Learning objectives for this chapter:

  • the meaning of empowerment
  • what methods can be used to empower migrants and refugees
  • what are the different target groups for empowerment
  • what are the goals and preconditions for empowerment
  • what are the problems associated with empowerment
  • what is needed for empowerment of individuals and institutions







"The process by which the client reconstructs his experience is not one the worker creates; he simply enters, and leaves... he is an incident in the life of his client. Thus the worker should ask himself: What kind of incident will I represent... How do I enter the process, do what I have to do, and then leave?" (Schwartz W. (1974): The Social Worker in the Group, in: Klenk, R.W./ Ryan, R. (Eds.): The Practice of Social Work, Belmont Cal., 208-228.)

In this chapter we will summarise the theoretical framework for the concept of empowerment, and follow this by a more detailed description of methods for its practical application.

In a discussion on empowerment it is important to recognise the existence of the value base of any practitioner working with migrants and refugees. Values and ideologies are an inherent part of any practice or theory. One has to be aware of ones own bias and values when working with people from different backgrounds to ones own.

Vulnerable groups such as migrants and refugees looking for assistance, meet social workers, civil servants or voluntary advisers who will have their own individual or institutional bias. They may not know much about their clients and the special issues they are facing. The practitioner in this field has to constantly examine his/her own attitudes towards their clients. Awareness of one's own deficiencies and limitations is an important precondition for successful work in this area.

A discussion about empowerment would not be necessary, if migrants and refugees would have an equal share of the power within the host societies. Their deprived situation stems on the one hand from their situation as migrants or refugees, but one also has to be aware that on the other hand it is the result of certain features of aid and counselling. Migrants and refugees might have left behind property, a position in the social hierarchy of their home country and potentials for their future. In the host society some might be in the lucky situation, that they possess qualities, which are valuable for the host society and therefore ease their entry and their integration process. But there are also those who arrive in a country of the European Union without being welcomed. As for instance an asylumseeker who has to wait for some years for the decision regarding his request and during this waiting period is not allowed to work and to earn a descent living.

It is especially this large group of "unwanted guests" which is assisted either by state agencies or numerous NGOs. As new arrivals they often need assistance and because in many cases they are not allowed to earn their living they are for a longer time period dependent on further assistance. Assistance on the one hand brings relief for pressing problems, but it has the danger to perpetuate dependency. Because of this inherent feature of assistance, it is important to stress the need for self-reliance and to draw attention to the need for empowerment. Empowerment of the individual migrant or refugee, but also for certain groups of migrants. This call for a higher degree of self-reliance and demand for empowerment is directed towards migrants and refugees on the one hand, and towards the aid organisations on the other hand. Both might be to easily falling in the "assistance trap" leading to the "dependency syndrome". Here we refer to a learnt attitude of underprivileged people, who by a long history of being dependent on others have lost the feeling for being able to do things themselves. This is accompanied by a low selfesteem and the impression of being small.

Besides the "dependency syndrome" there is an other negative way of interaction with the host society and the assistance provided: the tendency to get out of the system as much as possible in stead of relying on the "normal" ways of pursuing one's goals.

If you're interested in an example for the adaptation of behaviour in a situation where people daily depend on assistance, please refer to this link

Empowering individuals and groups should lead to a situation were they are capable to pursue their own goals independently. Self-esteem of people depends to a large extent on the person's own actions. The way targets are realistically set, the way difficulties and barriers are overcome, contribute to the growing of the person's action potential and improved selfesteem.


Despite the fact that the concept of empowerment has been used with increasing frequency and popularity during the last few years, a look into the relevant literature reveals that there is no consensus on the definition of its meaning. Some say that empowerment has developed into an "amoebic term" describing at the same time

  • a theory
  • a framework
  • a plan of action
  • an ideology
  • a process
  • a feeling
  • a drive
  • a potential
  • an outcome or goal of research and activities.

Within this context it is quite obvious that, the actual interpretation of what it is or should be is quite different. One of the most prolific authors in the field of empowerment, J. Rappaport, offers a broad-based definition of the term. Rappaport writes:

"(Empowerment) suggests a sense of control over one's life in personality, cognition, and motivation. It expresses itself at the level of feelings, at the level of ideas about self worth, at the level of being able to make a difference in the world around us... We all have it as a potential." (Rappaport, J.: The power of empowerment language, Social Policy, 15, 1985. p. 15-21).

