Counselling presupposes alternatives

What are the consequences when refugees seeking protection already at the beginning of their asylum procedure are confronted with return programmes or even harassed to sign up? And what are the possibilities, but also the limits, of independent legal and psychosocial counselling? Here are questions for Elise Bittenbinder, Chairperson of the Bundesweiten Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Psychosozialen Zentren für Flüchtlinge und Folteropfer e.V. (BAfF)


What effect does intensive promotion and counselling on voluntary return that already takes place at the beginning of the asylum procedure have on stakeholders?

Both of these give people the feeling that their request for protection is not being taken seriously. They are given the impression that they are not being heard or noticed in their distress. This meets with incomprehension, as they have just applied for asylum and have hence articulated a request for protection. It also leads to unnecessary uncertainty and not infrequently to despair. The reasons for the flight – torture, danger to life and limb, humanitarian need – are lost sight of when the approach is to focus on return counselling so quickly and so early on. A man who fled describes this as follows: “My last spark of hope was taken away when I was advised to return, even though the suffering of my family is so obvious. I fought for a long time in my home country in counselling sessions for the survival of my family and for more justice. Now I don't know what to do.”

What are the consequences of this for psychosocial counselling?

Pressure to return increases feelings of powerlessness and being at the mercy of others, both of which hinder and inhibit psychosocial counselling. In a crisis situation, a logical and healthy assessment of the situation is only possible to a limited extent. Since existential questions involving security as well as vital decisions have to be addressed, additional pressure can deepen crises and lead to short-circuit reactions. Psychosocial counselling and therapy only open up the opportunity to talk about traumatic experiences and psychological damage resulting from persecution, war and flight in an atmosphere of safety, in a protected space. The strategy of return counselling, which crops up in different institutions, generally has a profound influence and in many cases permanently shakes trust and confidence in counselling institutions. The step of seeking psychosocial counselling or psychotherapy requires strength in and of itself and is rendered even more difficult under these conditions. People need security and the serenity to first gather their wits and be able to take this step. In this situation, the political focus on return is anything but helpful. It becomes particularly dramatic when people slide into suicidal crises, making statements in counselling like: “I can’t go back. I’d rather snuff it, end my life.” Working with people who have been uprooted, injured and tortured, who are on the run or have just arrived, is therefore a very demanding task for professionals.

How do BAfF staff react when people decide to return?

When clients of counselling services want to return, we support them and explore security, prospects and opportunities together with them. This is difficult, however, when people want to return because they panic or out of desperation, because in acute crises a correct assessment and a rational decision are only possible to a limited extent. Voluntary return programmes are part of a general repatriation trend. Refugees are aware of the many deportations that have been carried out. This creates uncertainty. We often hear parents asking in bewilderment: “Should I wait until the children and I are torn from our sleep in the morning and deported, or should I leave on my own accord?” They are very afraid and want to protect their children from a violent deportation and possibly yet more traumatisation.

Can a “voluntary” return also have a positive outcome? What preconditions need to be met for this to happen?

First of all, we look together to see what awaits counselling clients after their return. Will they be afforded protection, will they find a secure social environment, job prospects, will their basic needs be met, will there be possibilities for rehabilitation – is this possible or may it be possible in the future? Together we consider which social networks our clients can activate locally and, if necessary, help them to get in touch with human rights organisations in their country of origin. There are definitely people for whom return under these conditions can be a good alternative. If such prospects and networks are not available, a return – even if such a desire is present – can be difficult. In one case, we had to advise a single woman from Eritrea, who had experienced extreme violence and was mentally ill, against returning. She had survived the murder of her family when she was seven years old and had been on the run ever since. An aid organisation had brought her after many stopovers to Germany, where she received medical treatment. In conversations it became clear that she no longer had any connection to, or relationship with, her country of origin. Another young woman from Kosovo, most of whose family were living in Germany, wanted to return to study at university. Her family, however, was worried because the woman was suffering from panic attacks after being traumatised, and wanted her to stay. The young woman nevertheless returned and – despite tremendous initial difficulties – commenced her studies. In these and other cases, it is important to take plenty of time to make sure that clients can weigh things up carefully and be adequately supported in their personal decision-making process.

What role does it play who provides the counselling?

Social workers at psychosocial centres are increasingly pointing out that there are too few independent and open-ended counselling services due to a lack of funding. At the same time, counselling with a clear focus on return is being expanded. People’s need for security and protection plays no role in it all. As one therapist put it: “I find it cynical to talk about return at the beginning of counselling.” People are denied what they need most, namely protection and support. They come for counselling or treatment because they are in emotional distress. Many have suffered massive losses and deprivations. They have lost their families and friends, their belongings, their jobs, their entire lives and their homes. It often takes months to years to be able to even talk about torture and violence, for example. People returning must therefore receive counselling at the right time. Counsellors complain that they have conflicts of conscience. It is only if they are independent and free to give counselling on both alternatives that they can they support stakeholders in an appropriate manner. The fact that families with small children in particular decide to return shows how little the whole thing often has to do with voluntariness. They can no longer stand the pressure. This underscores our dilemma: People often have no alternative or cannot develop one if they want to avoid deportation. Even the best counselling cannot change this. In the end, the lack of an alternative casts any psychosocial support in such decision-making into the realm of the absurd.


The interview was conducted by Nina Violetta Schwarz

“Return that is imposed as the only alternative is another traumatic sequence of existential loss experienced by many refugees. Such a form of return also destroys any sense of justice and the social commitment of the aid system.”

 Usche Merk is a specialist in psychosocial work at medico international.