Active participation of migrants and refugees: How social work can be conductive on- and offline

Project description

Social work must better use the tremendous potential that social platforms are offering to mobilise people, bring people together and raise their awareness of the issues of migration. Social workers can take advantage of the features of digital media while creating new innovative ways for participation and community. Social work can provide the necessary impulse to avoid an attitude-behaviour gap in that people officially state that they are interested in migration issues and are actively involved in this area, but do not put this into practice in everyday life.

Social work is in direct contact with refugees and people with a migration background, with volunteers and those interested in the field of migration, as well as acting within the broader community. is therefore well-positioned to uses networking and capacity building skills to enable people to participate not only by posting on digital platforms, but also through active engagement in their neighbourhood or district. In this way, social work could make an important contribution to successful inclusion. This paper focuses on the possibilities and tasks of social work to use digital media as a potential and innovative tool to promote participation and engagement of digital media users.

The reality of social work practice does not correspond to what is presented in the media. Social work needs to address this issue and improve media skills of social workers and professionals in the field of social work to promote professionalism and be less vulnerable to media abuse. The authors Stanfield and Beddoe (2013) analyse the presence of social work in the media and the difficulties faces. In recent years, social work has been criticised for not being transparent enough, especially with regard tos reporting and public relations in social media: “The media acts as a necessary watch-dog, highlighting social issues and critically analysing how society responds. Social workers remain uncertain, however, about whether this tendency to focus on inadequacies leads to improved service, or whether has the opposite effect – with potentially tragic consequences” (Stanfield & Beddoe, 2013, p. 42).

Digital media have become omnipresent in society. Social media in particular offers tremendous potential for social work to develop further in innovative, creative, and informed ways. Social work must use these resources to provide a broad range of channels and content. Counseling sessions, team meetings, elections, training and courses can be offered digitally, on location or hybrid and thus optimally adapted to the target group. Last but not least, projects in the neighbourhood can increase their scope and impact, becoming more attractive through the use of digital tools. According to Jackson, social media is an active tool to encourage collaboration, create virtual communities of practice, and facilitate greater integration: “Using social media to support the creation of communities of practice can encourage the creation of connections even further afield and break down many of the traditional barriers associated with communities of practice” (Jackson, 2019).

In the current media landscape, is difficult to distinguish between real and fictitious content. There is no easily distinguishable thematic separation between fact, fiction, opinion or propaganda. Topics such as advertising, personal information, political content and culture come together in the feeds of users on social platforms in the form of personal positioning on the current situation of refugees, statements by politicians, calls for donations and aid campaigns, sharing of emotional videos, and more.

The content of such personal feeds depends not only on the personal interests and contacts of the users of social media, but also on the content of their friends and other followers, commercial content such as advertising and, last but not least, a plethora of algorithms. Users are therefore exposed to a wide variety of content and opinions that may neither be relevant to the recipient nor necessarily represent factuality or truth. Migration policy is directly affected by this blurring of truth and meaning within the public sphere, with direct consequences such as racism, exclusion and discrimination.

By contrast, social media amplify opinions, attitudes and behaviours of others and, subsequently, have the potential to affect us in our daily thoughts and actions. They could motivate and inspire users of social media of all ages to copy exemplary attitudes and actions of other individuals in the field of migration. For example, such positive action could be a donation to a local refugee organisation, civic engagement, or taking action when people are discriminated by others in public. In this way, positive role models and respectful interaction on the internet form the basis for a positive attitude towards refugees and migrants. They may well promote direct contact and interaction with people with a migration background, both in the neighbourhood and online.

In order to swiftly reach more diverse audiences and/or residents of particular geographical districts in a short time, social work could publish more ofs output online, for example information on events and projects through social channels. In this way, a broader and more diverse audience may be reached than by traditional, analogue means of distribution such as flyers, advertisements or newspapers. Of course, social work should always use both digital and analog tools to encourage optimal participation.

Depending on a digital platform’s handling of racist and discriminatory content, users can have varying experiences with topics related to migration. Comments, posts and videos can quickly spread within a very short time. Another problem is that users of social platforms are unable to make direct contact and address, de-escalate or clarify a conflict due to anonymity. People affected by discrimination and xenophobia in particular must therefore be protected from possible psychological consequences. Young users need training and assistance to be able to critically reflect on content, for example to avoid the development of extremist attitudes.

Ensuring safe, fair, and respectful conduct online, and enacting laws that hold social platform operators responsible and accountable, is therefore particularly important. is also important to take a stand against xenophobic and discriminatory content online to show solidarity with people with a refugee and migration background. Individual users, as well as organisations and companies must be made more aware of this.

An important step towards more responsible behaviour on the internet was the ruling of the European Court in 2019: The court decided that Facebook and other platforms must remove illegal incitement to hatred and insults. Platform operators are not only responsible for removing flagged posts, but also for blocking content with similar wording. Furthermore, the European Commission’s Data Act is intended to regulate the handling and rights of data internationally. In the case of personal data, users now have the right to decide themselves who has access to them. In 2022, the EU Parliament enacted the legislative packages for digital markets (DMA) and digital services (DAS), which oblige the major platforms to even more intensive surveillance and gatekeeping duties.

Meanwhile, the task of social work is not only to help facilitating neighbourhood engagement in the area of refugees and migration online. Above all, we should actively advocate residents’ access to and use of social media while promoting their safe and reflective use, for example by offering workshops and training in media education. As Gibson, Bardach et al. (2020) point out, is also the task of social work to ensure that clients have access to the necessary technology: „It is in the complex interaction between a given socio-material situation and the individual capacity to interpret and act that one finds the key to an empowerment worthy of its name“ (Leonardsen, 2007, p. 4).

The ‘digital divide’ can take many shapes and forms. Social work must help ensure that financial problems, lack of knowledge about the use of technologies, or socioeconomic status do not lead to exclusion from society and poorer health and well-being (Gibson et al., 2020). Social work must actively counter and prevent any form of digital divide within its realm: Clients must be empowered to advocate for both their right to participate in society and their ability to participate through digital media and technologies.

Digital platforms are multifunctional tools that can be used in a plethora of ways. These include sharing information and encouraging people and groups to get involved in activities in their neighbourhoods or cities. Social work must remain modern and up-to-date in order to be able to respond to current trends and movements and thus be more present and proactive on new social platforms. In this sense, social work might well act as an initiator, exposing the issues and current developments in the area of migration and advocating for this client group in the broadest sense. Integrating people with a migration and refugee background and their communities into these processes while working towards a just European migration policy is paramount. At an individual level, social work online has the potential to transform mere interest into direct engagement, both online and in the neighbourhood.

Pia Enzner is a social worker and is currently studying for a research-oriented master’s degree in social work at EH Freiburg.


Pia Enzner


Gibson, A., Bardach, S. H., & Pope, N. D. (2020). Covid-19 and the Digital Divide: Will Social Workers Help Bridge the Gap? Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 63(6-7), 671–673.

Jackson, R. (2019). Social media and social service workers.

Leonardsen, D. (2007). Empowerment in social work: an individual vs. a relational perspective. International Journal of Social Welfare, 16(1), 3–11.

Stanfield, D., & Beddoe, L. (2013). Social work and the media: A collaborative challenge. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 25(4), 41–51.



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