Gutierrez adapted this definition and tried to clarify it by adding four necessary changes which have to be seen in a person before he/she can be described as "successfully empowered" - an increased self-sufficiency, a developed group consciousness, a reduction of self-blame in the face of problems and the ability to assume personal responsibility for change. That is, not relying on other people to help out, but trying to take matters in one's own hands and pursuing a change to the better.

Another definition has been given by Solomon who has developed a very good definition of empowerment related to social work, adaptable to our focus on migrants and refugees. This is the definition that is used in this text for empowerment. Empowerment is defined as

"a process whereby the social worker engages in a set of activities with the client (...) that aim to reduce the powerlessness that has been created by negative valuations based on member-ship in a stigmatised group. It involves identification of the power blocks that contribute to the problem as well as the development and implementation of specific strategies aimed at either the reduction of the effects from indirect power blocks or the reduction of the operations of direct power blocks." (Solomon, B.: Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities, New York 1976.)

Refer also to the working document produced by the European Commission called 'Empowerment: A new way of looking at inclusion and strategies for employment.' Contact EMPL-INFO@cec.eu.int for a copy.

In this context, empowerment can be best described as a process which can be initiated and accompanied by advice, counsel and orientation programmes. Through this process, individuals, organisations or groups, who seem powerless or deprived of the means to reconstitute themselves in an alien society, can become 'empowered'. They can become aware of the power dynamics at work, develop skills and the capacity to gain some control over their lives, exercise this control without infringing upon the rights of others and support the empowerment of others in their community.

In summary, therefore, empowerment can be described as having four goals:

  • that the client sees himself as the agent of change;

  • that the client is able to use the knowledge and skills of others in furthering their own interest;

  • that the client is able to work in partnership with professionals;

  • that the client is open to developing the problem-solving skills to address their situation.

It should be clear that the client may refer to an individual migrant, a group of refugees or an organisation representing one group or sub-group of migrants.

We illustrate the process of empowerment with the description of the project "Instead of Medicine" founded by the organisation "Refugee Action" in the UK.

Also see Refugee Women's Association (C4/L3)



This section will identify some key instruments and methods used in the empowerment approach. This will describe three possible ways to empowerment, working with individuals, groups or institutions.

4.3.1 Principles

It is important to identify some basic principles of practice with regard to the relationship between the practitioner and client:

  • interact with the person and not the "migrant";

  • respect the person's right to self-determination; accept the client's definition of the problem;

  • focus on strengths; respect the diversity of skills and knowledge that clients bring ;

  • share power and control; respect the client's right to contribute and trust his or her motivation to learn and direct his or her life; be aware of cultural differences with regards to hierarchy and superiority.

  • look for groups: mutual help, consciousness raising, participation.

4.3.2 General Methods

The empowerment process can be described as being made up of four elements.

  • Attitudes, beliefs and values. This refers to the psychological aspects of empowerment. It covers self-sufficiency and belief in self-worth. It is concentrated either on individuals or groups.
  • Validation through collective experience. Sharing common experiences can avoid misinterpreting individual experiences and help put these experiences into perspective, alleviating loneliness and isolation. The collective experience can motivate a group to pursue changes, that go beyond the individual.
  • Knowledge and skills for critical thinking. The ability to access and acquire information is an important element of empowerment. This can enable individuals to analyse their situation independently and critically, reducing self-blame and feelings of helplessness.
  • Action. Through empowerment individuals can develop plans for action to solve a problem. They can develop strategies and behavioural patterns that might help them in future challenges. An increased ability to co-operate with others is another possible outcome.

In addition, the empowerment process can be said to involve four stages:

  • Establishing a relationship between the adviser and the client to meet immediate needs such as access to social services and benefits or to other sources of information;
  • Educating the client to improve his or her skills and thereby increasing the ability for self-help;
  • Securing resources. This implies the development of skills to deal with other organisations and agencies, joining self-help-programmes and groups, or establishing and using social networks. Enabling social and political action. Helping the client to be able to articulate social and political needs at the appropriate time, enabling them to understand the basic principles of lobbying, negotiation, campaigning and so forth.

The last stage is the most politicised stage in the empowerment process and might not be relevant to all advisers and organisations. But to ensure real change, the social and political context of the individual has to be considered. How far practitioners want to take the four stages of empowerment depends on their objectives.

