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Refugee Week

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Refugee Week 2023 is 19–25 June and the theme is Compassion

“Do you see me?” – Reflections on working with refugees

Upon qualification as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, I contemplated the journey ahead with healthy apprehension, excitement and the sense of endless possibilities.   This is in stark comparison to people arriving in the UK as refugees, most of whom will seek asylum. 

Here are some interesting facts about refugees taken from :

  • Worldwide, roughly 85% of all refugees live in developing regions, not in wealthy industrialised countries, and 73% of refugees displaced abroad live in countries neighbouring their countries of origin.
  • According to UNHCR statistics, as of November 2022 there were 231, 597 refugees, 127,421 pending asylum cases and 5,483 stateless persons in the UK including Ukrainian refugees. This is only half a percent (0.54%) of the UK’s population.
  • People seeking asylum are not allowed to claim benefits or work in the UK. If they are destitute, and have no other means of supporting themselves, they can apply for asylum support.  This is set at around £5.84 per day.

Several years ago, I managed a small team of social workers who worked with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs) arriving at a UK port.  When we went to the port these, mainly teenage males, from a variety of countries from across the world were usually tired, hungry, cold and bewildered.  Most of them had only the clothes they were wearing and had little, or no, knowledge of English.  Our job was to safeguard them and support them to settle in the UK while their applications for asylum were processed. 

The knowledge I have gained through my training with The Quest Institute would have been so helpful in deepening my understanding of what was happening to the young people we worked with, and the impact on us as workers. 

Reflecting back on this time, the face of one young man, in particular, comes to mind.  He had had a long and truly traumatic journey to the UK and his eyes were ‘dead’; he was obviously in a ‘trance’.  Separated from family, culture, community and country, he was lost and adrift.  At the point of arrival, the young asylum seekers’ locus of control is external; everything is being done to them and they have no choice about what happens moving forwards.

Talking to student social workers at a local university about our team’s work, a tool I used to help them think about the young asylum seekers’ identities, and their own implicit biases, was the ‘Social Graces’, developed by family therapist John Burnham in 1993.  The social graces include:

  • G: Gender, Gender Identity, Geography, Generation
  • R: Race, Religion
  • A: Age, Ability, Appearance
  • C: Class, Culture, Caste
  • E: Education, Ethnicity, Economics
  • S: Spirituality, Sexuality, Sexual Orientation

Students quickly realised this list could be added to, and I now understand that the way these factors are experienced are the building blocks of a person’s unique ‘model of the world’.

My work with the young asylum seekers took place several years before the Covid pandemic and the Ukrainian war so the general public’s attitudes, fuelled by the media and political rhetoric, were often devoid of understanding of the trauma and loss experienced by refugees.  Every so often a shocking image, such as three-year-old Alan Kurdi, laying face down on a beach after drowning in 2015, would jolt the nation and raise the profile of refugees before their plight would recede from public consciousness once again.

Professionals from many disciplines, (such as Border Force staff, health professionals, police, housing workers, teachers, social care staff), who meet refugees through their work would aspire to be empathetic towards them.  However, ‘empathy’ is not as simple a concept as it may first appear. 

In his book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Jamil Zaki, research psychologist, explores the psychological studies that have been undertaken into the complexities of empathy. 

In evidencing that empathy is shaped by our experience, Zaki notes the impact of a ‘fixist’, (protection) or ‘mobilist’ (growth) mindset.  Those with a protection mindset were more likely to empathise with people who looked or thought like them, (probably the impact of mirror neurons), than those with a growth mindset who empathised with those who differed from them racially or politically.

Zaki notes that while empathy can occur automatically, we more commonly choose it or avoid it.  He quotes the research of Dan Batson which showed that if victims are statistics or strangers, we are less likely to empathise with them. 

Trevor Silvester’s presentation, The Power of Polarity, at the 2023 Questival, in which he suggested “It’s not an either/or universe” is particularly relevant to the discourse around refugees.  Zaki concurs that people “effortlessly carve the world into insiders and outsiders” and that dehumanising people “silences empathy”.  Research using ‘contact theory’ suggests it is not a given that having contact with ‘the other’ will necessarily increase empathy.  However, adopting Carl Rogers approach to listening to members of hate groups, allowed the hate group members to feel self-compassion; contact “changed how they viewed themselves”. 

In my work with young asylum seekers, I did not stop caring, but there was a sense of ‘overwhelm’ in the steady flow of arrivals and the challenge of meeting their needs.  In the early 1990s the idea of ‘compassion fatigue’ arose and Zaki describes it as “empathy’s repetitive strain injury”.  Understandably caregivers are most likely to suffer from it and secondary trauma can lead to burnout.  The temptation to switch to detached concern brings its own problems of unexamined emotions and the consequences of this.  Zaki notes, however, that there is a difference between ‘empathetic distress’ where one feels as the person compared to ‘empathetic concern’ which involves having feelings for someone and wishing to improve their situation.  Researchers found that empathetic distress was more likely to lead to burnout whereas empathetic concern allowed workers to emotionally connect without taking on the person’s pain and they were more resilient. 

Personally, I would have found this type of discussion helpful when working with those young people seeking asylum.  Listening to their stories was humbling, and it was often difficult to relate to the horror, desperation and fear many felt on a chaotic, unpredictable and often perilous journey to the UK.  It seems we have much to learn about supporting front-line staff who experience this type of unrelenting pressure.

In the training of social workers virtual reality (VR) technology is being used to allow students to safely ‘experience’ high risk situations.  Zaki notes the work of Chris Milk in 2014 where he created a VR film which allowed people to experience the story of a 12-year-old girl in the Za’atari camp in Jordan; at that time home to 48 000 refugees.  Milk took the film to the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland where delegates got to sit in the camp with that girl, meet her family and see the ground beneath her feet.  Researchers are still trying to understand the long-term impact of VR on people’s empathy levels and we can only wonder how technology will help us develop empathy at a time where we are becoming increasingly disconnected from people. 

As we continue to grapple with the fallout from a global pandemic and the impact it has had on our sense of well-being, understanding how empathy works offers us insight into our work with clients.  In having an understanding of the push / pull factors which influence our levels of empathy, how it can be nudged in the right direction and having an awareness of how to maintain it without burnout may help us better work with our client’s model of the world.

When I began my training with The Quest Institute, I remember Trevor Silvester speaking about ‘changing the world one person at a time’; this resonated with me and also acted as solace – particularly when thinking back to those busy days working with young asylum seekers when it often felt that more could be done to help them. 

“Our empathy is the legacy we leave generations to come, who must live in the world we leave behind” – Jamil Zaki.


Facts about refugees – Refugee Action (

Zaki, Jamil, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World (2019)

Author Bio:

Penny Ellison is a Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapist who is based in Hampshire.  She works both online and in person, and can be contacted at