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Therapy in the Shadow of Legislation

How do we work when impending legislation is engendering a sense of threat? As the Nationality and Borders Bill passes through Parliament, Jude Boyles, manager of a Refugee Council therapy service based in South Yorkshire, shares how both this Bill and the wider context are impacting the lives – and the therapeutic conversations – of refugee clients.

I started drafting this blog on the 28th July 2021, 70 years to the day that the UK signed the UN Refugee Convention. As I write, the Nationality and Borders Bill is going through Parliament. The Bill casts a dark shadow over those of us who work in the refugee therapy sector. Not only does the Bill undermine the principles of the Convention, it continues to strip away the rights of those seeking protection. 

For any therapist working with refugees and people seeking asylum, it is important to be informed about the Bill, as the sense of increased threat that refugees feel in this current hostile climate will be present in the clinical room.

I have worked with people seeking protection since the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, when Leeds, along with many other cities and towns in the UK, began to accommodate people seeking asylum for the first time. This coincided with the Kosovan crisis, when large numbers of Kosovars were welcomed to Leeds by cheering crowds at Leeds Bradford Airport. It feels painful to remember this and observe how very different the context is now. 

Since then, we have seen the living conditions and rights of people seeking protection eroded year after year. I have witnessed the impact on my clients of an asylum system that is badly administrated with flawed decision making, a rise in anti-migrant rhetoric, and misinformation across the media and within government. Some clients tell us of feeling safe and supported in the UK. But often I am told of racist bullying, shouts of “go home”, and of negligent, ill-informed or hostile responses from services. 

My client Omer is a Syrian refugee who arrived in the UK from Turkey earlier this year.    Initially he felt safe. But as the months pass, he is concerned at what his children are telling him about being bullied at school, and the unease he has begun to feel in some settings. In one session he asked me, “Is it really safe here?” It felt a complicated question to answer and it has continued to pre-occupy us in therapy. Omer has been traumatised by events in Syria, and his lack of internal safety has been further compounded by his family’s experiences here, including what he hears about the Bill. 

Omer tells me, “I am tired. I thought it would end here but our life is difficult here too. We thought the law would protect us”.

My team and I work with refugees resettled by the UNHCR, and so all the families have been granted refugee status and are 'safe'. However, my clinical colleagues across the Refugee Council are working with people seeking asylum within our destitution services, in overcrowded hotels, with separated young people as well as those awaiting a decision on their claim and living in the community. 

The sense of threat the Bill engenders amongst refugees is significant, whether a person is legally or theoretically safe from removal. As Omer said when we further reflected on safety, “you say I am safe, but we are not safe. Maybe the Home Office will send us back anytime. They can change their minds about us…” Given the realities of the Windrush Scandal, details of which emerged in 2017, it is easy to see why my client feels that his status is fragile.

It is important that we ask clients what they have heard about the Bill and hear their fears about what it means for them and their families. We can name the injustice and open up dialogue around our own power and privilege. We can have open and honest conversations about what might lie ahead. This might include sharing with our clients that the refugee and human rights sectors are doing all we can to challenge the Bill.

 More information about the Nationality and Borders Bill and ways in which it is being challenged can be found on the Refugee Council website. 


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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