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No matter the forces that compel an individual, the process of seeking asylum is daunting. Pushed against their will, often by powerful forces in their country of origin, refugees are forced to leave their homes, their neighbors, their friends and family to relocate to an unknown place and unknown culture, without the security of a  employment, housing, or even a guarantee of sanctuary.

Refugees fleeing sexual assault face additional challenges. Assault of a sexual nature is still a taboo admission in many (if not most) cultures, and a deeply personal struggle for many individuals.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Takver.

The nature of an asylum application procedure, however, is at odds with this. Because of a number of reasons, reports of sexual assault and rape are often grossly mishandled during the asylum process. Studies in the United Kingdom have shown how both the review procedure and the workers themselves are ill-equipped to cope with the unique nature of sexual assault claims, which carry with them an elevated level of trauma and stigma.

In the most immediate obstacle, officials are more likely to give credence to claims of rape or sexual abuse which are reported early on in the application process. Yet, even workers within the UK asylum system note, “The first official opportunity for disclosure, the screening interview, was deemed even by UKBA’s own staff as a site where narratives of rape might be silenced by the ‘harsh’ nature of often cursory questioning and the unsuitable physical environment of interview booths located in a busy waiting room.”

Even in situations where asylum seekers did disclose at an early stage, the experience was often trivialized. In one report, they describe an example where a legal representative described a woman’s experience of being raped at age 11 as ‘having had a pretty unpleasant time.’

Refugee Camp in Pakistan
Refugee women at the Shamshatoo camp at a frontier province in North-West Pakistan. Image courtesy of United Nations Photo on Flickr.

Women are also under scrutiny for how they report their assault. The disclosure of the event itself and how it is expressed in words and facial expression varies from individual to individual. Yet officials are far more likely to believe women who are visibly upset or find it difficult to talk about their experience, though it has been repeatedly proven that reactions to sexual assault range from hysteria to complete detachment, and outward reaction has little to do with the veracity of a seeker’s claims.

This partly stems from a lack of training or sensitivity towards the psychological trauma accompanying rape and a full understanding of the strength of stigma it carries in some cultures. However, researchers also found another underestimated source for workers’ disengagement with reports of this nature.

Quoting Emily Ross, researchers found a significant hole in the system in the consideration of:

“The emotional impact of traumatic narratives on asylum decision-makers and their strategies for coping. Asylum-seekers are often required to engage with disturbing and distressing narratives. Asylum professionals reported a range of responses to hearing such narratives, including stress, burnout, anxiety, flashbacks and a lack of empathy or connection with others. Many reported adopting coping strategies to preserve their personal wellbeing, as the reality of the narratives of persecution and the consequences of decisions in the asylum process was ‘soul destroying.'”

It is easy to forget that fatigue of horror does exist, and that the workers dealing with asylum seekers everyday are also human, and exhaust their ability to empathize purely for self-preservation.

These are difficult problems to wrangle with, but all have implementable, straightforward solutions. Reports show how in certain systems, asylum decision makers must take mandatory holidays in order to mentally rejuvenate and be able to give each case due consideration, given the clouding effect of emotional fatigue. Equally, better training in regards to the psychology of sexual assault (already being implemented in police forces) could improve biases against certain reactions, and eliminate unrealistic expectations of when and how a sexual assault ‘should’ be reported if it is true.

Featured image: A Somali refugee stands inside a tent with her baby in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. Photo by Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo. 

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