OMEGA: Celebrating 20 years of torture rehabilitation work in Austria amid Europe’s refugee crisis

“We see ourselves as a bridge between the current need for support and the sustainable integration of refugees and migrants into our society. Our main responsibility is to improve the mental and physical health of migrants and refugees, as well as their social and economic integration into the host society.”

This is how CEO Dr. Emir Kuljuh describes Austrian rehabilitation centre Omega – Transcultural Centre for mental and physical Health and Integration. Based in the city of Graz, Omega has been treating victims of torture for the past 20 years. Its focus is on health and follows the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition that, ‘health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

“Torture is one of the most distressing and psychologically annihilating expressions of human conduct. Torture is a phenomenon, which dehumanises its victims, leaving them with serious and lasting psychological and physical wounds. It poses a serious obstacle to the advancement of human rights, including civil and socioeconomic rights,” says Emir Kuljuh.

Covering all these aspects, the centre offers a range of services including medical treatment, psychological, psychiatric, psychosocial and psychotherapeutic counselling, social work, integration assistance, outreach and mobile care in refugee and emergency shelters.

Staff from Omega

Staff from Omega

Since treating 144 clients in its first year, the demand for Omega’s services has drastically increased and the centre now provides treatment to more than 1,600 people a year.

“Our target group is people with different residence permit status, such as asylum seekers, persons with subsidiary protection and immigrants with a permanent resident permit. We dedicate particular attention to women, young people, victims of torture and to unaccompanied minor asylum seekers,” explains Emir Kuljuh.

Austria has seen a rapid increase in refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the past year. The country received 85,500 applications for asylum in 2015. This is the third highest number of applications per capita in Europe after Hungary and Sweden and has resulted in the authorities adopting a new and tougher approach to border control.

The influx of refugees and asylum seekers, however, has not led to more treatment options for traumatised refugees. Austria is facing challenges of providing care and support to this group with Omega being one of just a few torture rehabilitation centres in the country. Emir Kuljuh points to the fact that there are guidelines for the reception of asylum seekers including recommendations concerning persons who are torture survivors, but that European member states, including Austria, are failing to implement them.

“Existing structures and organisations need to be strengthened to be able to provide quality care to more victims of torture and their families. We hope that sufficient care and support will be provided to survivors of torture, even though the situation in Austria and other partner countries is challenging.”

He says that despite international law prohibiting the use of torture, it continues to be widespread. This makes Omega’s work even more important. If it can assist clients in overcoming their trauma, which will allow them to function on a daily basis, that is a job well done.

“The lower socio-economic status of many of our clients coupled with unsatisfactory housing conditions, restrictions on access to employment and training opportunities have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. Our goal is to promote self-reliance so that they can access the Austrian health, education, labour market and social assistance independently.”

Omega celebrated its 20th anniversary on 9 December last year. To find out more about Omega you can visit their website: http://www.omega-graz.at/ 

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