Archive for category Europe

The Alternative Nobel Prize: Rewarding human rights defenders for 36 years

We’ve spoken with Ole von Uexküll who is the Executive Director of Swedish organisation the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, which each year supports a number of individuals and organisations through its award.

Established in 1980 by journalist and professional philatelist Jakob von Uexkull, the Right Livelihood Award aims to promote scientific research, education, public understanding and practical activities, which contribute to eliminating poverty and ensuring lasting peace and justice in the world.

The IRCT became a laureate in 1988, when it received the award for helping torture victims restore their lives and regain their health.

As the Executive Director of the organisation, Ole von Uexküll’s job is to lead and coordinate the work of the Foundation, which is headquartered in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, with an office in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ole von Uexkull

Ole von Uexkull

WWT: Can you tell us a bit about the Foundation and what its purpose is?

OvU: The Right Livelihood Award Foundation is a charity registered in Sweden. The Foundation’s principal purpose is to bestow the Right Livelihood Awards. Today, there are 162 Laureates from 67 countries. Yet, the support from the Foundation goes far beyond the prize. The Foundation invests a lot in press work and communication on behalf of its recipients – former and current Laureates. It also seeks to help protect and support Award Recipients who are at risk. In 2014, for instance, it organised a solidarity mission to Gaza to protest against the restrictions that 2013 Laureate Raji Sourani and his colleagues at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights face in exercising their fundamental freedoms and human rights in the Gaza Strip.

The Foundation tries to directly strengthen the network of its Laureates, whenever possible, through events, joint statements and petitions. Anniversary meetings, regional conferences and seminars, as well as cooperative events with other institutions, where Laureates are invited to their events, have become an important aspect of the Foundation’s network building and outreach work.

With the inauguration of the Right Livelihood College in 2009, the Foundation also furthered its work in capacity building and in making its Laureates’ knowledge more accessible.

WWT: What exactly does your role as Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation consist of?

OvU: My main tasks are strategy development, representation, financial management and research. I have evaluated candidates for the Right Livelihood Award in more than 35 countries around the globe.

WWT: The IRCT received the award in 1988. Do you think the fight against torture is as relevant today as back then?

OvU: Absolutely. Torture continues to be a global scourge across many parts of the world, particularly in the context of the “war on terror” and other international and national conflicts. There remains a need for institutions dedicated to outlawing torture, monitoring state commitments to renounce torture, and working with torture victims to provide them with legal, medical and psychosocial support.

WWT: You recently organised a seminar/debate at the Swedish political forum Almedalen on ‘Life After Torture’. Why did you chose this issue?

OvU: We felt that it was important for Swedish policy-makers to be informed about the unfortunate reality that torture remains a global problem, and together with our Laureate, the IRCT, we wanted to highlight the importance of working with torture victims to rebuild their lives. We wanted to use this forum to make the case that the important and innovative work that the IRCT and its partners are doing should be supported by governments as part of their efforts to promote human rights, development and the rule of law.

WWT: What has been the response so far?

OvU: We had a high number of participants in the seminar and some very good discussions during and after the seminar. In this regard, we are pleased to have put the issue of rehabilitation of torture victims in the realm of public debate in Sweden and will continue to work with the IRCT to inform people about their work.

WWT: What do you look for when finding new laureates?

OvU: We look closely at not only the overall impact of the individual or organisation, but also whether the approach they use is pioneering. It is also important for us to see that the candidate’s life and work is a good example of ‘Right Livelihood’, i.e. living responsibly with a high degree of integrity. The typical Laureate is a courageous individual or organisation who has changed the “rules of the game” in a particular field, and has also demonstrated a practical solution to a global problem. Typical Laureates are role models; their work is transformational and they contribute to securing a just and sustainable world for future generations.

WWT: In addition to the monetary aspect of the prize, the Foundation also seeks to help protect and support those Award Recipients who are at risk. Why do you think this element of the prize is important?

OvU: For us, presenting the Award is the beginning of a life-long relationship we seek to have with Laureates, and we strive to continue to support their work as best as we can. We have estimated that one fifth of all our Laureates have been threatened because their work challenges powerful government and corporate interests. Since 2012, our protection programme, through solidarity visits, UN advocacy and strategic initiatives, has provided a degree of additional protection to our Laureates and strengthened their position in their country.

