A N N E H O L L O W S
I chose Grey blanket because …
… The picture shows a line of refugees, rescued from the sea off Lesbos. They are queuing for warm, dry clothes and food before registering as refugees at the nearby UNHCR camp. Around their bare feet lie the detritus of instant comfort – empty cups of chai, wrappers from a batch of donated chocolate croissants. From there they hope to travel north by ferry, bus, on foot and by train to Germany or Sweden. You will observe that they are barefoot and under the UNHCR grey blankets they have wet trousers from wading through the sea. Their faces are not in the picture, deliberately, because they are just a few of the nameless people desperately trying to build a new life.
Blankets feature in humanitarian work with all ages as a source of warmth and comfort. Babies are swaddled in them; children are tucked in beside adults in them and adults are swathed in them when they have nothing else. ‘But’, I hear you say, ‘what has this to do with social work?’ You would be quite correct that in many countries, social work has little immediate connection with the humanitarian crises that fill the pages of our newspapers and for those who have worked in these situations however briefly, haunt our dreams. Social workers have become established as bureau professionals, dealing with individual problems rather than on the front line of response to urgent community crisis. And yet…
There was a time, when I became a social worker in the early 1970’s, when people entered social work with a passionate personal and political commitment to change the world. A study over 30 years ago in Australia by my late friend and colleague, Len Dalgleish and others, demonstrated that a key motivation of student social workers was to make a difference at the point of need. This was not a false assumption. It would be appropriate, writing from Sheffield, to remember that at the time of the Hillsborough disaster many local social workers played a key role in working with survivors and relatives as well as supporting families in the longer term. Indeed for the first 20 years of my career, social work straddled work with individuals alongside community development activities. But somewhere between then and now, the idea of social work in the UK being at the forefront of, for example, the refugee crisis is far from obvious. It is easy to find a host of explanations – professionalization; defensiveness; the inexorable individual psycho-pathologising of child protection to name but three; it is more difficult to work out the mechanisms that have allowed this to happen. The concept of ‘re-claiming social work’ has turned out to be both specific and limited; certainly not a return to real engagement with local, national and geo-political challenges.
The idealism and beliefs are nonetheless still around. Social workers, both current and retired, are a significant group in the volunteer force that contributes to work with refugees on the Greek islands and mainland, though all agree that this is not ‘social work’ as it is presently constructed in most countries. I wonder if we will ever return to a time when the personal and the professional are indeed political?
 Most of the refugees I met were families with children but the men queued separately for clothes from the women and children. We had a clear policy of not taking recognizable pictures of women and, especially, of children. This therefore should avoid the myth that most of the refugees are men, which this photo could inadvertently promote.