New SIG draws together expertise in working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Refugees and asylum seekers (R&AS) often arrive in the UK having experienced trauma in their own country and en route to the UK. They are typically burdened with the loss of family members, possessions, cultural identity and the stability that comes with a sense of purpose through their role and status in their own country. Many have the additional disadvantage of physical health problems.

This presents a challenging profile for therapists by itself, but many R&AS also experience difficulty accessing support and may at first reject support due to:

  • The shame involved in seeking help for emotional problems
  • Externalising and somatising expressions of mental ill health
  • Language barriers
  • Service attitudes towards ability to treat
  • Psychological models, concepts and frameworks having a first-world bias which may not fit with the clients’ formulation of the problem

This presents significant difficulties for many therapists trying to work with this client group.

The EMDR UK Refugee and Asylum Seeker Special Interest Group was set up with several aims in mind. One of these was to offer peer support for therapists working with this client group. It aims to provide a forum to discuss pertinent issues and develop consensus on practice where possible, act as a training and research collaboration and dissemination unit in the future, and advise on these matters.

EMDR has, since its inception, had a strong history in working with refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. In particular, various national associations and Trauma Aid UK have undertaken considerable work with Bosnian and Arab refugees and victims of war, which was influential in the World Health Organization recognising EMDR as an evidence-based therapy of global importance. Further research has since reinforced the evidence base for EMDR with this client group.

For the time being, the R&AS SIG remains in the ‘group-forming’ stage. The SIG has largely been used to discuss pertinent issues and attempt to discover and replicate good practice from within the group. Examples of issues discussed so far include:

  • Supporting other organisations to overcome fear of refugees;
  • Removing barriers to access;
  • The role of the body / somatisation in refugees.

There about 20 regular attendees, of which 12-15 typically participate in each meeting. Attendees range from very experienced to the casually interested who are keen to learn more. Practitioners have experience in the UK and abroad, in statutory, private and third-sector organisations.

Meetings occur 4-6 weekly, and all are welcome. There is a Whatsapp group for chat and support between sessions.

Matthew Wilcockson is an EMDR Consultant working in an NHS Syrian refugee service in Coventry and as a Lecturer at Coventry University. He volunteers for Trauma AID UK in the Middle East. He coordinates the Special Interest Group on R&AS. Those interested in joining the SIG should contact