Additionally, we support our Laureates by giving them opportunities to meet each other at regional conferences, by sharing their achievements through our press and communications work, and by linking them to academic institutions through the Right Livelihood College – our university network with eight campuses on five continents. Several Laureates have observed that the solidarity provided by the Foundation and network of Laureates gives them the strength and confidence to continue persevering with their important work.


You can find out more about the Right Livelihood Award Foundation and its laureates by visiting its website.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Transit and trauma: Supporting refugees in Serbia

Late last year – as hundreds of thousands of refugees were passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe – we spoke to Bojana Trivuncic, a psychologist and project manager at local rehabilitation centre International Aid Network (IAN), about helping refugees arriving in the country. At the time of the interview, IAN was the only organisation providing psychological support to refugees transiting the country. Now, 10 months on, we have caught up with Bojana to find out if the situation has changed and if IAN is still reaching out to refugees through its mobile team unit.

WWT: When we last spoke, your centre was providing medical first aid and psychological support to refugees in parks and shelters. Are you still doing this?

BT: Yes, we still provide these services in the parks near the bus station in Belgrade. Unfortunately, we have fewer resources now than last year. Since April this year we’ve only received emergency funds from the UNVFVT [United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture], allowing us to only work once a week.

WTT: We are so sorry to hear that. Are you still using the mobile unit despite lack of funding?

BT: Yes, the weekly visits are through our mobile team. The team consists of a medical doctor, a nurse and a psychologist. The nurse also acts as an interpreter because she speaks fluent Arabic. Sometimes we also have a Dari interpreter, but we don’t have enough funds to finance two interpreters for every visit.

WWT: It sounds like the lack of funding really has affected your work with refugees.

BT: Yes it has. We aren’t travelling to the north where we used to work due to lack of funds, but there is still a great need for our services in the parks in Belgrade.

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

WWT: The issue of refugees traveling through Europe is no longer front page news. Now the focus is on those who have made it to countries like Germany etc. What is the situation like for refugees in Serbia?

BT: The closure of the borders didn’t stop the refugees’ transit through Serbia towards the EU countries. However, their journey has become more difficult and uncertain, given that most of them decided to reach their destination with the help of people smugglers. I don’t know the exact number of refugees who are currently in Serbia, but approximately more than 2000 refugees or migrants are here, mostly waiting to go to Western Europe. Many of them pay smugglers to illegally cross the Hungarian border, but many of them have been ‘pushed back’ to Serbia from Hungary. In June, the number of refugees allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary was reduced to 15 per day at each border crossing. This means that many refugees are trying to enter the EU illegally with the ‘help’ of smugglers.

WWT: Where are the refugees coming from and do they talk about why they are fleeing their countries?

BT: In the parks, the majority are from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, etc. They are fleeing armed conflicts, terrorist attacks or looking for a better life. There are also refugees from Syria and Iraq fleeing war.

WWT: Have any of them been tortured or ill-treated?

BT: There are torture victims who have been tortured in the country of origin, but many of them have also been tortured in transit countries such as Bulgaria and in Hungary. Some of them, when illegally crossing the border to Hungary, have been beaten and returned to Serbia.

WWT: What kind of physical and mental condition are they in?

BT: Their health problems are acute mostly. During the warm weather, they had stomach problems such as diarrhoea. They also suffer from skin infections, pain in their legs and body, allergies, insect bites, etc. When we talk about mental problems, they usually focus on their last experience, which is often something bad, like a bad experience with smugglers or authorities in transit countries. They want to share with us their thoughts, feelings and their stories.

WWT: I can only imagine that they must feel incredible frustrated. Are they still hopeful of a better life?

BT: Well, they are frustrated because they can’t cross the border legally and only a small number of people per day is allowed to start the asylum procedure in Hungary. One month ago a group of 100 refugees demonstrated and walked from Belgrade to the north of Serbia, close to the border to demonstrate and show their frustration with the fact that they cannot cross the border to Hungary.

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees awaiting registration in Presevo, Serbia (Courtesy of Johannes Grunert used via Flickr creative commons license)

WWT: You no longer travel to the border, but are you able to tell us what the situation is like there?

BT: The situation there is very bad. The refugees, including women and small children, live in tents in open air, in unhygienic conditions, close to one of the two so called “transit zones”, waiting to be allowed access to the asylum procedure in Hungary.

WWT: Previously you said the Serbian public generally had a positive reaction to the refugees. Do you think that is still the case?

