Identifying torture survivors key for accessing rehabilitation

New project aims to train key staff in asylum reception to identify torture survivors

Two distressing stories simultaneously hit the news last month.

One from the UK reported that the Dover, UK immigration detention facility had dismissed outright detainees’ claims of torture, which was attributed to problematic reporting by their staff. The second from Australia was criticism from civil society and immigration experts on the new ‘Pacific Solution’; the return of Australia’s off-shore detention facilities, where, under previous administrations, refugees had remained for up to ten years.

What both of these have in common is the concern that torture survivors – who comprise up to a third of all forcibly displaced persons – will not be recognised as such.  This is troubling, as survivors of torture have a legal right to treatment and rehabilitation.

According to the European Council directives on the reception of asylum seekers, all EU countries must take into account the specific situation of vulnerable persons, such as persons who have been subjected to torture, rape or other forms of severe psychological, physical or sexual violence, and ensure that they receive the necessary treatment for the damages caused by those acts. Despite EU law requiring such procedures, only a handful of countries actually have such a procedure in place.

But how do you recognise a torture survivor? There are signs, of course, but some are more visible than others. Victims of torture, in particular those subject to sexual abuse or rape, are often extremely hesitate to relay their stories to authorities. The challenge lies in having the initial contacts – those first immigration officials or social workers at asylum reception – trained in being able to recognise the often ‘hidden’ signs of torture – even when the torture survivors themselves are unable to speak about their trauma.

This is the ultimate goal of the PROTECT-ABLE project, which began this year. It is a continuation of PROTECT, a collaboration between ten torture rehabilitation centres and the IRCT that produced a simple questionnaire for those working in asylum reception, such as social workers, border guards, immigration agents, or administrative staff, for example. The ten questions constitute a simple, practical and quick tool to ‘flag’ incoming asylum-seekers and refugees as possible victims of torture and trauma, thereby ensuring them early access to treatment and rehabilitation.

This next step with PROTECT-ABLE is to put this tool in place. The project, which officially began on 1 September, will train staff through the its ten partners — centres in The United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria — in using the questionnaire tool. Over the next 18 months, partners will also lobby authorities at both the national and European level to put the questionnaire tool in place in their national asylum systems.

Implementing and early detection system can help to ensure that torture survivors do not languish in immigration detention without care or treatment. The goal is simply to ensure that torture survivors get the rehabilitation and treatment they have a right to.

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