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About our 2022 grant cycle: bridging the gap between legal aid and MHPSS

The article below is an extract from SolidariTee's 2022 grant information pack. The full brochure can be found by clicking here.

 

Since the beginning of SolidariTee's journey, we have focussed the vast majority of

our funding on legal aid and other services integral to it, such as translation and

interpretation services. The funding we have provided has supported legal aid NGOs

in providing interview preparation sessions, information provision both in person and

online, representation during appeals, and family reunification services, in addition to

strategic litigation and advocacy work.


We believe very strongly in the power of legal aid in preventing asylum seekers

from experiencing unjust rejections and deportations, in reuniting families, and in

enabling those fleeing violence and persecution to leave the terrible conditions in

refugee camps and gain the rights to work, healthcare and education. In sum, legal

aid supports people and restores their agency to rebuild their lives and communities

in safety, without fear of life-threatening persecution, and challenges many of the

procedural violations and injustices which are inherent within the asylum system.

However, we recognise that legal aid cannot exist in a vacuum. The incidence of poor mental health, and mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and acute suicidality is, unsurprisingly, far higher in asylum-seeking populations, especially those living in refugee camps, than in the general population.

Reasons for this include the fact that those seeking asylum have very often experienced violence, persecution, and other forms of abuse including torture in the country they were forced to flee.

This, in combination with the fact that those crossing borders in search of safety are

often forced to make incredibly dangerous and life-threatening journeys, which

frequently involve violent and illegal pushbacks at land and/or sea, means that

almost all those seeking asylum in countries such as Greece will have experienced

severe and compounding forms of trauma*.


Furthermore, conditions in refugee camps themselves, and/or the homelessness experienced by so many forcibly displaced people across Europe and beyond, contribute profoundly to poor mental health and an inability to access many fundamental services which are so crucial to living in physical and mental safety. Though the factors listed above are well documented, what is less often discussed is the impact of legal limbo, and of the legal process of seeking asylum itself, on a person's mental health. Many people seeking asylum in Greece are still forced to wait months or even years before they can even lodge asylum applications, let alone attend asylum interviews or receive decisions on initial applications or appeals. Still others are forcibly rushed through asylum procedures at days' or weeks' notice, leaving no time to prepare. Existing within a system where you can't predict how long you will be living in the current conditions of a refugee camp, or what will happen to you following your application, undoubtedly takes an enormous mental toll.


The asylum process itself, in addition to the preparation involved, also comes with major challenges from a trauma psychology perspective. There is remarkably little academic research in this area, so the below is derived from first principles. A major pillar of any work in the field of trauma psychology and mental health first aid relates to the fact that a person who has experienced trauma should never be forced to recount their experiences unless they so wish to, and most certainly should never be asked to do so whilst in a physically or psychologically unsafe situation. These psychological principles run entirely counter to the asylum system itself. Within an asylum interview, applicants are asked to recount experiences in minute detail, with any inconsistencies or missing details having the potential to cost someone their entire asylum application.

 

In addition, it is well established that the brain processes memories differently in traumatic or highly emotional situations compared to everyday situations.


There is evidence that traumatic memories are stored in different regions of the brain, and that the brain generally focuses more on the emotional components of the memory than the episodic (details, time and chronological) components. This is to say that, in traumatic situations, such as in the experiences of persecution which often force someone to flee their home and to seek asylum, our brains are simply not wired to be able to store, process and recall information in the way that the asylum system requires, even without considering how emotionally painful being forced to do so may be.


In large part because of this, legal aid is crucial in enabling people to organise the information needed to recount their experience, and collect the physical evidence required to back up their narrative, given that events which occurred months or years ago may have been processed by the person in a way which makes it very difficult to meet the obligations of the asylum process without support.


At the same time, I (Alexa) believe that the sector as a whole needs to further acknowledge how much is being asked of asylum seekers from a psychological perspective, and recognise that the entire process is geared around recounting traumatic memories in a psychologically unsafe situation. Many people - though it is important to recognise, NOT all - who have experienced traumatic events may display post-traumatic symptoms which persist for months or years after the events. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is common in refugees and asylum seekers, and is characterised by prolonged symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance and avoidance of situations which remind the person of the original event. The symptoms of PTSD, along with many other mental health conditions, may make it even more difficult for someone to meet the obligations of the asylum process.

It is very common for asylum seekers to break down during their interviews, and/or to simply not be able to verbalise what has happened to them. Furthermore, the act of being forced to recount experiences in such a high-pressure situation as an asylum interview, the outcome of which can, in some cases, be literally life or death, can itself induce or worsen the incidence of post-traumatic symptoms. Following the initial event itself, a person may have few or none of these symptoms, but may later develop them following the asylum process itself.


Legal aid has immense potential to both help and harm a person's mental health during the asylum process.


Having the support of a legal professional who has taken the time to develop a trusting relationship with their client can make the world of difference in enabling someone to prepare themselves in a safe setting, understand the process and obligations, and be informed of the types of questions they may be asked such that they can psychologically equip themselves to respond. In addition, legal aid helps to provide access to the long-term rights which are absolutely necessary for all people everywhere.

It is very difficult to improve mental health within a context of dangerous living conditions, legal limbo, and lack of access to community or work, and in this way, legal aid itself lays the foundations for psychological safety. Furthermore, psychiatrist's reports which confirm that a person does indeed have a diagnosis of a mental health condition such as PTSD can provide invaluable evidence to support a person's asylum claim, by acting as supporting documentation to corroborate the fact that a traumatic event did indeed occur. On the flip side, legal aid delivered improperly can unfortunately compound the problems, increasing the number of times a person is forced to recount traumatic events without proper support or the ability to opt-out being provided.


 

In practical terms, there are a number of ways in which mental health and psychosocial support can support people to improve their experiences of the asylum process and vice versa improving legal and mental health outcomes. A few examples are included below:

  • Training sessions provided by qualified psychiatrists and psychologists to legal aid actors, providing education and guidance around how to best support clients who have experienced trauma.

  • Mental health first aid and emergency stabilisation sessions provided to those in mental health crisis as a result of the asylum process.

  • Co-referral between legal and MHPSS actors to ensure that clients are being effectively supported in both areas.

  • Private or group sessions offered to those navigating the asylum procedure, supporting with grounding exercises and coping/resilience strategies to enable clients to complete the asylum process and convey the information required.

  • Psychologists' and/or psychiatrists' reports issued to support legal aid actors with supporting documentation in an asylum claim.

  • Research and advocacy conducted by legal and/or MHPSS actors, in order to fight for a more trauma-informed asylum process.

This is a non-exhaustive list, and we look forward to receiving applications from organisations providing innovative solutions to the challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees** within the European asylum system. For all enquiries regarding the application process, please email Alexa Netty, CEO at grant.committee@solidaritee.org.uk.



 


*In this context, I use the word trauma to refer to an extreme adverse event which

falls outside of the scope of hardships which may be experienced by anyone within

the general population. It is important to note that whilst an experience (physical or

sexual violence, mental or physical torture) may be classed as traumatic, this does not

necessarily mean that the affected person should be referred to as traumatised.


** We would also like to acknowledge the fact that many forcibly displaced people do not qualify for any form of protection under the UN Refugee Convention. Whilst our Theory of Change is predominantly based around the European Asylum system, we welcome applications from those supporting people forcibly displaced or forced to migrate in vulnerable situations other than refugees and asylum seekers, including but not limited to victims of trafficking, rejected asylum seekers, and climate migrants, provided the NGO's work aligns with our funding priorities.

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