BT: The issue of refugees is no longer front page news in Serbia like it isn’t in other European countries. In these parks where we operate, people are generally friendly towards migrants, or at least indifferent.

WWT: What about the Serbian government. Has it changed its stance on refugees?

BT: The borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria are still very much controlled by our authorities in order to prevent refugees crossing illegally. Since the law on asylum was established in 2008, 30 refugees have been granted asylum and 40 subsidiary protections in Serbia. In the first half of 2016, eight refugees have been granted asylum in Serbia and 14 refugees have been granted subsidiary protection. So the number is increasing and that is a good thing, but still the asylum procedures are very slow, and the integration programme is not very efficient. There is an absence of regulations facilitating integration of refugees.

WWT: Finally, is there a particular person or family whose story really affected you or was especially powerful?

BT: There are so many young boys who have left their families – so full of hope that they will find a better life somewhere in Europe and that they will be able to help their loved ones in their home country. For me it is very sad to know that they have such an uncertain future ahead of them and are not aware of it. They have been travelling for months. One boy was pushed back four times from the Hungarian border, one of the times he was beaten, and still he believes that something good is waiting for him in some European country… he is not giving up… it is so brave and so sad at the same time.


We would like to thank Bojana for taking her time to speak with us. You can find out more about IAN and the work they carry out by visiting their website.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Falling through the cracks: France

In 2015, a record 1.2 million refugees applied for asylum in the EU, most of them fleeing from torture, violent conflict, persecution and repressive regimes in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Despite legal obligations to support torture victims applying for asylum, many European countries have failed to provide adequate reception conditions and treatment for the trauma caused by torture. One of these countries is France where, according to a new report, the absence of an early identification procedure is the reason for many of the problems experienced by torture victims seeking asylum.

Foto 03

Children playing at the Grande-Synthe refugee camp in France. Copyright Anjo Kan

“In our view the French authorities do not ensure that torture victims receive the necessary treatment for the damage caused by torture.”

This is how Director of Development at French rehabilitation centre Parcour d’Exil Jerome Boillat describes the current situation in the country. According to him, more can and should be done to help torture victims seeking asylum. His sentiments are echoed by a new report looking at the challenges faced by torture victims seeking asylum in the EU.

According to the report, released by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, the absence of an early identification procedure is at the root of many of the problems experienced by torture victims seeking asylum in France, as well as many other countries. Early identification could ensure that victims are provided with adequate housing and located in regions and cities where they can access rehabilitation services.

Yet, the country still has no specific assessment procedures or mechanisms that authorities can use to identify vulnerable applicants, aside from girls and women who have experienced female genital mutilation.

This means that many asylum seekers are housed in hotels through emergency schemes but there is also a worrying number of asylum seekers who end up homeless as local authorities and NGOs are unable to pay their hotel fees. Homeless asylum seekers have to rely on civil society or relatives for shelter.

Jerome Boillat says that, “Homeless torture victims find it particularly difficult to meaningfully engage in the rehabilitation process due to their extremely precarious situation. Although the French government aims to increase the number of asylum seekers housed in regular reception facilities to 55 percent by 2017, we are concerned that even this figure might not be achieved.”

Foto 04

Refugees living under a bridge in Paris. Copyright Gail Palethorpe

Torture victims already struggle throughout the asylum process. They are unable to work and find it difficult to maintain and develop relationships with others because they cannot trust them or prefer to be alone. Although asylum applications in France have not increased as sharply compared to other countries in the EU, it is clear that the country is struggling to provide adequate care and meet basic needs like accommodation for refugees and torture victims.

The French authorities have been trying to improve the system over the last two or three years and have expressed a willingness to engage in dialogue with NGOs like Parcours d’Exil. However, with unrest continuing in several countries the refugee crisis shows no sign of easing. Torture victims who are not identified will continue to miss out on rehabilitation and be unable to process their asylum request unless changes are made quickly, as those in need continue to fall through the cracks in the system.

To read the report in full, click here.


, , , , ,

Leave a comment

What politicians and the public need to know about life after torture: An interview with Victor Madrigal-Borloz

For the first time, the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture (IRCT) will speak at the Swedish event Almedalen this July. The week-long forum, where political and non-govermental organisations come together, attracts more than 35,000 visitors to discuss relevant issues every year. IRCT Secretary-General, Victor Madrigal-Borloz is one of four panellists who will discuss the physical and psychological effects of torture at a seminar on life after torture. We spoke to Victor about his upcoming visit to Almedalen, what he hopes to get out of it and why he thinks that NGOs like the IRCT and its members need to start a dialogue with their local politicians.

