Academic journal article Social Work

Working with Victims of Persecution: Lessons from Holocaust Survivors

Academic journal article Social Work

Working with Victims of Persecution: Lessons from Holocaust Survivors

Article excerpt

It is estimated that 25 to 30 million people are forced to leave their homes because of human rights violations or threats to their lives. Such massive dislocations at the international level result in significant numbers of diverse, persecuted populations seeking asylum in the United States. It is estimated that as many as 400,000 victims of torture now reside in the United States, with many survivors suffering in silence. The challenge for social workers is to discover this often hidden, vulnerable population and to serve them.

Key words: Holocaust; persecution; psychological trauma; refugees

Among all the populations experiencing the trauma and stress of persecution, most is know about Holocaust survivors. Through examining the long-term effects of massive psychic trauma gleaned from research on Holocaust survivors and their children, this article addresses the skills, techniques, and insights about current refugee populations that can be incorporated into social work practice and training.

Fueled partly by geopolitical manipulation, the numbers of people experiencing severe political, religious, ethnic, and social persecution are rising. These displaced populations are created by civil wars, ethnic conflict, economic depressions, and wars between countries (Amnesty International, 1997; Drachman, 1995; U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1998).

Social workers have a long history of advocating for and promoting the psychosocial adjustment of displaced and traumatized populations, as was the case in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Similarities exist between problems observed in Holocaust survivors and those seen in current victims of persecution in regard to behaviors exhibited under extreme stress and transmission of the trauma to subsequent generations (Danieli, 1988, 1994; Rosenbloom, 1995; Solkoff, 1992). Other lessons that may be extrapolated from the Holocaust include the consequences of unquestioning conformity, abdication of individual responsibility, and the ruthless application of the prodigious creations of the 20th century--science and technology (Milchman & Rosenberg, 1996; Rosenbloom, 1995).

Scope and Importance of Immigration

Data Considerations: Practical Problems in Counting Refugees

Statistics on refugees and other displaced populations are often inexact and controversial because of the following. First, because definitions vary from country to country--one country's refugee is another country's illegal alien. Today's internally displaced person may be tomorrow's refugee. Therefore, government tallies cannot always be trusted to give full and unbiased accounts of refugee movements (U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1998). Second, in emergency situations it is not always possible to provide a reliable estimate because of the ongoing nature of the influx. Third, significant forced displacements may be over- or underreported. Fourth, in large-scale refugee situations, camp populations are often fluid-moving in and out often without notifying relevant organizations or authorities. Finally, statistics can become quickly outdated as a result of sudden new arrivals or departures (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 1998).

Overview of Displaced People at the International Level

Currently available statistics underscore the overwhelming magnitude of these dislocations. It is estimated that 25 to 30 million people are forced to leave their homes because of human rights violations or threats to their lives. Many of these people are displaced within their own borders. It is estimated further that in their search for safety, an additional 13 million people have been displaced. Almost 90 percent of these people come from the poorest countries in the world, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Somalia (Table 1). Such massive dislocations at the international level result in significant numbers of diverse, persecuted populations seeking asylum in the United States, including Cambodians, Caribbean Islanders, Central Americans, Eastern and Central Europeans, Iranians, sub-Saharan Africans, and Vietnamese (Amnesty International, 1997; Castex, 1994; Fong & Mokuau, 1994; Padilla, 1997; Partida, 1996; U. …

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