Social work and migration: from the perspective of female migration actors
Mehdi Azdem, independent researcher in communication and cultural engineering & Abdeslam Ziou Ziou, independent researcher and consultant in arts and culture (Casablanca, Morocco). Translated by Dounia Benslimane & Mohamed Biyjeddiguene, Dec. 11, 2023
This blog post presents the results from a focus group with four female migration actors in the city of Tangier working with the migrant population.
During the research that we carried out (see report on the website here), we noted the emergence of a category of migration welfare professionals following the adoption of the National Immigration and Asylum Strategy (SNIA) in 2014. A group of people, mostly women, working in the field of migration emerged following the development of social projects funded by the Ministry of Immigration and international organizations (UNICEF, OIM, UNHCR). This category of actors operates in the field of migration as project officers, social workers, social assistants, specialized educators, project coordinators and project managers. They constitute what is known as vulnerability workers, moving from one vulnerable category to another. The concept of vulnerability surfaced and became a reference for social action in the early 2000s, replacing the category of social exclusion, which was deemed too stigmatising for the target populations.
Thus, vulnerability should be understood as: “ a universal notion (everyone is potentially exposed), relational and contextual (we are only vulnerable in a given context), structural (we are unequally exposed to vulnerability because of our position in then social sphere), individual (faced with the same type of exposure, some will be more affected than others), potential (vulnerability is an injury that can occur) ; and finally, reversible (on which we can therefore act)”. This reference framework for action has been used in Morocco in the framework of social projects financed by international cooperation regarding children in distressing situations, single mothers, women who are victims of violence and, more recently, the migrant population in transit in Morocco.
This blog post presents a focus group we had with four female migration actors in the city of Tangier working with the migrant population. It lasted an hour and a half and focused on three main themes: the trajectories leading to migration assistance, the obstacles and challenges encountered in the exercise of their activity and their working conditions.
Multiple trajectories and professionalisation of migration assistance
Among the four female actors present during the focus group, two have a background in social work (Interviewees 1 and 2). The trajectories of these two female actors are similar: after four years of studying at the Institut National d'Action Sociale (INAS) or at the university for a diploma in social work and specialised education, they kickstarted their careers with different categories of vulnerability during professional internships before starting their first job in the migration field. They embarked in the field of migration assistance thanks to the networks constructed while being students and professional interns (see table in appendix). These two female actors are more likely to talk about social work when they discuss their activity: “the first lesson I learned is that social work is a job, there is a difference between social work and social action, when we talk about social action we are talking about volunteering and voluntary work” [Interview 1].
The other two female actors (Interviewed 3 and 4) transitioned from the private company environment to the world of associations for one; and from volunteering and associative commitment for the other. Both female actors emphasized their commitment to community work as part of a difficult but necessary social action:
“You know that social work requires a spirit. Not everyone could do this work, you have to have principles, because if you want to reason in social work, it is not possible, social work is not reasonable, you have to give away your time, your family's time, your life, you have to always be reachable. But if you want to work following a specific schedule and turn off your phone at a specific hour, for me that is not social work” [Interview 4].
While conducting the focus group, a significant debate occurred between the social workers about the degree of commitment to work (1 and 2) and those considered to be situated in the field of social action (3 and 4). The first group considers their activities as work that requires: “to be framed because otherwise it takes over your personal life and you cannot develop yourself in several things, in your family…” [Interview 1]. The second group considers that the commitment to this work involves disadvantages that are difficult to frame: “It is a bit difficult to frame and limit community work [...] You can't say that I'm not going to answer and I will set times, because there are emergencies, and our work is more valuable and more important in those emergencies” [Interview 3]. The difference in perspectives is explained by the fact that the first category was trained in the field of social assistance, being a professional situation that requires adhering to a salaried work schedule. The second group comes from the voluntary sector and the association movement, which implies a more extensive commitment. Nevertheless, all the female actors agree that it is a job that requires a great deal of availability and patience.
The interviewees turned to the field of migration to develop their skills in working with vulnerable populations, give meaning to their work by engaging with an extremely vulnerable and needy population, for humanitarian purposes.
The challenges of continuity
The first difficulty mentioned by the social workers in their professional activity is the discontinuity of the work with the migrant population. The precariousness of housing and the pressure of police arrests lead to the migrant populations not being stabilised in one particular place. This makes working with this vulnerable population a little more complicated, as indicated by one of the interviewees working in the field of schooling for migrant children: “I think we are all going to agree on this question. The question that there is no continuity with migrants, either for the education of the children we take care of, or for the women we work with, it is very difficult to have continuity in our action [ ...]” [Interview 4]. There is indeed a problem in the continuity of the work at the level of the legal and/or administrative procedures which are started but almost never finalised. This situation requires a great deal of flexibility on the part of the social workers, and there can be frustration in the face of unfinished work - for example, failing to provide long-term security for a migrant woman who is victim of violence.
There appears to be a contradiction in the very nature of the work carried out: the migrant population, targeted by projects to provide schooling for children or care for their vulnerability (mainly single mothers), is in continuous movement. Roundups and campaigns to move populations to the south of Morocco contradict the desire to settle migrant populations and to integrate them into Moroccan society, which is the main objective of projects developed with international donors. Social workers find themselves in the middle of these contradictory policies, making their work very difficult, as one interviewee told us: “It is very difficult, in every aspect, they are not stable, how do you want a child to come and study like the Moroccans when he is not stable? When he spent the night in the street?” [Interview 4].