Victor Madrigal-BorlozQ: This is your first time going to Almedalen in Sweden. The event is an annual tradition that has connected politicians, political and non-governmental organisations and the public for more than 40 years, what do you expect to take away from it?

Almedalen is a very unique opportunity because it represents direct access to members of parliament, to politicians and to political thinkers. We’re hoping to bring the plight of torture victims into their minds and thoughts.

I also expect that we will be able to liaise with politicians who are interested in creating societies that offer more solidarity and are willing to show empathy and understanding of the plight of torture victims. Finally, I think it will be interesting to meet those who are fuelling irresponsible political discourse. Not only to understand their motivation, but also to expose them to the consequences of their narratives.

Q: You will be speaking at the ‘Life after Torture’ seminar. Life after torture can mean a lot of things. What exactly will you be speaking about?

I think our great advantage in every public narrative we create is that we ensure that victims and survivors of torture are the protagonists. As a representative of the movement, I can then surround their experience and political aspirations with an understanding of the structures that have been put in place. That way we can understand how these individuals’ aspirations can be met through law reform and public policy.

Q: One of the IRCT’s Swedish members Red Cross in Malmø will also be speaking at the event. Do you think it’s important to collaborate with or involve members?

We hope that when activities are carried out in any given country, the local IRCT member centre will play a leading role. This is very important because the members are the ones that actually have an overview as to how the political problems reflect their everyday life and they can identify the particular problems facing torture victims. We can bring the global strategy of the movement and try to connect with the local situation, but I think it’s essential to have the local member be the ones that tell us how this global strategy can connect with their local context.

Q: Do you listen to members or go to them for information to stay up to date with what’s going on around the world in terms of torture and rehabilitation?

I think our members are an important source of information and we always make sure to stay in touch with them and follow their work closely. It’s interesting though, because the way information moves has changed drastically. Now it happens instantaneously and through very efficient channels, which means people find out about major events at the same time.

For us, this becomes clear during major events and political processes where we’re able to carry out a lot of analysis ourselves. But where we can’t actually do without our members is when we need to understand the events that have an impact on them or how rehabilitation is affected by certain political conceptions. It’s very important to have this contextual understanding because sometimes the impact won’t be felt before two years from now, but you still need to take action today.

Q: Why do you think more and more NGOs participate in forums like Almedalen?

I think that forums such as Almedalen provide a unique platform for political and non-governmental organisations to get together to discuss relevant issues. I think many NGOs like the IRCT are hoping to not only contribute to the public debate, but to also put their cause back on the agenda of their local politicians.

Q: Since you started as Secretary-General for the IRCT in 2013, you must have seen and experienced quite a lot in terms of change in political commitment or attitude towards the fight against torture and the need for rehabilitation. Do you think the movement is better or worse off when it comes to political support and understanding?

The movement is becoming stronger in the sense that the strategy is becoming clearer. The commitment of the movement to give a voice to the victim is becoming clearer, as well as the movement’s commitment to being professional and accountable. But the context is becoming a lot more challenging. As already mentioned, irresponsible political discourses fuelling certain opinions that people have where refugees, who includes a significant proportion of victims of torture, are seen as undesirable.

These discourses also fuel the stigmatisation of certain groups in society. I think they make it very difficult for the movement to expect that there will be an acknowledgment of the needs of this group and they also create more difficult grounds for politicians to wholeheartedly support the movement. Finally, these discourses also provide perfect conditions for those who want to fuel hate, xenophobia and fear because it’s easier to draw on those unspoken connections.

Q: What can the IRCT and its members do to influence the political debate and to get the attention of local politicians?

I think it’s very important to maintain a core objective and ensure victims of torture have a visible presence and a voice. This is difficult because we do not have the prerogative to decide who wants to make their story public, but we do have the need and the responsibility to ensure that information about the damage created by torture and about the needs of the victims become very clear to the public.

Q: What about public support? Do we need to continuously raise the issue of torture among everyday people like me or do you think most people are aware of it and feel strongly about eradicating torture?

I don’t think there’s an awareness about the fact that torture occurs and I think that there’s very little awareness about the type of damage that it causes and how unjustified it’s when it’s used. I think there are subtle mechanisms in public discourse that make it easier for people to not realise that this is an everyday occurrence that affects children, the elderly, men and women everywhere.

