Struck off for wanting a better life

Social workers are supposed to encourage people to improve their lot. So why has a Nigerian man been banned for doing that?

Nothing exposes the gap between the rhetoric and reality of ‘anti-discriminatory practice’ within social work more than the subject of immigration and asylum, an area where people are regularly discriminated against due to prevailing ideas around race and nation. Normally, such practice is reserved for social work’s clients, but the recent case of Abayomi Olatunji shows that social workers themselves are not immune to such treatment.

In 2002, Olatunji was living in Nigeria. He applied to the British High Commission in Lagos for a visa to enter the UK, but his application was refused. Undaunted by such a bureaucratic restriction on his freedom of movement, Olatunji entered the UK using someone else’s passport. While here, he enrolled on and completed a degree in Social Work and was accepted onto the social-care register by the General Social Care Council (GSCC), the body responsible for regulating the social-work profession.

He then applied for, and was subsequently offered, the post of social worker with Southampton Council in 2010. It was not until the council undertook the required pre-employment checks that Olatunji’s immigration status came to light - a reminder of the extent to which a variety of institutions, employers, social services, universities, etc are now embroiled in the internal regulation of immigration. The offer of employment was withdrawn and the council informed the GSCC of their decision.

The GSCC investigated the case and then referred Olatunji to their conduct committee, which found him guilty of misconduct and decided that the only appropriate sanction was to remove him from the social-care register, which, in effect, prevents him working as, or even calling himself, a social worker. Whatever the technicalities of the case, the pursuit of Olatunji and the lack of opposition to his de-registration sheds light on the way social work has embraced its role in policing the internal control of immigration, and of how it now increasingly works to a techno-legal paradigm at the expense of moral-ethical judgement.

The conduct committee ruled that Olatunji’s actions were misleading and dishonest, and thus constituted misconduct in that he broke the GSCC’s Code of Practice which requires social workers to be honest, trustworthy and to communicate in an open, accurate and straightforward way. In addition, while undertaking two 100-day placements as part of his BA Social Work course, they concluded that ‘his position was likely to be have been compromised because he was in all probability seeking to hide his immigration status. This was likely to have put service users at risk.’

Olatunji’s actions were indeed both dishonest and misleading. He entered the UK illegally and lied about - or at least did not divulge - his immigration status, so in a narrow legalistic sense that part of the judgement is correct. That said, given the implications for him if his immigration status was revealed, the desire to keep it hidden is perhaps understandable.

What is not so clear is how it follows that such actions were likely to put service users at risk. The committee itself does not seem to know, merely stating that it was ‘satisfied that the risk existed’. Olatunji had no criminal or disciplinary record and submitted references as to his competence and ability to practice. Given the serious nature of such a finding, it is not unreasonable to expect a more detailed assessment of the nature and degree of the risk Olatunji allegedly posed.

However, what is more revealing about the judgement is the way the committee’s decision presupposes that the main, indeed only problem, is the behaviour of Olatunji. Yet, what is wrong with wanting to achieve a better life, to educate yourself, and in the process embark on a career where you hope to be able to help others? Such motivation for action is normally looked on very favourably by the social-work profession. In another era, he could have been praised not only for his ingenuity in the face of inherently discriminatory policies and practices, but also for his endeavour in overcoming structural barriers in pursuit of education and a professional career. Indeed, it was arguably such determination and fortitude that worked against him. His refusal to adopt the role of victim, his failure to display any physical or mental scars to the authorities in an attempt to claim asylum status, in effect cast him as an illegal alien.

I would argue that the main problem lies not so much in what Olatunji did, but in the discriminatory legal apparatus that prevents the free movement of people across the globe. The committee obviously disagrees, as it justified the sanction of de-registration on the grounds that his conduct undermined ‘the confidence of the public in being able to place complete reliance on the integrity of registrants’. However, such a judgement assumes that ‘the public’ is a homogenous group who all share the same opinions on a range of matters, but this is not the case. I am a member of the public, but my trust in social workers is not in the least dented by the actions of those who seek to move around the world in an attempt to improve their lives and the lives of others. I am more disturbed by the actions of the GSCC and its committee who are so concerned with ‘public opinion’ that they are unable to make a principled moral stance and apportion blame where it belongs - to increasingly authoritarian anti-immigration policies, and not with those individuals left with no choice but to break the law to achieve freedom of movement.

And whilst it may be the case that many social workers support the government’s policies on immigration and asylum, and also that many have adopted the role of internal immigration-controller with relish, such a position is not universal; others have publicly criticised such a role as being against genuine social-work values, and many have actively supported those subject to deportation orders or other inequitable legal infringements.

Likewise, the GSCC may view Olatunji’s immigration status as grounds to discriminate against him, but again this is not necessarily the view of all social-work organisations. For example, the International Federation of Social Workers believes that ‘social workers should support the abolition of legal measures which restrict migrants’ rights or establish reduced standards of rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, compared with those enjoyed by citizens of the host nation’.

Within social-work teaching, it is common to highlight practices that were acceptable in the past but which we now find abhorrent - slavery, the practice of eugenics, the mistreatment of disabled people, racist and sexist stereotypes, and related practices both within and outwith social work. It is, of course, easy with hindsight to identify such instances of the degradation of our fellow humans. I always ask my students to try to think which common assumptions and practices that are taken for granted today that will be looked upon with disgust by future generations. My hope is that the degrading way people are abused, incarcerated and forcibly removed for the ‘crime’ of wishing to move freely across the globe will one day be regarded with disgust.

The judgement of history would then be that while the GSCC’s committee was correct in a narrow techno-legal sense, in terms of human equality and dignity its actions were morally questionable.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His latest book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the Psychology of Recognition, will be published in November. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).

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