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Reducing distress when working with children in the asylum process

It is often not possible to mitigate additional distress when working with children given the nature of the asylum regime and the need to explore the hardest moments in your client’s life. This post gives some ideas on how to mitigate this distress when helping a child prepare an asylum claim. 

It’s often not possible to know in advance what will cause distress. Simply asking their mother’s name could trigger sadness, or asking about their siblings could bring back a negative memory. You need to be as prepared as possible before the initial meeting. A careful study of any advanced paperwork on the child can give clues to sensitive points in their history and give you an idea of which topics to treat with additional care. 

If you are using an interpreter, briefing them on the content of the upcoming meeting is good practice. It might also be helpful to let them know the child’s age. This means they can be ready to alter their tone and slow or simplify their language.

At the start of the meeting, spend time checking in with the child. Launching straight into the meeting can cause alarm and trust can be lost before you have even begun. Enquiries about their health, school, their journey to meet you, and even the weather, is time well spent. Starting at a gentle, slow pace can help to build a good rapport.

Make it clear from the outset that you are on their side. You are separate from the government bodies they engage with. Most young people will assume you work with social services or the Home Office but this misunderstanding needs to be addressed at an early stage. The child needs to understand your role as their legal representative.

It’s a good baseline to take a break every 45 minutes. As the person running the meeting, breaks should be initiated by you, at least initially. More often than not young people will defer to you and in several cultures, importance is placed on the respect that this shows for the oldest person in a room. Taking breaks helps everyone in the room find equilibrium and process their thoughts. Often, after coming back from the break a child may divulge new important information.

When taking a statement for their asylum claim, preface challenging questions with comments such as “I am going to ask you a difficult question now…”. If they become distressed, be ready to switch the line of questioning to easier topics that might also be required for the statement. For example, their life in the UK, their college, sports, friends, or some cultural traditions from back home are all good alternative topics. 

Be clear with your client. They do not need to answer a question if it is too troubling, or they cannot remember. Take notes on their body language and expression of emotion. This is evidence in itself and can be included in the statement. If you feel you do not have enough information, or there are gaps in the narrative, you can explain that you will need to return to the topic in another meeting. In some cases, the child will return ready and steeled to give you the required information. 

Grounding techniques can be very helpful in moments of distress for both you and the client. Some therapists recommend taking a sip of water during moments of high emotion. The very action brings us back into the room and the present space. For others, stepping out into fresh air and being reminded they are no longer in that traumatic space might be necessary. 

When a young person is visibly distressed, it can be hard to know what to say. One effective response is to pause and name the emotion in the room. If you feel able to, explain how you feel in response to their emotion. These comments can be a powerful way to convey empathy and build trust. After a heightened emotion, words of validation such as “I am glad you are here now and safe” serve to show the impact of their story and also reminds them they are now somewhere different and, hopefully, safe.

At the close of a meeting, aim to stop asking statement-oriented questions with five minutes to spare. Switch to questions focused on their immediate life, such as their plans for the rest of the day. Doing so draws the child away from any traumatic memories and spaces explored for the statement-taking process. This can mitigate their sense of disorientation as they exit your meeting.

The above ideas are drawn from experience working with young people, as well as seeking guidance from mental health practitioners.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Sarah Wahby

Sarah Wahby is a IAAS level 2 Caseworker at Turpin Miller assisting unaccompanied children through the asylum process. Previously, Sarah worked internationally with NGOs and academic institutions in Egypt and the UK. Her interest lies in combining advocacy with psychosocial practice to better support people seeking safety.