Archive for category Europe
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.
Q: 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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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)
“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.
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/
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.
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.
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.”
No money for support to the most vulnerable: Europe’s funding crisis for rehabilitation of torture victims
As Europe is facing a historically high influx of refugees – many of whom are survivors of torture – the need for proper care and rehabilitation of torture victims is greater than ever. Yet, there is a serious funding shortage across the continent, which has left a growing number of torture rehabilitation centres in dire financial straits. According to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), if states do not reverse this trend, we will see an acute loss of support services to those vulnerable and most in need.
“The cut in funding over the past five years has affected our work drastically and we have had to reduce the number of staff as well as patients. But now, it affects our actual existence. The facts are very simple: today, we have enough money in the bank to continue our work throughout September, but not in October.”
This is how the Director for Programs at French rehabilitation centre and IRCT member Parcours d’exil, Jérôme Boillat describes the centre’s current funding situation. A situation that could very well lead to its closure and leave hundreds of traumatised torture victims untreated.
Across the English Channel, London based Refugee Therapy Centre has also fallen victim to the funding crisis. After more than 15 years of providing psychological therapy and associated treatments to thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, the centre is now forced to downscale its work to three days a week. Going from operating five days a week to only three days inevitably means leaving behind torture victims in desperate need of help.
“The success of our work can be measured by the smiles made possible after interventions to heal the psychological and emotional wounds of those whose basic human rights were violated by torture and persecution. To continue with essential humanitarian work, our centre desperately needs financial support,” says Refugee Therapy Centre’s Clinical Director and CEO Dr Aida Alayarian.
The two situations in France and the UK are far from the only examples of torture rehabilitation centres scrambling for funding. At least 11 IRCT member centres and numerous programs that have helped thousands of torture victims across Europe have either lost funding or are predicting major cuts that will inevitably affect torture victims.
In Austria, upon learning that it may lose vital funding from the EU, an IRCT member is sharing its grim forecast: “If this funding were to be cut or stopped, we would have to reduce our support to survivors of torture drastically. As it is, there is hardly any funding for this target group on a local or national level. The only funding sources are international bodies and even their funding is being cut,” the centre explains and continues:
“Much of our work is in refugee shelters and no other Austrian organisation does the exact same kind of work. Referrals cannot be made because the only other organisation in our country working in this field has also very limited resources and they have their own clients. There are hardly any doctors or social services which have intercultural competencies.”
Europe is currently experiencing a massive increase in numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, driven by conflict, humanitarian crises and human rights violations, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. While Eurostat figures found that around 945.000 of asylum seekers entering the EU between 2002 and 2012 were victims of torture, there is no longer any doubt that this number will be much higher in 2015.
However, the urgent treatment and rehabilitation of torture victims is not adequately covered by EU member states, despite their obligations under international human rights and EU law.
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 of these centres have had to cut their support services to torture victims due to a lack of funding,” says Miriam Reventlow, Advocacy Director at the IRCT.
The funding shortage affects traumatised refugees and asylum seekers at various stages. In Germany for example, newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers are among the groups that will be hit hard by a reduction in funding.
“The German state still has no early identification system for vulnerable groups, especially not for torture survivors. When it comes to rehabilitation of torture survivors, the competences and capacities of the regular healthcare system are still far behind the actual need. Moreover, there exists no funding for this type of work by the German government. By law, refugees have limited access to the regular health care system until the moment they are granted a residence permit. Psychosocial therapy centres try to cover this gap, while at the same time navigating through political changes,” explains Christian Cleusters from German rehabilitation centre Medical Care Service for Refugees Bochum.
So what can be done to ensure that as many torture victims as possible receive the treatment they need?
According to the IRCT, the answer is simple: every country in the EU will have to recognise their obligations under international human rights law and EU law and designate adequate resources within their healthcare budgets. But also, the EU institutions play a key role in providing sufficient funding and need to uphold their support to this important field of work.
“If we don’t generate more support, thousands of torture victims risk having current treatment programmes interrupted or will be unable to access rehabilitation services in the first place. 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.
In the UK, when asked how the Refugee Therapy Centre has helped them overcome their trauma, one torture survivor explains: “The group has helped me confront my problems and let go of the past. Now I can think of the future.”
For another survivor, the treatment has simply improved his quality of life: “I do not feel ashamed of being myself anymore and I can sleep a little better now.”
With less funding and no action from European leaders, the question is how many torture victims will be prevented from receiving the treatment they need to fully recover from their past trauma and be able to find a new path of life in their host country.
In the autumn of 1991 and six months before the three-year long war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, 16-year-old E.B. was living in a city in Croatia, with her Serbian father and Croatian mother. During this time, Serbs in the area were routinely persecuted by the Croatian police, soldiers and paramilitary because of their ethnicity. E.B.’s family were among those singled out by the authorities.
On several occasions, E.B’s family were targeted by the police and military. Armed officers entered their home and made death threats in front of E.B. and her sister. “They told me that they were looking for arms. They threatened me and my children. They did not show me the search warrant. At that time small crosses were put on apartments in which Serbs lived and we were marked and exposed,” recalls E.B.’s mother.
