iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17
Syrian refugees

Kati Turtiainen, PhD
PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Jyväskylä, Kokkola University, Consortium Chydenius

Recognition as a moral yardstick against nationalistic social work practise


The desperate situation of people seeking asylum continues for many reasons. The root reasons to flee from the countries of origins are not addressed enough as focus is on coping with the actual numbers and the possible impact on the country receiving them. The EU and other areas from the Global North want to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers by trying to block mobility to their territories and many nation states are making it much harder for asylum seekers and refugees to get residence permits, even if granted temporary sanctuary. While the European Union shows a lack of solidarity to share the responsibility of processing the asylum applications and taking care of the asylum seekers countries, like Italy, are trying to cope with more and more people trying to reach their borderlands. Consequently, asylum seekers have to seek out more dangerous routes and turn too more stronger (and possibly more dangerous) smuggling networks, which, as we have seen, result in thousands of people dying while trying to find refuge.

The situation of asylum seekers raises a fundamental question of the role of social work with and for people seeking refuge. Social workers are often employed by the public sector and are required to enact the current policy and practices of the national agenda whose aim is to reinforce a national unity often with little regard to understanding the needs of asylum seekers and transnational population in general. Thus, social work practises may become nationalistic and exclusive to asylum seekers. In furthering the national agenda social workers may (wittingly or unwittingly) take part in processes of othering, which can exclude those who do not fit into national ideals (e.g. Keskinen et. al., 2012; Anis, 2008). At worst, social work practise can become ethnocentric and ´chauvinist´ if social workers follow the national framework and accept without question the moral panic linked to the influx of refugees and asylum seekers without understanding the global nature of social problems and transnational processes of (forced)migration (Wallimann, 2014: 19).

Social work ethics has a clear demand for working with and for the people whose human dignity is threatened by the inadequate policies including those of the nation states as well as those of the international communities. According to social work ethics, social workers have a moral and professional responsibility as practitioners to work for and with vulnerable communities such as asylum seekers and refugees. Further there are real and urgent material needs which must be addressed. If asylum seekers are not recognized as legitimate refugees and they choose to stay undocumented in a country their immediate needs may remain unmet due to their marginalisation and exclusion. The moral issue here is that the hostile treatment and lack of support and empathy for asylum seekers indicates that their human rights and right for protection by the international community are ignored, even violated. Social workers could be more active in this space by focusing their attention on harnessing the moral community which could take care of them as human beings that deserve respect and protection (e.g. Turton, 2003.) The moral community could mean those networks to whom the demands of sense of obligations are recognized. Here I look at the theory of recognition (Honneth, 1995), which can give some moral yardsticks for social work with asylum seekers.

Why the theory of recognition as a source of ethical demands

Axel Honneth's (1995) theory of recognition focuses on a normative criteria of a good society where normative issues and interpersonal relations are interrelated. The recognition theory has three dimensions, which are the interpersonal relations of respect, esteem and care. Persons are justified to expect these relations or attitudes from each other in mutual relationships. Thus, in a social space of mutual respect, esteem and care, people can grow to be persons with healthy self- respect, self-esteem and self-confidence. In other words, these self-attitudes contribute to a person's ability for self-realisation. If a person cannot get recognition in a mutual relationship with others, their ability to govern themselves may be harmed. (Ikäheimo, 2003: 125--140.) In social work, the relations of recognition can provide 'a prism through which social workers can "tune in" to ethical imperatives' (Houston, 2009: 1288). Besides, when people are treated as persons in social relations, it enables trust formation between service users and authorities (Turtiainen, 2012). In a good society, and especially in social work encounters, 'the social' cannot remain just bounded by the good will of the people as 'the social' can play a more fundamental role with normative claims (Niemi 2014). Next, I discuss the social work with asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in the theoretical frame of Honneth's relations of recognition.


