Not just a name on a sheet of paper

Professor Gail Kinman reports from a symposium at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

We are experiencing an unprecedented migration crisis, with many millions of people leaving their homes to seek refuge from violent conflicts, natural disasters and human rights violations. Even when they arrive in their host country, refugees face many challenges and we need to know how they can be best supported. This session comprised three papers that examined the difficulties experienced by refugees from different perspectives.

In the last five years the number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the UK has risen significantly. Sarah Crafter (Open University) interviewed professionals from a range of services (such as social work, law, foster care, the police and immigration) who work with these children about their understandings and personal experiences of care and care practices. Care was described as ‘an absence presence’ whereby professionals experience tension between their ethical duty to protect these ‘super vulnerable’ children and prioritise their needs, and their professional duty to uphold immigration policies and defend national borders. As one interviewee explained: ‘It is not just a name on a sheet of paper, it is an actual person’.  

Migrant children often experience care from other children who have shared the same traumatic experiences and they develop very close bonds. Sadly, close friends are often split up on arrival and dispersed to different parts of the country – sometimes ‘literally being dragged away from each other screaming’. Such experiences will be highly traumatic not only for the child but also for the professional who is ‘following the rules’. More knowledge is clearly needed about professionals’ experiences of caring for migrant children to raise awareness of the difficulties that both parties experience to help them provide the care and support that suits children’s needs.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war an estimated 12 million people have been forcibly displaced. As the war enters its seventh year, the risk of ‘compassion fatigue’ has been highlighted, where people become indifferent to the needs of refugees. Nihan Albayrak (London School of Economics and Political Science) used social identity theory to examine the role of identity proximity (perceived similarity to the target) in deciding whether to help refugees from Syria. Participants from Turkey and the UK with different physical and cultural proximities to Syrian refugees provided information on their national, religious and world-citizenship identification, their attitudes towards helping policies and their intentions to help. Although physical proximity is important for offering help to victims, cultural proximity appears to be the key driver – those who considered Syrian refugees to be ‘people like them’ were more likely to offer help even if they were physically remote. As helping ‘isn’t about being neighbours, but about feeling neighbourly’, charity appeals may be more successful if they highlight the cultural bonds between the helper and those requiring help. 

Carmen Lienen (Phillips University of Marburg) examined refugees’ social representations of Germany and their place within it. ‘Photo Voice’, an innovative participatory technique, allowed participants who had requested asylum to use photography to tell their own stories about their migrant status. Participants perceived Germany to be a country of ‘endless possibilities’, but saw themselves as dependent on their host country and having limited opportunities. Migrants typically saw themselves as ‘strangers’ and were conflicted about their identity, experiencing tension between the need to preserve their own culture and feeling pressurised to integrate into the culture of their adopted country. Participants’ identity was also impacted by the ‘media-fuelled’ stigmatisation of migrants as potential terrorists, and the need to distance themselves from such behaviour. Feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness about their immigration status and the future were key themes where ‘days pass by with nothing happening – we just wait to get an answer’. More positively, the images also showed migrants joining together to preserve their cultures and gain support. The photographs taken by participants were displayed in a local exhibition that encouraged the wider community to gain insight into refugees’ perspectives. 

- You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions.

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