Dr. Maryanne Loughry, R.S.M., is a research professor in the School of Social Work at Boston College and a research associate of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Loughry has worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) commencing as a psychologist in detention centers and refugee camps in Southeast Asia in 1988.
On a recent January visit to El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I was confronted with the despair of thousands of people stuck in an asylum system that demonstrates no regard for human suffering, trauma, and isolation. A setting where the narratives of criminalization and securitization are used to justify inhumane policies and practices including detention and return. Women seeking asylum spoke of not only being sexually violated on their journey to the border but of taking precautions before setting off because they knew of this inevitability. Young children watched in fear as their parents recounted their stories of violence at home and along the journey, stories punctuated with tears and silence. Many of these thousands now wait in Mexico for an opportunity to put forward an asylum claim; their prospects for success are very, very low. Some asked me should they forget the costs of the journey and simply return to the violence that they have fled. They were so desperate they thought I might know.
Those who wait in shelters and makeshift camps inside Mexico are accompanied by volunteers, religious workers, and some trained charity workers. There are very few professionally trained humanitarian workers. In one casual conversation that I had with a volunteer coordinator for a legal service in Juarez, I was told of the toll on lawyers and other agency staff brought about by both listening to the detail of the violence their clients had endured and the hopelessness of ensuring these stories would be “sufficient” to ensure legal protection in the United States.
We know that there is a great toll on humanitarian workers because of the very settings they work in. Some face death and injury; others are at risk of kidnapping and assault. Many agencies have developed policies and practices to ensure that they retain good staff and that their workers remain fit for purpose. Some of the policies are in place to ensure that the humanitarian workers “do no harm.” Recent high-profile scandals of sexual abuse and lapses in child safeguarding have necessitated strong and implementable policies even if just to ensure the funding base of the agency remains strong.
Where there has been less effort and attention is in the smaller agencies and amongst religious workers. National staff, volunteers, and religious workers frequently are at the front line out of conviction but with few or no practices and policies to ensure that they can continue to work with the afflicted while taking precautions to ensure that they too are not engulfed in the despair. In psychosocial speak, terms are used to describe possible consequences of being with those suffering: burnout, stress, and trauma are familiar. In religious language we frequently speak of accompaniment. In order that these workers do not also fall “victim” to the despair that surrounds them in these places of crisis, it is also important that charities, dioceses, parishes, and religious orders identify best practices for workers in humanitarian settings.
Some best practices include resilience-building trainings such as Psychological First Aid (PFA). Not dissimilar to medical first aid, PFA training ensures that workers and staff are trained to look for signs of stress and distress amongst fellow staff. They are also trained in when and how to listen to fellow staff and refer those identified as distressed to appropriate resources. Training manuals are available, and, like in settings where staff are trained in first aid, lives can be saved. Many called to respond to humanitarian crisis are strong and full of conviction. How to keep them strong, flourishing, and functioning is the challenge as the crisis goes on. It is now recommended that service providers have good policies based on good practice in human resources. These polices spell out the need for comprehensive contracts, insurance, workplace settings, training, and most importantly professional supervision. It is also important that codes of conduct are elaborated and agreed to. Such policies then give the staff boundaries and strengthen accountability, concepts that can ensure staff will remain hope filled in spite of the suffering surrounding them.
It is no longer acceptable to place staff in difficult circumstances hoping that their conviction and good will is sufficient. There is a need for organizations like the Catholic Church and others to catch up with some of the practices that the bigger humanitarian agencies have put in place. Why? Because representatives of the Church will frequently be amongst the first responders to a humanitarian crisis and the last to leave.