Refugees, asylum seekers and Restorative Justice

Published: Friday, February 23rd, 2024

This is a blog by Dr Steve Kirkwood, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His research areas include Restorative Justice, the response to refugees, and criminal justice social work. He is first author of the book, ‘The language of asylum: Refugees and discourse’, and his work has been published in a range of international journals, including The International Journey of Restorative Justice, European Journal of Criminology, British Journal of Social Work and British Journal of Social Psychology. His staff webpage is here, and he may be contacted at the following email address:


The effects of forced migration

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over one hundred million people globally have been forced to flee their homes as a consequence of war, conflict and persecution. While most are internally displaced within their own countries, many others are forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, and a relative minority find themselves in third countries, such as the United Kingdom, in search of safety.

Unfortunately, even for those who are able to reach and apply for asylum in countries such as the UK, many difficulties and hardships can remain. Rhetoric and policy in relation to asylum seekers in the UK is often hostile and dehumanising, including recent attempts by the UK Government to send asylum applicants to Rwanda to have their applications processed, where their well-being and human rights are at risk. While people of a refugee background often have high levels of resilience, they may be more vulnerable to being victims of crime, including racism. They may also experience barriers in trusting in or reporting crime to the police.

Given the potential vulnerabilities and justice needs of people of a refugee background, Restorative Justice may be a useful approach for responding to criminal harm they may experience or commit. So, what is the potential for Restorative Justice in relation to refugees?

The Forced Migration and Moral Repair study

I received funding from the Leverhulme Trust to undertake a research study in 2023 entitled ‘Forced migration and moral repair’. The focus of the study was to understand the potential for Restorative Justice to respond to the harms and injustices affecting people who have experienced forced migration. I reviewed international literature on the topic and undertook a small number of interviews in the UK with Restorative Justice providers, representatives from justice organisations working with refugees, and refugees themselves. I also interviewed people involved in using restorative practices in asylum reception centres in Belgium.

The potential of restorative justice in places of asylum

The most striking finding from my research interviews was that, despite speaking to representatives from five Restorative Justice providers based in England, none were aware of providing RJ to people of a refugee background. This is somewhat surprising, given that asylum seekers and refugees may be at an increased likelihood of being a victim of crime. However, given that most services received referrals from the police, it may be that many refugees did not report the crime, and therefore it did not come to the attention of the service.

The existing research literature and interviews suggested that Restorative Justice has real potential to address the needs of people with a refugee background. Many of the potential benefits are the same as for people of other backgrounds; that is, Restorative Justice provides people with a voice in dealing with criminal harm that affects them, helps build mutual understanding, allows people to ask and receive answers to questions, and helps people to make amends and move away from offending behaviour. More specifically in relation to people of a refugee background, Restorative Justice was seen as a useful way to address racism, as it humanises people, may help to educate people about the realities of forced migration, and can support people to build connections and provide a sense of belonging.

Barriers and challenges for restorative justice with people of a refugee background

A major potential barrier for Restorative Justice in relation to people of a refugee background is language. If people were not proficient in the local language, it was seen as a potential challenge for participation and mutual understanding. However, involving interpreters was seen as a good way of overcoming language issues, although it was recognised that they could slow down and complicate the process. Other potential barriers and challenges included mistrust, people’s migration status, trauma, and access to resources. Cultural difference was seen as an issue that ought to be taken into account, but was not necessarily a barrier to participation.

Overall, Restorative Justice offers real potential for responding to criminal harm experienced by people of a refugee background in places of asylum. However, potential barriers and challenges need to be taken into account, especially regarding language and communication. A good way forward is for Restorative Justice providers to proactively engage with refugee communities and organisations to understand their needs and work collaboratively to ensure these are met in ways they feel are most appropriate.


For more detail on the topic, please see the following journal article: Kirkwood, S. (2024). Restorative justice, refugees and criminal harm in places of asylum. The International Journal of Restorative Justice. 

For more information about using Restorative Justice with people with English as an additional language, see our project page.

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