Beyond the label: Considerations for Working with Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrants

Depending on where your social work career leads you, a significant portion of your clients may be people who are not native to your area, or even your country. You certainly don’t have to live near a national border to experience the influx of diversity that accompanies those who are new to your area of work or residence. As a social worker or social work student, I am sure that you are comfortable with working with people who are different from you. The tricky part, however, can be figuring out just how to help our neighbors who come from cultures that are vastly distinct from our own.

When working with a new resident, one of the most important things to consider is why the person or family has moved into the area. A migrant family who has moved to find work at a local farm will have very different needs from a refugee family who has been placed in your region after surviving a civil war in their home country. Additionally, immigrant families or individuals who relocate to a new country for educational or economic opportunity will have a different set of needs and expectations. As a social worker working with these populations, you may be responsible for helping families to transition into a new society by providing housing, food resources, career development, mental health services, and education. All of these tasks may be complicated by language or cultural differences and thus require a heightened level of openness and sensitivity.

From personal experience, I have found that it is best to meet new clients without preconceived notions about their needs or abilities. Instead, let your clients teach you about themselves. Below is a list of Do’s and Don’ts that I have found to be helpful when meeting with immigrant, migrant, or refugee populations. Feel free to add to the list in the comments:

Ask questions

Have a translator, if available and needed

Direct inquiries and comments to the client when speaking through a translator

Gather as much history and information as possible

Come to the meeting somewhat informed about your client’s cultural social standards

Have flexible goals and plans


Pretend to be an expert on another’s culture

Assume that a client from a developing country is lacking in modern skills or education

Assume that a client’s lack of English proficiency is equal to a lack of intelligence

Assume anything.

Though there are number of tiny details to consider when working with refugee, immigrant, and migrant populations, it is important to always keep an open mind and always have a willingness to learn. Often the things that we learn about people and places in the name of cultural competency are the very things that foster and strengthen existing stereotypes. While it is true that there is an abundance of challenges associated with acclimating to a new cultural landscape, it is also true that every person and family is uniquely made and comes with a unique set of strengths and limitations. Personally, I prefer cultural “awareness” over cultural “competency”. In my experience, so-called cultural competency provides narrow definitions of what it means to be a part of a certain community. Cultural awareness, on the other hand, allows one to learn and acknowledge the trends, history, and similarities that members of a group may share but also allows leaves room for individual expression and representation.

In your experience, what are some of the unique needs of migrant, Immigrant, or Refugee families? What challenges do they face? What resources or services were you able to provide?

About the Author

Amanda Body

Meet our blogger, . She grew up in Harlan, Kentucky and currently resides in Louisville KY. Amanda graduated from Valparaiso University in 2009 with a B.A. in Political Science and English. Most recently, she attended the University of Kentucky where she earned her Master's of Social Work degree. Amanda is currently pursuing her passion as a hospital social worker in Louisville Kentucky.