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Refugee Clients: When ‘Resettlement’ Unsettles

How do we ground and resource a trauma survivor when the risk remains real? For refugees who have been ‘resettled’ in areas of the UK with high crime rates, the triggers are everywhere. Jude Boyles reflects on supporting the search for internal and external safety among Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Since March 2020, the UK Government hasn’t allowed any refugees to come to Britain through its global resettlement programme, giving refugees no safe or legal route into the UK. Many other countries have now resumed refugee resettlement. Prior to the pandemic, hundreds of Syrians were told that they had been selected for resettlement in the UK, but their flights were cancelled due to coronavirus. As the pandemic continues, the precarious and risky living conditions for those waiting in host countries such as Lebanon have worsened.

It has been hard to see resettlement stall in this way, knowing the suffering and hardship this has caused. I often find myself reflecting on the plight of these refugees in my day-to-day work, whilst noticing a marked deterioration in a small number of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees I have been working with.

The link between these clients is trauma, as well as living in areas of the city where there is a high crime rate, with regular incidences of violence between neighbours. In these areas, survivors of conflict often feel that same sense of dread they had grown accustomed to during and after conflict. At the same time, the pandemic has interrupted the resettlement and integration process for many of our new arrivals, denying them the reassurance of mixing with other refugees at our centre, as well as accessing other forms of community support.

For these clients, staying inside to be safe is painfully familiar. The lawlessness that exists in post-conflict countries can be terrifying. In Iraq, clients have told me how gangs kidnap people for ransoms and they describe the lack of protection as deeply unsettling. In the UK, the sound of male youths fighting, glass smashing or sirens is frightening for most refugees, and can re-traumatise some.

It is important to help clients understand their responses to external threat and share tools for managing overwhelming feelings. However, working out how we might ground and resource a survivor to manage this context is especially challenging when the risk is real. Over the last few weeks, a small number of Iraqi clients trying to contend with pandemic restrictions in deprived areas with local tensions have shared what is being remembered:

“When the police are called, but the gang run away, and the police give up and go, you realise that even here in the UK, there’s lawlessness…”

“When you have to wait till the morning to leave the house, or you are just waiting for a quieter time, picking your time to go out when its safe, well that’s familiar to me…”

“Feeling that when you leave the house, anything could happen but then you leave and it’s all quiet and you almost forget…”

“The hatred in the face of a child who is spitting and shouting at you, with a wild face, like the gangs in my country…”

“How do I ask them [local youth] to move away from the stairwell to let my family pass if I have no language? How do I protect my family? I don’t know what I can do…”

For these clients, the UK doesn’t feel the safe haven that was hoped for. Their disappointment is palpable during these calls.

For traumatised survivors of conflict who have seen war with all its horror and violence, there can be many triggers in these environments. A non-violent burglary can lead to an emotional collapse that agencies struggle to comprehend, as the client sits up at night by the door to defend his family, not knowing when the intruders will return. No one has told him that it is unlikely they will.

Making sense of these responses is familiar work for me now, but there are also times when the most appropriate intervention is to take action to support a housing move by writing a clinical letter, alongside therapeutic support. Sometimes it doesn’t feel enough and I struggle to manage my own sense of powerlessness at these times.


Jude Boyles

Jude is the Manager of a therapy service for the Refugee Council, working with refugees resettled via UN settlement programmes. Jude edited Psychological Therapies for Survivors of Torture for PCCS Books and published Working with Interpreters in Psychological Therapy with Routledge. She specialises in working with refugee survivors of torture/war and human rights abuses, including gender-based abuse. Jude is Co-Director of the NGO, TortureID.

In 2003, Jude established the first Freedom from Torture (FFT) rehabilitation centre outside of FFT’s headquarters in London, and managed the service for 14 years. As part of this role, she provided clinical and management supervision to therapists and managers working in the refugee field in the region and carried a caseload of torture survivors. Jude has worked as a national trainer in the field of therapy with refugee survivors of torture since 1999, and has also trained extensively in the field of domestic violence and child sexual abuse

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