But the reality is that it does happen and it happens frequently and the damage is horrendous. For that reason, there’s a need to insist on this point. One of the great determinants in public opinion is the media and also the entertainment industry. Today I think we’re plagued with images of torture in entertainment shows that make it very easy for people to think that this is something that may work. With this in mind, I think it’s very important to raise awareness about the issue.

Q: Finally, how do you think the IRCT has made a difference to torture victims around the world? And what are your hopes for the future?

I think the great contribution of the IRCT is to place rehabilitation and the needs of torture victims at the forefront of the narrative of international human rights. Before the movement took this very clear strategy, rehabilitation was seen as a charity or at best as a political reparation. The great contribution of the movement has been to create a framework that is considered to be part of a right or a series of rights.

I hope that in the future we will see a society that through embracing solidarity and empathy actively rejects torture because it doesn’t happen to others, it happens to “us”. It’s about acknowledging that torture victims are us rather than them. I think we can learn from experience and have an appreciation of empathy, whether it’s from getting to know each other or from reading and from renouncing fear and hatred.

, , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

World Refugee Day: More funding needed to support traumatised refugees

To mark World Refugee Day we look back at our conversations with two European rehabilitation centres – both working tirelessly to provide much needed support and treatment to refugees who have fled armed conflict, violence and torture. Sadly, a number of rehabilitation centres across Europe have had their funding reduced, preventing them from treating traumatised refugees.

When Europe first experienced a rapid increase in refugees seeking protection within its borders, some countries rushed to reintroduce border control and tighten immigration laws. Razor-wire fences were constructed and the military deployed to prevent refugees from entering. However, at the same time, European NGOs worked tirelessly to provide support and relief to those who had made it to the continent and they continue to care for newly arrived refugees, many of whom are deeply traumatised.

Making a difference in Hungary

One of these NGOs is International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre the Cordelia Foundation, which is based in Budapest, Hungary. The centre offers psychiatric and psychosocial care to torture survivors. When we spoke to the centre’s Medical Director Lilla Hardi late last year at the peak of the European refugee crisis, she told us that many of the newly arrived refugees were in a bad state mentally.

“They are very exhausted and desperate,” she said. “I think aggressive manifestations in their behaviour might happen due to their traumatised and desperate state. This situation is another trauma contributing to their already unbalanced mental state and earlier traumatisation.”

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies used via Flickr creative commons license)

Like other organisations in the country, Cordelia staff have travelled to the border between Hungary and Serbia to help refugees in detention.

“In one of the detention centres we met a Syrian family of 12 who had been transferred from the border that very day. The head of the family used to be a high-rank public service person in his country. They had witnessed the beheading of about 500 persons in their city,” said Dr. Hardi.

“All of the family members were seriously traumatised and showed serious symptoms of PTSD. One of them had lost a lower limb and had a temporary prosthesis; another suffered from diabetes and needed insulin urgently. We asked one of the nurses to monitor him and to give him the insulin that he had brought himself.”

Only one provider of psychological support in Serbia

In Serbia, local NGO International Aid Network (IAN) has been providing medical first aid and psychosocial support to refugees through a Mobile Team Unit in parks and shelters in Belgrade and at the Croatian border.

While many organisations provide medical and legal aid to refugees, IAN, which is a member of the IRCT, is the only one providing psychological support.

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

“At the moment we are working with refugees at the Berkasovo-Babska border crossing. At the beginning we worked in a park in Belgrade, which was the biggest informal gathering place of refugees, and in Principovac, a refugee shelter near the Croatian border,” said IAN psychologist and project manager Bojana Trivuncic in November last year.

“Some of them were tortured in the country of origin and during their transit in Iran and Bulgaria. In Syria for example, many refugees were tortured in some kind of prison by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The methods are brutal. Many of them told me that they were tortured with electro shocks. In Afghanistan, many refugees were tortured by ISIS or the Taliban,” explained Bojana.

“When basic needs are not satisfied, like food, clothes and shelter, a person cannot deal with emotions or trauma. For me it is ok to be there for them, to help them with their basic needs, and of course to be there for them if they want to talk, to share their problems and traumatic experiences, and to calm them if they are fearful.”

To support refugees we need more funding

The responsibility to provide rehabilitation to torture victims lies with the state. Yet in almost all EU countries, insufficient resources are being earmarked to provide specialised health services to vulnerable groups, including torture victims. This leaves rehabilitation centres to fill the gap.

