In the encounter between legal professionals and asylum claimants, the latter are the most vulnerable, requiring our help and support as a priority. In my current research, I wanted to consider, however, the emotional impact on those who work with asylum claimants, particularly their legal representatives.
People who flee from their countries to seek safer lives elsewhere are often victims of traumatic experiences. These experiences may have occurred within their countries of origin, during their journeys in search of asylum, or within the countries that they are trying to find safety. They may, for example, have experienced persecution because of their religion, sexuality or their characteristics in their own country. During their journey they might have experienced sexual violence or been held illegally in detention. Or, within the country they are seeking asylum, they might be experiencing post-migration adversities – such as stress related to their claims, or feelings of separation from their family or loved ones.
Legal representatives who work in asylum law hear traumatic stories on a daily basis. Working with traumatised individuals and hearing their stories can have an impact on the mental health of the listener. Often this emotional impact is characterised as vicarious trauma or burnout, and it has been observed in a wide range of settings including within the medical profession or in the police. Vicarious trauma has been described by the American Counselling Association as the ‘emotional residue of exposure that counsellors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured’. (American Counselling Association ‘Fact Sheet #9: Vicarious Trauma’). Burnout is a result of the general psychological stress of working with difficult clients. It progresses as a result of emotional exhaustion. (R. Trippany, V. White Kress, S. Allen Wilcoxon ‘Preventing vicarious trauma: What counsellors should know when working with trauma survivors’ Journal of Counseling & Development, 82(1), 2004, 31). Studies have confirmed the potential for secondary trauma or burnout in lawyers. (Y. Fischman, ‘Secondary trauma in the legal professions, a clinical perspective’, Torture, 18(2), 2008, 107).
The legal practitioners that I interviewed in England and Ireland in March to June 2017 described how working with traumatised individuals can take its emotional toll on them. It was evident, in particular, that many had experienced burnout, or witnessed it in others. In some cases that may have affected the relationship that practitioners had with their clients, or to their attention to care in their roles. However, participants were also quick to point out that working in asylum law carries additional pressures – the cuts to legal aid and the negative effects that these are having to the provision of legal services was singled out as a particular problem. It was clear that practitioners are not only performing an emotionally demanding job, but also operating within a very challenging sector.
My research is an in-depth investigation of the impact that emotionally demanding work can have on practitioners in asylum law, as well as a study of the support and training available for asylum practitioners. I am also interested in what structural changes could be made to better support them. In research in 2005 by Bober and Regehr on medical therapists it was argued that ‘the primary predictor of trauma scores is hours per week spent working with traumatized people… the solution seems more structural than individual’. (T. Bober and C. Regehr ‘Strategies for reducing secondary or vicarious trauma: do they work?’ Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 2005, 6(1), 1-9). Yet, in order for this to be viable, practitioners need to be paid more in legal aid so they do not have to take on as many clients. However, for this to be achieved we would need to put sustained pressure on decision-makers to recognise the emotional demands of working in this area of law to be an issue. My wider aim for this research is to feed into the policy debate, and to put these issues more firmly on the agenda of decision-makers. In addition to this, I also want to make legal practitioners aware of the potential for secondary trauma, so that they are more informed of the emotional impacts of conducting this type of work.
One thing to emerge from this research was an understanding that working as an asylum practitioner is challenging and that more can be done to acknowledge the emotional pressure legal practitioners face. However, those I spoke to were also quick to point out how proud they were to work in an area of law where they could make a real difference to the lives of their clients. They spoke of how deeply rewarding it was to break the good news to a person that their asylum claim has been successful. For, to many of their clients, to receive the protection that they need can be the most life enhancing experience in their lifetime. To reiterate what I said at the beginning, it is asylum claimants who should receive our help and support as a priority. However, in order for asylum practitioners to perform their work to their upmost, and because we have an ethical duty to care for our professionals, we also need to support our lawyers.
Written by Neil Graffin, Lecturer in International Law at the Open University. His research interests are within international human rights law and asylum law. Within these areas of legal enquiry, he is particularly interested in the legal framework which regulates what happens after someone has been ill-treated, as well as the impact of legal processes on individuals where trauma is present.