Danish Red Cross - Culture House

The Danish Red Cross Culture House provides activities and social support to asylum seekers awaiting a decision to be made on their case. It is an example of clients being involved in service delivery and offers a model of working to principles of empowerment, within a legal framework whose effect is to completely disempower the asylum seeker.

'Based on the seven Red Cross principles, the Danish Red Cross Asylum Department aims to give asylum seekers a secure meaningful and dignified waiting time while imparting to asylum seekers a realistic view of their situation in order that they may be capable of taking care of their future in the best possible manner. In this context, the Culture House aims to ensure that the individual asylum seeker maintains control over his or her own life situation now and in the future.'

To achieve these aims, the Culture House has developed a method of working that ensures its users (asylum seekers) are active in identifying and developing their own ideas and activities. Resources and equipment are made available through a process of project design and consultation. If a project design is acknowledged to be viable, the person responsible for submitting it as an idea, is assigned the role of project staff, with volunteers assisting as appropriate. Examples of projects taken forward are, a phone line for young asylum seekers, a museum guide, a health guide, as well as various discussion groups run by and for asylum seekers. In addition there are language courses, computer skills and other skills courses. The building is well equipped with musical instruments, a recording studio, art room and IT equipment.

The centre has a publicly stated commitment to a series of values and principles called the Dynamic System. This declares its commitment to a constant open dialogue between volunteer asylum seekers, volunteers from the Danish community and its paid staff. To this aim, offices are arranged on an open plan, creating a more equal and trusting working environment. Staff and users share the same office space and equipment. All users of the Centre are handed a copy of it's statement of values and invited to comment or criticise.

(From 'Refugees Included: A survey of refugee involvement in refugee-assisting non-governmental organisations in the European '. PERCO 1999)



The following subchapters on the empowerment of individuals, groups/communities and institutions try to demonstrate that empowerment is possible and can be achieved through a variety of concrete measures. It will be shown how the individual migrant or refugee, their groups and communities can play a greater role in the integration process leading to work in the host country. What migrants and refugees can do might be promoted by various public and private institutions working towards the integration of migrants into the national labour market.

Regardless of these positive elements it has to be stated, that the European attitudes towards migrants and refugees during the last decades have been negative. Most European countries have tried to block migrants' way to their territories. The resulting migration and refugee regime in many cases has created the situations, where migrants and refugees were systematically isolated, made dependent and kept outside the labour market. Thus people were deprived of their "normal" possibility to learn and to adjust to the new situation in the host country. Greater freedom for migrants and refugees would be the most effective contribution to the empowerment of the migrants and refugees concerned. But this contribution would have to come from the respective national governments.


4.4.1 Empowering individuals

The blocks to empowering an individual are often psychological. Firstly, there is the phenomenon of alienation from the self. This is a phenomenon that has been identified as a psychological and emotional response to oppression. It is manifested through the inability to identify and articulate one's needs and take active steps to meet them. It can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness, with the perception that one cannot influence and resolve issues in one's own life.

Secondly is the use of stereotypes or stigmatisation. The migrants, who have repeatedly experienced rejection, for whatever reason, will feel stigmatised or of being subsumed under a stereotype. This will be exacerbated by their experiences of racism. The migrants might find themselves caught in a vicious circle of stigmatisation, rejection and, subsequent self-blame. This circle can be quite destructive for the individual.

Three steps are important for the empowerment of individuals:

The first step is to define the problem.

If you're interested in an example, please have a look at this link

To define the problem, different factors have to be considered, such as the specific legal framework of each country, particularly around their residency status and employment rights. Also the attitude of each country towards migrants and refugees is significant. In a society with an assimilationist approach, there is an expectation of complete adjustment to all relevant features of the host society. In countries where integration is the key-word, differences are accepted and even encouraged.
The second step addresses the issue of self-determination. It is important to define the criteria of success for every individual. From this perspective it is possible to set targets against which the goals can be said to be achieved. Establishing self-sufficiency and belief in one's own abilities starts from the moment contact with the client begins. As soon as he or she is regarded as a valuable source of competence in dealing with the problem, an important step in the direction of empowerment has been taken.

The following example from Lee (1994) - rewritten and adapted to our target group - might give a first hindsight of what is meant by regarding the client as a source of competence .