“We know that a significant percentage of asylum seekers and refugees in the EU are torture victims and require access to rehabilitation services as early as possible. Our European member centres are doing their best to help as many people as possible, but sadly, many have had to cut their support services to torture victims due to a lack of funding,” says Miriam Reventlow, Director of Governance and Policy at the IRCT.

With NGOs struggling to help the record high number of refugees, it is clear that European leaders have to come together to offer to commit to ensuring that refugees who have been subjected to torture can fully recover from their past trauma and be able to find a new path of life in their host country. If not, we risk that thousands of refugees are left untreated.

“European countries all have a responsibility to ensure that there is enough funding to provide rehabilitation to victims of torture, and we need them to take this responsibility seriously,” says Miriam Reventlow.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Remembering the atrocities of the war in the Former Yugoslavia

When AE was being held in a concentration camp, soldiers carved a cross on his forehead. The scar remains today; a constant reminder of the terror he experienced and survived during the three-year-long war in the Former Yugoslavia. Now 57-years-old, he is married with two children but has struggled to pick up the pieces of his life following the war.

It was at this time 24 years ago that AE was living peacefully with his family in Divič, a small town in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when the Serbian army entered the village. Soldiers took him and many others to a concentration camp, first in Zvornik and then in Čalopek and Batković. In total, AE spent almost 14 months continuously in camps.

During his imprisonment, AE was physically, psychologically and sexually tortured on a daily basis. He was forced to work for hours on end and was severely beaten. He was denied food and on most days, water. Guards in the concentration camp isolated him and several other men, made them undress and beat them. AE even witnessed some men being castrated. Through repeated beatings and death threats against the men and their families, they were forced to rape each other.


Courtesy of Toni Buzolic via Flickr Creative Commons

At the time, his family were trying to get to the free territory or a neighbouring country. In July 1993, AE was released as a part of a prisoner exchange scheme. He stayed in a small town in the northeast of Bosnia and Herzegovina until the war ended. Afterwards, he returned to his family in Divič, taking with him the memories of the torture inflicted upon him.

Since his return AE has struggled with feelings of guilt and shame. For him the terror of war did not stop when the war was officially over. It stayed with him and has made it incredibly hard for him to continue with his life and to rebuild relationships with his family and friends.

AE found IRCT member, the Centre for Torture Victims, Sarajevo (CTV) in 2012, when a CTV mobile team was in the area registering clients and providing much needed rehabilitation services. Centre staff discovered AE was suffering from a chronic form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

CTV provided him with individual and group counselling, together with other former camp detainees. The group counselling and, especially, group psychotherapy sessions were an instrumental element in the rehabilitation process as AE was more comfortable with talking about his experiences in a group setting.

Despite the fact that AE was the perfect candidate to act as a witness in war crime trials because of his vivid memory of the torture incidents and perpetrators, he refused to testify. He refused because he feared retaliation and because of the shame associated with the sexual torture; he simply did not want more people to know about what had happened to him.

Today, AE is still a CTV client. Like many victims of torture in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he is confronted by the past every day when he sees the people who harmed him walking free on the same street. In some cases these people now work as police officers, once more in a position of power over those they have tortured and ill treated.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Fighting Torture: Q&A with Svetlana Popa


In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from a number of professions who work with and support survivors of torture. What does their work mean to them and what are the biggest challenges they see in the anti-torture and rehabilitation movement?

Svetlana Popa is a psychologist at IRCT member, the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims “Memoria” in the Republic of Moldova. She explains the challenges facing the rehabilitation sector in Moldova and how many donors want to measure the impact of torture and the profile of perpetrators, forgetting that survivors cannot wait until a policy will be written and made available.

Q: What is your profession and where do you work?


Svetlana Popa

I am a psychologist and I work as a project assistant at the Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims “Memoria” (RCTV Memoria) in Republic of Moldova.

Q: How long have you worked on torture rehabilitation and human rights?

I have been a part of the anti-torture movement since 2014.

Q: How did you end up doing this work? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?

I was working as a psychologist and also teaching English at a local school when I heard about a job opening at RCTV Memoria, interpreting for a supervisor psychotherapist. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to combine my two passions – English and psychology. The work the staff members were doing fascinated me, so I decided to stay even after the supervisor psychotherapist had left.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or your home country

There is no justice. No rehabilitation services are provided by the state. Torture victims have no future.

Q: Can you describe a typical day in the office/field for you?

