Whenever social care is discussed, the impact of an ageing population is near the top of the list. But when it comes to older asylum seekers and how services respond to their circumstances, there has been far less debate.
This may be partially explained by the small proportion of older asylum seekers. EU statistics reveal that of the 1.2 million-plus asylum seekers who arrived in Europe last year, just 7,690 (0.61%) were over 65. In the UK that figure was 1.01%.
But there is growing recognition of the particular challenges faced by older asylum seekers and refugees, and how social workers and wider social and welfare systems might address them. A recent review of older age diversity by the Centre for Policy on Ageing and Age UK highlighted some of the main issues. It says that while the numbers are small, the difficulties triggered by displacement are significant.
“The main issues facing older refugees and asylum seekers are low income, the language barrier, the risk of loneliness and a lack of social networks, and possibly a loss of social status,” the report says. “In addition, some older refugees may suffer mental health issues resulting from the trauma of their refugee experiences.”
Alfonso Lara Montero, policy director at the European Social Network, which monitors developments in social services in the EU, says that while older refugees have greater needs than others, they are “often overlooked by refugee services”. Jessica H Jönsson, a Swedish social work researcher, agrees. She says social workers are uniquely placed to help, but the needs of older refugees have been largely “overlooked in global social problems, such as forced migration, and rarely addressed by social work programmes or professionals, although social workers play a key role in supporting the rapidly ageing world”.
Jönsson says it is important that provision for older asylum seekers is fully examined, including financial support, health and social care. There needs to be structural reforms to improve their living conditions, she adds, revealing that there are already positive signs of inter-agency work between social workers and health professionals.
Maeve Foreman from University College Dublin, who has an interest in refugees on the margins of Irish society, says it is key that the problems within different national systems experienced by asylum seekers – including those who are elderly – are addressed.
Ireland’s system of direct provision (where refugees are initially housed in institutional settings before being resettled) means social workers are often the bridge to services. But success is dependent on social workers using their initiative rather than having a formal system that meets refugees’ needs.
In the UK, social workers are stepping up to the challenges faced by this older client group and recognising that their role is not just to act as gatekeepers for statutory requirements, says Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.
“This is a problem of our time on a big scale. Social workers have to bring a holistic approach to human need.”