Working with refugees and asylum seekers to enhance the occupational therapy curriculum

Our March blog comes from Dr Hannah Spring and Fiona Howlett who provide a brief overview of how their work with refugees and asylum seekers is informing the occupational therapy curriculum.

Above: York St John University student and staff project teams from recent academic years who worked on  refugee and asylum seeker research studies.


In recent years the world has seen record levels of mass migration due to war, conflict and political persecution.  Many people who have been the victims of forced migration find themselves seeking asylum thousands of miles from home in unfamiliar and often hostile environments.  Situations like this can often lead to occupational disruption in which familiar daily life is drastically altered and preventing engagement with dignified and meaningful occupations. 


What we do

Participating in meaningful occupations is a fundamental aspect of the human experience and crucial to health and well-being.  Those seeking asylum or refugee status in the UK encounter significant barriers to integration which can often result in occupational deprivation.  This issue goes to the very heart of the work occupational therapists do to improve quality of life.  At York St John University staff from the occupational therapy team have developed links with a drop-in service for asylum seekers and refugees in Stockton-upon-Tees, and more locally with partners in York to develop mutually beneficial relationships.  As a result of this we have collaborated in a number of activities with some very positive outcomes.  These include:

  • Student and staff co-production of impactful research though SCoRe (Students as Co-Researcher) projects to help inform UK service development and policy concerning the occupational needs of asylum seekers and refugees.


  • Presentations given at national and international conference presentations by staff and students, and the publication of peer-reviewed research papers including 10 students as named authors.


Above Left: Staff and students presenting at the World Federation of Occupational Therapist Congress in South Africa.  Above Right: Staff and students presenting at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists Student Conference.

  • Regular talks and lectures from volunteers and asylum seekers from the drop-in service to occupational therapy students to aid student learning and understanding of this population group.


  • Attendance at the OT Society Christmas Talent Show each year from members of the drop-in service and musical performance contributions from asylum seekers and refugees to support cultural understanding and integration.

Above: The OT Society Christmas Talent Show with members of the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project Stockton.  Photograph reproduced with full permission from Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project Stockton.

  • Spring into Action Campaign – a student led charitable campaign by the OT Society, and regular charitable donations of clothes, toiletries and household items from York St John to the drop-in service at Stockton (please drop-off any donations you may wish to offer in DG310 – we visit the service regularly and take donations each time).

Above: Refguee and Asylum Seeker Project Stockton accepting donations from York St John University students and staff from the Spring into Action campaign. Photograph reproduced with full permission from Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project Stockton.

  • The attainment of a plot of land at the Haxby Road allotment site of York St John University. With the help of a grant we are currently working on the development of this allotment site for a join community allotment project initiative with Refugee Action York.  This project will link York St John occupational therapy students with local refugees for the purposes of supporting community integration, dignified and meaningful occupation, and health and well-being.

Above: The allotment site at Haxby Road

Above Left: York St John University students with service users at Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project Stockton.  Above Right: Refugee Week 2019. Stockton-on-Tees. Photographs reproduced with full permission from Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project Stockton

Why does it matter?

The collaborative work we do with refugees and asylum seekers ensures the delivery of a contemporary curriculum that is informed directly by the people occupational therapy can benefit.  It enhances the student experience by enabling them to interact and form relationships with people from different cultures and to understand and contextualise global problems that affect us all.  It also provides students with the opportunity to engage in real world research with a compassionate ethos that aims to be impactful to public policy, the profession of occupational therapy and in achieving occupational justice for asylum seekers and refugees.  But more importantly, the relationship we have is truly reciprocal.  Being given the opportunity to engage with students is highly valued by our asylum seeker and refugee friends.  It provides them with a safe platform that bypasses media manipulation and from which their real voices can be heard.  It also enables them to provide pure education on why they migrate and what their occupational needs are when they arrive in the UK.  Our work was instrumental in York St John achieving University of Sanctuary status in 2018, and as we move towards the development of an Institute for Social Justice, this work and its maintained development will continue to hold great value.


Dr Hannah Spring and Fiona Howlett


Key Reference

Spring, H., Howlett, F., Connor, C., Alderson, A., Antcliff, J., Dutton, K., Gray, O., Hirst, E., Jabeen, Z., Jamil, M., Mattimoe, S., Waister, S. The value and meaning of a community drop-in service for asylum seekers and refugees. International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care. January 2019. Available from:

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