In addition there are some general techniques when interviewing clients

This leads us to the third step which relates to consciousness raising. It is necessary to confirm to the clients that they are the experts of their particular situation and the best arbiters of their own treatment. The acceptance of the independence of the client is crucial, otherwise there can be no talk of empowerment.

An important precondition to any empowerment-process is access to information. A lot of problems arise because of a lack of information on both sides: Those seeking for employment and those able to give jobs. The availability of information on the labour-market and its regulations ensures that the clients are not reliant on the advisor to assess their options.

Please refer to the short text about the Refugee Outreach Advice Project (ROAP)

The following link provides a fact-finding and analytical sheet that might be helpful in regard to groups and institutions (based on Lee 1994, 143-145).

The EMPLOYMENT working group on empowerment has assembled a number of "indicators" for individual empowerment. These are:

  • Skills: Literacy and numeracy, marketable skills, having confidence and understanding of one's own strengths.
  • Actual or real potential: having secure and decent housing, being aware of the impact of good health and how to keep it, access to decision making processes, having choices for career development, being able to make decent plan financially, being able to get a credit, interest in positive change in the host society.
  • Employment: Having a job, better a job with a secure contract of employment, establishment of own business, becoming an employer in own business.

4.4.2 Empowering groups and communities

With regard to groups we have to differentiate between formal organisations of migrants or refugees and informal networks. The term 'community' will also be used to describe single nationality groups of migrants. The following issues may arise:

Organised and nonorganised groups of migrants and refugees are often faced with the phenomenon of separation. Separation occurs when certain groups in a society encounter difficulties, and decide to separate themselves from the host society and create their own subculture. The group might consider any efforts to "empower them" as an intrusion or as a pressure to "adjust" to the majority..

Also, to provide assistance for migrants and refugees to enter the labour-market might not be the priority of the migrant organisation. The services provided in this area might be subsumed under other, political aims and objectives being pursued. This is a sensitive issue, but it is important to be clear what the priorities of the organisation are in order to avoid spending time counter-productively.

Making an impact on groups and communities can be done through four possible approaches

  • Dealing directly with the individual client with the impetus of influencing the group or community through him/her.

Please have a look to the following case-study

  • Dealing directly with the community or group through its representatives.

It would be quite easy to deal with the representatives of a community, if communities were homogeneous groups, but frequently the relationship between different groups within the same national community is very conflicting. For an example you may refer to the link "Community or Communities?"

  • Advocating on behalf of the individual client.

  • Advocating on behalf of the community or group.

It is obvious that activities have to be adjusted carefully to the national framework encountered. It can be difficult to empower groups to embark on a campaign of self-determination, when the political will of the government is more in favour of segregation or assimilation. Working with a community is most effectively done through developing partnerships with an organised group, offering training programmes and awareness-raising activities.

One possible tool to approach communities with or without self-organisation is the SWAP method (C4/L11). We will give it as one example of practical appliance

You may also find the approach devised by Refuge Action's Marketing Project (C4/L12) interesting

The EMPLOYMENT working group has formulated a number of indicators of success for group empowerment. These are:

  • Support and motivation: Existence of peer support structures (self-help, voca-tional guidance), emergence of role models within the target group, availability of mentors from within the target group, skilled trainers from within the target group, opportunities to collaborate with other to create common and effective projects.
  • Relationships with other organisations: Participation in decision making process, provision of training to official agencies.
  • Campaigning: Development of an account of the group's previous exclusion, of value attached to direct experience of that exclusion, training and skill development for group members in the specific skills needed to engage with decision making processes.
  • Services: Provision of practical services for target group members, development of credit unions.

