I worry asylum caseworkers are failing people in their darkest hour

Anonymous
Our asylum system is nowhere near adequately staffed and resourced. You are exposed to some of the most traumatic human experiences imaginable and it is a job that has marked me forever. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA

Until recently I worked for more than seven years interviewing asylum seekers and making decisions on their cases. By the time I left there were far too few people to do the work.

Our asylum system is nowhere near adequately staffed and resourced. I worry how my former colleagues are coping after years of cuts, and changes to immigration rules which have been accompanied by very little staff training on how to implement them properly.

The work was hard, sometimes harrowing, but often rewarding. Like many areas of public service, there is no typical day for an asylum caseworker. Cases are radically different and so is the trauma suffered by the people you interview. One day you might be dealing with female genital mutilation, the next someone who has lost a family member to the Taliban.

New recruits routinely deal with claims involving murder and torture, with little or no emotional training, preparation or support. Decision makers are now less prepared for this type of work than they were a decade ago because the initial training is about half as long as it should be.

It would be stupid to pretend that everyone who works in the Home Office is motivated by the same public service ethos that drove me and the vast majority of my colleagues. There were undoubtedly some who would all too often trivialise and belittle the experiences of the people who came to us for help. But by far the most pernicious factor was the politics of it.

The people who suffer most will be those who have turned to us for help in their darkest hour

Regardless of how idealistic you are, you learn quickly what is expected. A great deal of my initial training was about establishing “credibility” – largely, how to explain that you disbelieve someone’s story. We would use example claims as case studies and practise writing refusal letters.

Managers back then were reasonable about allowing time to decide cases, but ultimately we have always been moulded from day one to be sceptical. This has its merits in the job, but isn’t entirely healthy.

And the danger of that scepticism was brought more sharply into focus as time went on. A restructuring in 2013 resulted in several hundred years of collective experience walking out of the door. We had been told the job was being downgraded and, in essence, their days were numbered. Some who left got other Home Office jobs; many did not.

After that, targets increased to the point that almost everything became subservient to the end-decision. We were set a target of 220 “units” a year. Only an interview or a decision would count as a unit – any casework would not.

If I had to call social services because I was concerned about a child, it didn’t count towards this target. It might be an afternoon’s work to do all the right referrals, but ultimately this wouldn’t be credited. That sort of work was disincentivised.

If you wanted to do the right thing, you would have to take the productivity hit and risk performance management procedures, ultimately with the threat of dismissal.

The war in Syria and referrals under the Prevent system, for people you think might be radicalised or at risk of radicalisation, has created added pressure. Not carrying out these checks could lead to a disciplinary but this isn’t factored into productivity targets.

How do you really satisfy yourself that the person in front of you is here legitimately, with good intentions? Where’s the back-up, how do you sleep at night if you make a mistake? I know I was not alone in experiencing severe anxiety over cases.

I worry about the current crop doing the job. Even some of the new staff brought in as I was leaving have already gone. You are exposed to some of the most traumatic human experiences imaginable and it is a job that has marked me forever. If we don’t start taking this seriously – putting proper resources and support in place, and actively trying to retain staff instead of letting them burn out – the people who suffer most will be those who have turned to us for help in their darkest hour.

This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact kirstie.brewer@theguardian.com

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