel route and the reasons for leaving their country of origin (Library of Congress, 2016). Under that law, the interview is documented and translated into the refugee’s language, and then a decision on the asylum application is made based on the interview and any further investigations as needed. If the refugee application is accepted, the law specifies that the refugee may receive a temporary residence permit giving her/him the same status as Germans within the social insurance system—including social welfare payments, child benefits, child-raising benefits, integration allowances and language courses as well as other forms of integration assistance. As a rule, if refugee protection cannot be granted under that law, those whose applications have been rejected are required to leave the country. [See link]

United States Policy on Refugees

The American Immigration Council (AIC) in their overview of U.S. refugee law and policies reports that since 1968, U.S. law determining refugee status aligns with the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols relating to the Status of Refugees. They further cite the Refugee Act of 1980 passed by Congress that provides the legal basis for the current U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). They note that the President in consultation with Congress determines the number of refugees admitted each year into the U.S., and that number has been drastically reduced under the current administration. In a long process often taking up to two years, refugees are screened in Regional Refugee Coordinators and overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) with many applicants remaining in their country of origin for prolonged periods (AIC, 2018). U.S. refugee policy has been a controversial issue in recent years with obvious differences in opinion by politicians, judges and advocacy groups attempting to come to a workable process that adheres to U.S. law and humanitarian principles.[See link]




Ahmad, N. (2009). Refugees: State responsibility, country of origin and human rights. Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights & The Law,10(2), 1-22. doi:10.1163/138819010X12647506166438

American Immigration Council. (2018, September 17). An overview of U.S. refugee law and policy. Retrieved from

Bakewell, O. (2007). Researching refugees: Lessons from the past, current challenges and future directions. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 26 (3), 6-14.

Curtis, K. (2017, April 24). Climate refugees explained. UN Dispatch.Retrieved from

Edwards, A. (2018, June 19). Forced displacement at record 68.5 million. Retrieved from

Library of Congress. (2016). Refugee Law and Policy: Germany. Retrieved from

United Nations. (2019). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from

UNHCR. (2018). Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. Retrieved from

UNHCR. (2018). Global Trends: Forced displacement in 2017. Retrieved from

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