Maree Higgins

Date of Submission



Social workers engage with African families from refugee backgrounds in many practice settings. Human rights principles underpin social work and are especially relevant in social work practice with people from refugee backgrounds. This is because gross human rights violations instigate refugee movements, while human rights principles facilitate refugee determination and resettlement. Yet, key human rights theorists argue that human rights discourse is too grounded in Western-centric ideals and needs to be more inclusive of African and other worldviews. In addition, Australian studies highlight that African families from refugee backgrounds face unique challenges and experiences during resettlement and integration. Australian human rights frameworks that are more cognisant of African worldviews have the potential to enhance intercultural practice with African families from refugee backgrounds. A hermeneutic, phenomenological study of human rights was developed to explore the research questions, how are human rights constructed and understood by African families from refugee backgrounds living in Sydney, Australia, and what might this mean for social work practice? Members of African families from refugee backgrounds were invited to participate in semi-structured interviews. As part of the commitment to participatory research methods a research reference group was formed to provide advice on cultural safety and ethical process. Data was analysed using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, aided by NVivo and other software tools. Emphasis was placed on the meaning of lived experience of human rights in the lives of participant families and communities. In total, six men and seven women from a variety of African countries, who had resided in Australia for three-14 years, and were aged 25-64 years, took part in the study. The findings highlighted rich and varied perspectives on human rights of participants and their families and communities. Some perspectives resonated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, while others were distinctively informed by the lived experience of families and communities. Participants conveyed meaning mainly via storytelling and metaphor which revealed layers of human rights understandings from conversant to ‘not-knowing’ human rights, and ways of knowing, being and doing human rights that were informed by African worldviews. Structural factors such as gender, poverty, upheaval and corruption appeared to shape understandings of human rights and affect power and agency of individuals, families and communities. Participants provided views on how social work and human service practitioners could be more helpful. This study demonstrates that privileging the perspectives of African families from refugee backgrounds about human rights can extend human rights discourse and makes an important contribution to the field of social work.


School of Allied Health

Document Type


Access Rights

Open Access


412 pages

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Faculty of Health Sciences

Included in

Social Work Commons