My typical day consists of lots of communication with stakeholders, writing reports, planning events, checking with other staff members on what they do and how can I support them, constantly looking for funds and collecting data and filling in the Data in the Fight Against Impunity (DFI) database. We are one of 32 rehabilitation centres that are part of the DFI project; collecting clinical data and integrating the documentation of torture at all stages of the rehabilitation process.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?

When, after four sessions, my first client came in smiling for the first time I knew I was doing the right thing.

Q: How has this work changed since you started?

In the last two years the overall situation has stayed the same. Regarding the work we do we started focusing on more creative ways of doing communication and advocacy and I hope it will make the situation better.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?

A lack of funding; rehabilitation is not supported by state authorities and the majority of donors keep measuring the impact of torture, its methods, and the profile of perpetrators and forget about the survivors who cannot wait until a policy will be written and made available.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

My personal dream is that rehabilitation will not be necessary because we won’t have any victims of torture to support. Unfortunately this is only a dream, but I hope that someday states will take responsibility for acts of torture that have been committed and will start to provide torture survivors with the rehabilitation they need.

Q: According to various surveys, many people do not think torture is such a big problem; that it is a thing of the past; or some even think that it is necessary. What would you say to them?

Torture is a horrible act. It defines the most inhuman act that a person can do and by denying it we won’t make it stop happening. It is only by bearing witness to victims’ sufferings that we can end torture.

Q: And finally, many of us do care about torture survivors and victims. How can we support the anti-torture/torture rehabilitation movement?

Start by getting more information about the rehabilitation movement in your home country, you will find plenty of information online. There are lots of things you can do – visit the rehabilitation centre in your area, volunteer, donate, speak up for victims’ rights, simply care!

, , ,

Leave a comment

Defending human rights in Chechnya

Defending human rights in Russian republic Chechnya is not without its risks. Local IRCT member the Committee to Prevent Torture has been the target of endless acts of violence, discrimination and harassment because of its anti-torture work. Just last month, a group of journalists and a couple of the Committee’s staff were beaten up by masked men and the organisation’s offices were broken into. Despite international human rights organisations calling for a proper investigation, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.

Speaking up against human rights violations in Russia comes at a price most people are not willing to pay. Non-governmental organisations critical of the government are being targeted and persecuted on a regular basis. International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member and local NGO, Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT), has had its office in the Chechen capital, Grozny set on fire and broken in to, while its staff and founder are repeatedly harassed and intimidated.

Last month’s brutal attack on CPT staff and a small group of journalists, investigating human rights abuses in the region, attracted the attention of rights groups and media outlets around the world. According to the IRCT, these attacks reflect a reality where human rights defenders and journalists are systematically targeted because of their work.

Offices have been raided, activists have been arrested and organisations fined. In some cases, prominent human rights defenders have even been killed, with no one charged with their murders.

This level of impunity in not only Chechnya, but all of Russia is of great concern to local and international rights organisations. In its periodic review of Russia, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) brought up reports from several non-governmental organisations of the widespread practice of torture in Russia and the lack of genuine efforts by the government to investigate the vast number of allegations of such crimes.

Vladimir Putin and Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Courtesy of Vladimir Varfolomeev via Flickr Creative Commons

Vladimir Putin and Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Courtesy of Vladimir Varfolomeev via Flickr Creative Commons

In Chechnya, the perpetrators of the attacks against CPT and the journalists are still free despite the spokesperson of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, calling the attacks “absolutely outrageous” and encouraging local law enforcement to “take the most effective measures to find the perpetrators, in order to ensure the safety of human rights defenders and journalists”. But even with Moscow condemning the attacks, there is nothing to indicate that they will stop.

In an interview with The Guardian, the leader of the organisation Igor Kalyapin said: “We won’t have anyone staying the night in Chechnya any more, it’s clearly too dangerous. If they can attack me, a member of the president’s human rights council, outside the poshest hotel in the city, then it’s clear that there are no limits. But we can’t pull out altogether. We all have to take a risk. There is no choice. We have two or three court hearings a week there. As long as people want our help there, we will have a presence there.”

The events of last month make it clear that the public need organisations like CPT to continue their work in a country where human rights violations are widespread.

