Asylum Seekers and Social Work Practice

Asylum seekers are in a vulnerable position while awaiting a ruling on their petitions for protected refugee status in the United States. Because asylum seekers are considered undocumented immigrants before that ruling is made, they do not have the right to access government benefits nor legal work authorization and are therefore unable to get access to social work practice from many agencies requiring insurance coverage or fees for services.

“Asylum seekers are thus extremely vulnerable without means, and are limited in their ability to meet their basic needs as well as to access vital legal representation2,” which means social work professionals working with asylum seekers as clients face the unique challenge of attempting to assist them in meeting critical needs despite a lamentable lack of available resources.

Social Work Practice Can Still Be Applied to Asylum Seekers

When working with asylum seekers, social workers should consider the following ways in which to overcome barriers to provide needed support to this vulnerable client group:

Case Management

Social workers acting in a case management capacity are likely to be the first service providers with whom asylum seekers interact and develop rapport and trust2. It is important that case managers understand the asylum seeking process, and are therefore able to competently assess the client’s needs and strengths. “Identifying concerns and priorities requires careful explanation and non-directive questioning, and should be a continual process with an emphasis on the client’s choice2.”

Case management social work practice with asylum seekers could include a wide range of supportive services, including:

  • Researching and referring clients to agencies that provide free or affordable health/mental health care, housing assistance, food, legal aid
  • Assisting clients with transportation to agencies providing needed services, and/or accompanying them to those agencies
  • Helping clients to understand social services policies and navigate their complex processes
  • Acting as an advocate or liaison for clients to assist them in receiving needed attention from other service providers “in the legal, medical psychological, government, and social services fields”
  • Connecting clients to interpreters, as needed

Mental Health Services

Asylum seekers have, by definition, experienced traumatic events that prevent them from living safely in their home communities and thus, are very often in need of mental health support services. “Due to their direct subjection to persecution, violence, and torture in their home country, this population frequently deals with post-traumatic symptoms, anxiety, depression, and in some cases suicidal ideation.

These experiences pose further, profound challenges to asylum seekers’ well-being and psychosocial functioning which, in addition to associated stigma, can strongly impact their ability to seek and engage with mental health services2.”

Those social workers in a position to offer free/pro-bono or sliding scale mental health services to asylum-seeking clients can provide counseling and mental health care to members of a population with an acute need for such services.

Mental health care for asylum-seekers is an important way for these clients to develop coping skills, process trauma, and build the strength and resiliency needed to start a new life under stressful conditions.

Advocacy in Social Work Practice

Finally, social workers can advocate at the macro-level for policy changes and programs that would improve conditions for asylum-seekers in the U.S. Such policies and programs are usually included in broader immigration reform measures at the federal level, and the voices and support of social service providers can help bring to light the undue barriers and vulnerabilities an ineffectual system places upon asylum-seekers.

Social workers should look for, and help to develop policy, that ensures that asylum-seekers have:

  • their provision for basic needs met, including food, stable housing, clothing, and safety
  • timely access to vital health and mental health services
  • access to affordable legal services
  • access to culturally appropriate and language-appropriate services

Social Work Practice is Important for Asylum Seekers

Social workers can play a key role in empowering asylum-seeking clients to “identify and express their needs, find and utilize resources, and effectively manage issues themselves2.”

As social service professionals who promote justice and equality for the most vulnerable populations, it is incumbent upon social workers to work with and advocate for asylum seekers’ access to basic services that will improve their psychosocial functioning and guide them on the path to a life of health and safety in the United States.



  1. National Immigration Law Center. Overview of immigrant eligibility for federal programs [Internet]. Los Angeles (CA): National Immigration Law Center; 2011 Oct [cited 2016 Jun 6]. Available from
  2. Comaduran, R, Fukuda, S. Social work and asylum seekers in the U.S. [Internet]. Ottawa (CA): Canadian Association for Social Work Education; 2016 [cited 2016 Jun 6]. Available from
How Social Workers Can Help Asylum Seekers
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How Social Workers Can Help Asylum Seekers
Learn the facts about social work practice with asylum seekers. Social workers play a key role in empowering asylum-seeking clients.
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