4.4.3 Empowering institution

With regard to institutions we are referring here to service providers of any kind. This includes state and government institutions such as employment-offices or social service agencies, political institutions such as community councils, parliaments, ministries or governments. It includes also non-governmental and quasi non-governmental organisations dealing with migrants and refugees and their problems. Our focus here however, is on those institutions whose main work is concerned with the integration of migrants and refugees into the labour market. Issues arising here might include:

  • Unwillingness or incompetence on part of workers or management to adjust to the needs of the target group. This may include an ignorance of the need for intercultural competence whilst carrying out their tasks as well as a resistance to addressing the specific needs of refugees and migrants, fearing that it will result in an increased workload.
  • There is in many countries a drive towards cutting costs and terminating social welfare programmes, including special programmes designed for migrants and refugees. This has often lead to the state contracting out their responsibilities to civic society, with NGOs taking on many of the services previously provided by the state. These greater pressures may result in NGOs having less opportunity to offer services with an empowering dimension.
  • One of the challenges at a political level is the perception in many European countries that "foreigners take our jobs", This attitude is strongest in times of economic hardship, high unemployment or in regions most affected by economic difficulties. Progressive policies and actions face barriers rooted in basic, immediate, often unarticulated and very emotional problems: Fear, anger, distrust, alienation and finally racism.
The following aspects might be helpful in empowering institutions:
  • Access to and dissemination of information

    This requires a willingness to relinquish the power base that holding important information can give. Information must be accessible to the migrant in a neutral, easy and impartial way. New technologies can have a role in making information more accessible. Printed information in appropriate languages is vital. This could include easy to understand summaries of important laws and regulations and the variety of services at disposal. Many organisations in this field have a wide range of information materials and publications available.

For examples refer to the British Refugee Council (Link C3/L8 ), the Danish Refugee Council (Link C4/L13 or the PERCO report for details of organisations in your own region.

  • Enhancement of the quality of the personnel involved

    The need for inservice training is obvious where problems in communicating with migrants and refugees constantly reoccur. The methods and approaches for intercultural communication, can be offered through training.

    The hiring of personnel from the target group, migrants, refugees, accepted asylum-seekers etc., is another way to increase the intercultural competence of an institution as a whole. The positive effects of including members of the target group in the work of the institutions cannot be stressed enough. It is the most efficient way of reaching out to the community as well as addressing language needs.

For ideas about the kinds of actions that can be taken to increase the employment of refugees and migrants, ACCEM (Asociación Comisión Católica Española de Migración) (C4/L14) offers a radical model. See also the example of an Equal Opportunities Policy (C3/L12)

  • Other administrative issues and interventions

    The ability of an institution to work effectively to meet the needs of the target group can be enhanced by "Empowered leadership". This is the ability to articulate a clear vision of the values and goals of the institution's work, demonstrating a strong commitment to these goals and a willingness to take risks.
  • Collaboration between organisations for more effective services

    The greater pressure on NGOs throughout the EU and the diminishing of resources, has highlighted the need for more effective flow of information as well as the need to pool resources for joint activities. Increased collaboration between public em-ployment services and specialised local advice services is one way to tackle this problem. Possible ways forward are to set up "one-stop-shops" to provide multiple services like social, cultural and employment advice and programmes, interlinking the various approaches and increasing the choices available. Many small NGOs may find it more fruitful to join with others for the training of their personnel and joint evaluation of their work. Staff-exchanges and apprenticeships might help to widen the scope of experiences and access to information.

The EMPLOYMENT working group in empowerment has identified some "indicators" for empowerment within the context of the wider community. These are:

  • policies respond to representatives of target group;

  • change in public attitudes - the rights of the target group are acknowledged, there is indignation when there are not supported, target group members are described as having rights, rather than needs;

  • removal of obstacles to participation, e. g. greater availability of child-care, change in time of public meetings etc.;

  • increase in numbers of target group being employed in jobs concerned with maintenance of the state, e. g. police, armed forces, civil service;

  • children of target group members born in the host society do not experience exclusion.

Proposed reading for this chapter:

Gutiérrez, Lorraine et al. (eds.): Empowerment in Social Work Practice. A Sourcebook, Pacific Grove et al. 1998.
Lee, Judith A. B.: The Empowerment Approach to Social Work Practice, New York 1994.
Lewis, J.A et al. (eds.): Community counselling. Empowerment strategies for a diverse society, Pacific Grove et. al. 1998.

For more direct hints for dealing with individuals:

Nathan, Robert/ Hill, Linda: Career consulting, London et al. 1992
Potter, Val: Is Counselling Training for You?, London 1997


Some questions to think about

Name some of the major problems facing individual empowerment

What are the six principles of dealing with an individual migrant or refugee within an empowerment process?
Which are the four areas of action when it comes to the empowerment of institutions or organisations?
Try to name some examples from your own experience which can be related to the "dependency syndrome" or the "assistance trap".