Respect as one relation of recognition means that people have juridically institutionalised rights and entitlements. For asylum seekers, it is hard to be a moral equal with other residents without having rights and other entitlements. Second respect takes place in interpersonal relations because other people are needed to respect and confirm that persons are competent agents and capable of making justifications (Ikäheimo, 2003; Seglow, 2016). Therefore, rights give a moral basis for contributing healthy self-respect, which secures persons' agency through authoring their lives. In respect of self-realisation, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are extremely vulnerable as without a residence permit they do not have the ability to claim rights in any nation state that rejects their claim for asylum.

Social work with asylum seekers and undocumented migrants cannot use only national and popular sentiments to inform their practice with asylum seekers and refugees but must base their work on ethical principles informed by a human rights agenda as a framework beyond the dedicates of a particular nation state in which they work (e.g. Staub-Bernasconi, 2014). In practise, social workers must find a way to be co-authors with their clients in forming their practice responses by listening to them and helping them through advocacy to acquire citizen rights from which they are currently excluded. Sometimes working with human rights activists and undertaking direct political action could be one way of counteracting the national or nationalistic measures of evaluating who deserves citizenship and protection and what kind of rights and entitlements refugees can claim (e.g. Briskman, 2014). To make his happem social work practice should get the mandate from the people not having rights and if possible in combination with (global) civil society (Staub-Bernasconi, 2014: 31-32) act in solidarity to protect them and help them receive protection and safety.


Care as a relation of recognition concerns human beings being valued for their own sake. It means that people must be taken care of regardless of who or what kind of persons they are (Ikäheimo, 2003; Honneth, 1995.) Recognition of the needs of migrants, especially asylum seekers and refugees, is often considered as instrumental for some other goals, usually economic such as skills shortage or need to cheap labour, not just persons deserving protection and good life in and of itself. I understand care as a relational concept has both private and public dimension.

In practice, asylum seekers' private care relations are transnational. Asylum seekers and undocumented migrants have often enormous life stressors in the countries of origin, such as war and family disintegration and undergone much hardship in their transition from country to country. Many have suffered torture and trauma even before they arrive as refugees. Therefore, social workers must take into these personal hardships as well as environmental concerns (money food, shelter) while assessing and planning interventions and evaluating the services (Hunter et. al. 2010). Based on the 'ethics of care' any human being who is in a vulnerable state should have unconditional access to social and state care. In practice, undocumented migrants do not have access to long-term health and social care. Such exclusive structures requires social workers to step out from the state mandate that excludes them from such care in order to fight for the right for these people. Therefore, care as a relation of recognition overlaps the relation of respect.

Social esteem

Social esteem as a relation of recognition has at least three dimensions. First, social esteem concerns personal accomplishments, such as goals, education and work, which need to be recognised in a community (Seglow, 2009: 68). Asylum seekers and especially undocumented migrants lack this kind of recognition in a society and they become easily abused by the employers. From the social work perspective, personal relations to asylum seekers are important in order identify the potentials and visions of persons and also to maintain hope and develop strengths and opportunities in a society.

Second, social esteem is a value that we give to each other in terms of our speciality, such as capabilities or achievements (Honneth, 1995; Ikäheimo, 2003). In this sense, esteem can be a valuable contribution to the common good. Possibilities for contributing to a new society is vital in order to have agency in the new situation. For undocumented migrants, this goal is strongly dependent on what, if any, particular rights they have in a new society such acknowledgement of their ethnicity or religion (Ikäheimo, 2003: 134). This is important as ethnicity may be a reason for persecution in the past and therefore getting back such rights may be vital for maintaining self-esteem in a new environment and help with their integration.


Asylum seekers end up in nation states which often defend their sovereignty instead of protecting human lives and recognising people seeking refuge and protection as people who are in an extremely vulnerable life situation. As employees of the state with national agendas, which divide people for those who are worthy to get recognition in a new society and those who are unworthy and are then left without care, respect and social esteem social work can find itself in an ambiguous situation. While the concept of 'relations of the recognition' are not new in social work practice re-invigorating its contribution to work with refugees and asylum seekers may contribute to social work practice by providing the sensitivity required to evaluate the complexity of explicit opinions, views and implicit background attitudes that affect the way we encounter people (Niemi, 2014; Ikäheimo, 2003: 137). This sensitivity is vital in order to avoid nationalistic and populistic interpretation of social problems.


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