The Committee to Prevent Torture is currently one of more than a hundred Russian NGOs that have been labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ by the government. In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted the law, requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents” if they engaged in “political activity” and received foreign funding. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), in Russia “foreign agent” can be interpreted only as “spy” or “traitor,” and there is little doubt that the law aims to demonise and marginalise independent advocacy groups. Groups that a court has found responsible for failing to register as a “foreign agent” may be fined up to 500,000 rubles (over US$16,000), and their leaders personally – up to 300,000 rubles (approximately $10,000).

(Source: Human Rights Watch)

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

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: 

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Treating refugees: How NGOs are supporting refugees in Hungary

The use of riot police, the construction of a 175 km razor-wire fence and threats of deportation. These are just some of the harsh measures taken by the Hungarian government to curb the influx of refugees entering the country. Meanwhile, Hungarian NGOs are providing much needed support and relief to the refugees who have made it to the country. One of these NGOs is IRCT member centre the Cordelia Foundation, which is based in Budapest. The centre offers psychiatric and psychosocial care to torture survivors. We spoke with the centre’s Medical Director Lilla Hardi about travelling to the Hungarian border to help out at the front line.

“We have seen a huge number of refugees at the railway stations in Budapest and have heard that the situation at the border is really catastrophic and chaotic.”

In an email, Dr. Lilla Hardi explains why she and 11 colleagues from the Cordelia Foundation rehabilitation centre decided to travel to the border between Hungary and Serbia last month. They made two trips to assess the refugee situation and to offer their support to those in need of rehabilitation services.

On their first trip they were denied access to the refugees. However, on their second trip they managed to treat a number of people each day.

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies used via Flickr creative commons license)

According to Dr. Hardi, most of the refugees she saw seemed to be doing relatively well physically, but suffered from serious mental health problems as a direct result of the traumatising events they had experienced.

“Many of the newly arrived refugees were in a very bad state mentally. They were very exhausted and desperate,” she writes. “I think aggressive manifestations in their behaviour might happen due to their traumatised and desperate state. This situation is another trauma contributing to their already unbalanced mental state and earlier traumatisation.”

Empirical studies by the Chamber of Psychotherapists in Germany echo this assessment, suggesting that at least half of the refugees coming to the country have mental health problems because of the trauma suffered in war or during their dangerous escapes. An even bigger number of these refugees have been subjected to human rights violations, including torture, says the Chamber.

In the ongoing political debate, there seems to be hardly any focus on early identification of torture victims among newly arrived refugees and no coordinated response schemes are available. Currently, the work carried out by the Cordelia Foundation and other organisations in support of traumatised refugees is largely done on a voluntary basis. This shows how urgent the need is for States to acknowledge their obligation and provide the resources and mechanisms to support and protect victims of torture.

However, in Hungary, the government’s response to the crisis so far has been to close off a railway track used by tens of thousands of refugees to enter the European Union on foot. This is all part of its crackdown on refugees coming from Serbia.

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of Peter Tkac used via Flickr creative commons license)

Refugees in Hungary (Courtesy of Peter Tkac used via Flickr creative commons license)

Personally, Dr. Hardi did not experience any hostility from Hungarian police, but she notes how strange it is to see police officers wearing masks and gloves. “They wear them in the belief that it prevents them from getting ‘contaminated’,” she explains.

The fact that Hungarian police officers find it necessary to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from disease and contamination illustrates the general lack of compassion for the refugees coming to Europe and the lack of understanding there is for what many of them have been through.

“In one of the detention centres we met a Syrian family of 12 who had been transferred from the border that very day. The head of the family used to be a high-rank public service person in his country. They had witnessed the beheading of about 500 persons in their city,” writes Dr. Hardi.

“All of the family members were seriously traumatised and showed serious symptoms of PTSD. One of them had lost a lower limb and had a temporary prosthesis; another suffered from diabetes and needed insulin urgently. We asked one of the nurses to monitor him and to give him the insulin that he had brought himself.

The team from the Cordelia Foundation also alerted the local authorities to the fact that the family needed help.

“We introduced them to our local therapist and our psychiatrist who is in charge of our clients on a weekly basis. She has been taking care of the family since then. We immediately wrote a short medical report on their state ordering them to be released as they belong to the vulnerable group. However, the authorities did not release them. Instead they extended their stay in detention by another 30 days.”

With the situation in Syria unchanged and other armed conflicts continuing to disrupt the Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan region, hundreds of thousands are left with no other choice than to flee war, violence and human rights abuses, torture being one of them.

When asked what she thinks will happen, Dr. Hardi replies:

“Nobody knows. The situation is permanently changing.”

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment