Training Asylum and Refugee Officers | The Center for Victims of Torture

Training Asylum and Refugee Officers

Alison Beckman
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Alison Beckman, MSW, LICSW, is a clinical supervisor and the Healing Hearts project manager.


About four times a year, I have the privilege of spending a day training newly hired asylum and refugee officers. Along with three or four colleagues who also work in torture rehabilitation around the United States, we teach these men and women about the effects of torture so they can make sound decisions in their new jobs.

Since 1995, CVT staff has been doing this incredibly important work. Asylum and refugee officers – who are often former immigration attorneys or Peace Corps Volunteers, or have worked with NGOs or in other parts of the U.S. government – spend approximately nine weeks training for their new jobs. While my colleagues and I participate for just one day, the trainees often say it is one of the most important days of the training and that they remember it for years.

A physician colleague starts the day at 8:00 a.m. with the physical consequences of torture. This includes discussing scars and lack of scars (many forms of physical torture don’t leave behind any marks), long-term muscular and skeletal pain, headaches, stomach pain. Other colleagues then cover the psychological effects of torture, including depression, anxiety and PTSD.

My part of the training addresses how to understand the behavior of a torture survivor in an interview. Many people don’t understand how trauma affects the memory. When someone experiences trauma, parts of the brain are inhibited. The linear narrative – the actual facts of the story – is disrupted, while the emotional memory continues recording. So a survivor may acutely remember the fear they felt, but are unable to recall the order of events or people involved in their torture. This impairs a torture survivor’s ability to tell the story in a chronological order and believable manner. Shame – whether from surviving a sexual assault, or being unable to help a loved one or any other event – also impacts a survivor’s ability to tell their story.

Often what is most interesting to the trainees is the scientific research I share on lying. Time and again, research has shown that it is difficult to determine if an individual is lying or telling the truth. For the incoming asylum officers, it is critical that they not succumb to the myths of the stereotypical behavioral signs of lying.

In the afternoon, we take the trainees through two mock interviews. Professional role-players act as asylum or refugee applicants and the trainees practice interviewing them. These practice sessions allow the trainees to consider what they learned in the morning and how the “applicant” might behave because of torture they experienced. It is enlightening to the trainees and beneficial to their training to participate and observe these role plays.

Having counseled torture survivors who have been gone through the asylum and refugee process, I understand the importance of this training. Asylum and refugee officers are making decisions that can have serious consequences. As a trainer, my job is to help them understand what torture survivors have experienced so that they, in turn, can be sensitive during the interviewing process while making wise and informed decisions.


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