In October 1991, the police came to the house and took E.B.’s father away. Thirteen days later his body was recovered. The pathologist’s report found that he had been tortured and thrown into a river while he was still alive. E.B. was involved in the search and identification of her father. As a result, she lived in a constant state of fear. “I told my mother to stop asking the authorities about my father, they could kill us too,” she says.
Following her father’s death, the police continued to threaten the family, going as far as to subject her mother to interrogation. Growing up in an environment of constant intimidation, combined with the loss of her father and the circumstances under which he died, E.B. developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She received treatment from a child psychiatrist in Zagreb and finished her secondary school education, but dropped out of university because she was unable to cope with the events of her past.
It was 15 years later in 2006, when E.B. and her mother, along with E.B.’s then eight-year-old son, came into contact with the Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb.
RCT was contacting people who could potentially serve as witnesses in war criminal trials. After meeting E.B., the care providers quickly realised that she was struggling to cope, dealing with symptoms including restlessness, low levels of confidence and an inability to make decisions. They also diagnosed E.B.’s mother with severe post traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
To ensure E.B. and her family received the support they needed, RCT Zagreb took a group approach. A social worker and psychologist visited the family twice a month and occasionally they were supported financially. The RCT also organised a support network for E.B.’s son and for her mother, and the family began to cope better with daily life.
The centre continues to support the family through a follow-up treatment programme for torture victims that agree to be witnesses in war crime trials. RCT Zagreb also supported the family in seeking compensation for the death of E.B.’s father. Unfortunately, they lost the case and were ordered to pay the trial costs. It is a sad reality that these verdicts are often given to discourage victims to seek justice for crimes committed against them.
The war in the former Yugoslavia turned hundreds of thousands of people into victims of displacement, disappearances, torture and rape. Yet, there is a large number of families like E.B.’s that have not received rehabilitation and compensation for their suffering.
RCT Zagreb works with the populations at risk, emphasising the effects of social reconstruction in post-conflict communities and reducing social exclusion, so that people like E.B. can rebuild the pieces of their lives and begin again.
The Russian government has once again been criticised after introducing a new law that allows any foreign or international NGO to be declared “undesirable” and to be shut down. The law is the latest attempt to limit the impact of human rights organisations that are deemed anti-government. Adding to this, local and international NGOs continue to be targets of intimidation and discrimination.
Three staff from the Danish rehabilitation centre, Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) were fined and expelled from Russia while on a recent mission to provide technical assistance on trauma rehabilitation and prevention of torture. Their work with a Russian human rights organisation, the Committee Against Torture (NGO CAT) had been publicly announced, and despite having secured visas they were found to be in violation of Russian visa regulations.
DIGNITY and NGO CAT are both members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and their aim is to support and treat survivors of torture. A mission that many governments value. Yet, in Russia, NGO CAT is one of many civil society organisations facing increasing hostility.
The Russian government recently introduced a new law that makes it possible to ban foreign NGOs and prosecute their employees, who risk up to six years in prison or being barred from the country. The law is the latest step in a series of restrictions on civil society, NGOs and human rights defenders.
In 2012, the Russian parliament adopted a new law that required 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.
NGO CAT are among the organisations labelled a foreign agent, and the centre fears that it could be forced to close down unless a court removes the tag. But as the Russian president Vladimir Putin seems set on imposing more restrictions on independent organisations and civil society, a removal of the tag is highly unlikely.
For NGO CAT, anti-NGO laws are not the only means of intimidation that the organisation is worried about. In December last year, the office of NGO CAT initiative, Joint Mobile Group (JMG), based in the Chechen capital Grozny was set on fire in what appears to be an act of intimidation by local authorities. The following day the police visited the provisional premises of NGO CAT and, for no apparent reason, seized the centre’s mobile phones, computers and CCTV cameras and held two staff members for several hours. Prior to the fire, NGO CAT staff had been receiving threatening phone calls and text messages.
Sadly, the story of NGO CAT is far from unique. Human rights groups and defenders are continuously subjected to acts of intimidation and threats. 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.
Back in Denmark, the three DIGNITY employees remain puzzled as to why they were expelled, but the whole process leading up to their expulsion has revealed a flawed justice system allowing for false witness statements and documents.
Most of the international community have expressed their concern about the treatment of human rights defenders in Russia, and rightly so. For NGO CAT, the stakes are high. As the anti-NGO laws increase the pressure on the organisation, its future is uncertain. The only thing that seems certain at this point is Russia’s determination to repress NGOs.
On 3 June, a group of people broke into NGO CAT’s regional office and apartment in Grozny. According to NGO CAT’s regional coordinator Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, the group arrived late in the morning as part of a protest rally. Khabibrakhmanov said his colleagues in Grozny called police immediately but none arrived.
The men were seen to be smashing furniture, computers and destroying paper files and folders. Some of them brought an angle grinder and eventually broke through to the adjacent apartment where temporary staff of NGO CAT were working.