The relationship with “beneficiaries”
Another difficulty affects the very nature of the services. In the projects they help carry out, many so-called awareness-raising activities have been developed. These activities are difficult to carry out because, as one interviewee told us: “Sometimes when you contact a beneficiary for an awareness session on a given theme, they tell you that they had already benefited from it 5 or 6 times already” [Interview 1]. A relationship of distrust then develops between the migrant population and the social workers. In this sense, a female actor told us: “I have noticed that the migrant population has preconceived ideas that a certain child is being exploited, because he might’ve been in contact with several NGOs but his case was still unsolved, to the point where they think that as long as you work with them, you benefit from their situation, so they too must benefit in terms of material or financial things” [Interview 4].
The very nature of the projects developed, which respond very little to the emergencies experienced by migrant populations in transit, establishes a difficult relationship with those called beneficiaries by social workers. One of the interviewees told us that: "the awareness-raising not seen as a plus, the same type of awareness they had received several times. In my opinion, it is due to projects that are repeated in the same way, and that certain services are given more importance while other important ones are forgotten, such as papers...The services provided are not adapted to the needs of the population in my opinion” [Interview 1]. Social workers do not have the upper hand in the projects they carry out. The logical frameworks are decided in disconnection with the realities and rarely respond to the needs of the field.
Project activities are confronted with the capacity to act of the migrant populations who have understood their status as “beneficiaries”. They are well aware that the NGOs need their presence to justify their funding and adopt a logic consisting of negotiating their presence – especially for so-called awareness-raising, training and living together activities. Schooling activities for migrant children or unaccompanied minors are more effective because they have the concrete effect of inserting young migrants into daily educational activities, as one interviewee told us: “we have mixed classes between migrants and Moroccans, either for those who are going to take the 6th year primary exam or for those who are going to take the 3rd year secondary school exam. Recently, we have been able to adapt the exams for migrant children so that they are able to choose to take the exam in Arabic or in French, and there is the case of a child who took the exam and got a good grade thanks to this change” [Interview 4]. The educational activities developed also allow young migrants to have a space of trust (safe space) as interviewee 4 indicated: “There is a girl who speaks Arabic very well and who came to our center and we integrated her into a school afterwards. She often comes to the association when she doesn’t have class; and when I asked her why she comes instead of staying at school, she says because they call her "Azia", which means that she feels safe with us and that she benefits from the activities. In her current school, she studies but she is not integrated, whereas she is in the association” [ Interview 4].
Working conditions and precariousness
Interviewee 1 said: “In every job you are not 100% satisfied, but sometimes you get a case and you think about your rent you have to pay, and this person to whom you have to present help is in the same or almost the same situation as you are” [Interview 1] When asked whether they had social protection such as CNSS from their salaried activity, 3 interviewees out of 4 replied in the negative. The duration of employment contracts and their type depend a lot on the nature and duration of the projects they work on. They therefore find themselves in situations of instability and precariousness which have a definite impact on their commitment and activity. The same interviewee later told us: “I was declared as an employee [...], but then I became a self-employed person and now I pay my own social security” [ Interview 1]. A trend has emerged over the past two years that has led to increased precariousness in the professional environment of social work: the proliferation of self-employment service contracts. The government authorities, within the framework of the 2023 finance law, will try to curb this disguised salarisation by limiting invoicing to a single employer to 80,000 MAD per year . Nevertheless, in the context of social work, this will not curb the use of self-employment since the salaries are less important. A social worker with a few years of seniority earns 5,000 MAD net, which makes an annual total of 60,000 MAD, i.e. less than the total at which it is prohibited to invoice as a self-employed person. It should be noted to this that the same person will have to contribute to social protection using their own funds (300 MAD/quarter), i.e. nearly 1,200 MAD per year. The salarisation disguised through the use of the auto entrepreneur status makes work even more precarious, pushing to accept difficult working conditions that require a constant availability.
Moreover, it appeared during the focus group that the female actors who most develop the discourse of dedication and unconditional help for social work are those who have additional income besides their professional activity, as summarised by one of the interviewees: “does the financial independence of the social worker influence their work, in your opinion is the social worker who depends on their salary the same as someone who has other sources of income? When interviewee 3 said that even though the project is finished, she is still working voluntarily in the association, which means that even if I get paid for social work, I have other resources. When interviewee 4 said that she has her job and is married and has a family, that means that she has stability. That means that social work is perceived differently. When interviewee 1 said that she studied social work and that she likes what she does, she also says that despite social work being framed, she does not talk about humanitarianism because humanitarianism is innate in us, but she thinks that she must have a personal life next to work.” [Interview 2].
The working conditions and the precariousness that this entails, the difficulty of continuity in the activities and the ambiguous relationship with the beneficiaries of the projects are characteristics that stand out in social work with the migrant population. When asked what motivation they find at work despite these conditions, the interviewees unanimously responded by saying that it was necessary to respond to situations of the terrible vulnerabilities experienced by this population. The aspect of humanitarian commitment and the small satisfaction of helping people in difficulty are among the main motivations for work, as interviewee 2 indicated: “When you like something, you do it and you are very happy. Since I was a little girl, I liked to listen to people talk about their problems and tried to solve their problems. When you solve it, you feel that it is your problem that has been solved; when you like the thing, you are happy and content to do it” [Interview 2].
 Brodiez-Dolino, Axelle. « La vulnérabilité, nouvelle catégorie de l’action publique », Informations sociales, vol. 188, no. 2, 2015, pp. 10-18.
Dec. 19, 2023, 12:37 p.m.