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Torture and torment in Libya

Five and a half years on from the ousting of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the country remains in an unstable state, facing the threat of IS and political infighting. Gaddafi was killed in February 2011 and on this year’s anniversary of his death, interim president Abdul Jalil insisted his government had, “opened our arms to all Libyans, whether they supported the revolution or not”. Acknowledging this message of inclusion, let’s not forget the many people with links to Gaddafi who were targeted in the aftermath of the dictator’s death. One of these people is HH who was tortured by the police.

HH was just 18 when Gaddafi died and her family was one of many to be persecuted because of their connection to his regime. The fact that they also belonged to a minority ethnic group made their situation even more dangerous. Immediately after Gaddafi’s death HH and her family were threatened and harassed by the new authorities who wanted them to leave the country.

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Libyans take to the streets in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death (Courtesy of Mojomogwal via Flickr creative commons licence)

Her father was captured in 2014 and not released until 2016; she believes he was tortured during this time, though he never spoke about it. Soon after his release he was murdered on the street. After her father was taken away, HH was also arrested by the police and taken to prison. Over the course of a month, she was interrogated, sexually assaulted and beaten. Her head was shaved and she received death threats constantly. She was also forced to witness other family members being beaten.

Sadly, her story is far from unique. A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Libya released in February 2016, found that killings and torture are being committed with impunity by “a multitude of actors – both state and non-state”.

HH was released a month later and knew she needed to leave the country if she was to survive. Along with a close relative she made her way to Croatia, but the trauma of what she had experienced made day to day life impossible. HH was referred to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member centre Rehabilitation Center for Stress and Trauma (RCT) in Zagreb by the Red Cross.

When she arrived at the centre she was suffering from depression, insomnia, nightmares and a loss of appetite. She also struggled to form relationships with people as she felt like she couldn’t trust anyone. She had physical injuries as a result of the sexual assault but like many victims of sexual violence, refused to speak about what she had experienced.

RCT Zagreb provided social, medical, psychiatric and psychological support to both HH and her relative – also a victim of torture. The centre found accommodation for both of them and staff worked hard to establish trust so they could start the treatment and help HH integrate in Croatia. She was enrolled in a language course and received help to search for a job.

Through her therapy she began to deal with her grief at losing her family and the promising future she once had in Libya, where she was an ambitious student. A year and a half later and thanks to the work of the RCT Zagreb staff life had become more manageable for HH. She left Croatia in 2016, hoping to find a better future in Germany.

While HH escaped the violence and left her life in Libya behind, an article in The Guardian suggests that many people are losing hope in the country. In the article, which was written around the time of the five-year-anniversary, one student who supported the revolution said, “Some people say they want to go back to the time of Gaddafi. I don’t. Where I want to go is out, out of the country.”

 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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The world takes creative and inspirational action on 26 June 2016

Once again creativity played a big role in marking this year’s 26 June campaign, as organisations around the globe showcased the resilience of caregivers, survivors and their families and communities through a variety of creative events and activities.

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The Healing Club at SURVIVORS of Torture, International, USA ran a drum circle event

The UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June is a day to honour victims of torture. For many, it is also a chance to celebrate the achievements of the movement and raise awareness that torture continues to exist in many places around the world.

Members of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) organised lots of different kinds of events, including activities for children, music and dance productions, theatre, conferences and vigils.

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Turkish rehabilitation centre SOHRAM-CASRA celebrated 26 June with events for children

In Turkey, the SOHRAM-CASRA rehabilitation centre celebrated 26 June with a range of events for children, including a sack race and face painting. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Vive Zene centre raised awareness through street art, while on the other side of the world in Australia, Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services brought their conference on “Sustainable Rehabilitation for Survivors and their Communities” to life with traditional music and dance performances.

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Vive Zene Centre for Therapy and Rehabilitation created a 3D street mural and ran an art workshop

26 June is the perfect occasion for torture survivors to showcase what they have learned by processing their trauma through theatre, movement and song; therapeutic approaches, which are becoming popular with more and more health professionals.

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The Kim Kuen-Tae Memorial Healing Centre ran an event featuring a musical performance in Japanese and Korean by survivors of torture

These are just a selection of some of the many creative events that took place this 26 June, as we were once again inspired by the originality and dedication of those involved in the anti-torture movement.

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Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Services in Australia included a musical element in their conference this year

If you haven’t shared your photos and stories from 26 June with us yet, please do so on our World Without Torture Facebook page.

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Alba Mejia

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In our Fighting Torture series, we speak with people from around the world and 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?

Alba Mejia is the Assistant Director of the Centre for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and their Families (CPTRT), in Honduras, a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. She tells us how securing funding for the sector continues to be a challenge and how the Honduran military, which runs the country’s prison service, is more focused on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.

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Alba Mejia

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

I am a social worker, and hold a master’s degree. I am currently working at CPTRT where many of our clients are in detention, deprived of liberty.

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

I have worked with torture victims since 1995, which is the same year that CPTRT was founded.

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

This work is the culmination of activities I have been involved in throughout my life as a human rights defender. When I was young, I participated intensively in the fight for the rights of workers in the health and education sectors. I also worked in the defence of higher education students, where I observed how groups of young people were tortured when they were forcibly recruited into the military. That is why I got involved in the movement that fought to make military service voluntary rather than obligatory.

In addition, all my social engagement has been related to the prevention of violence against women and I actually founded the movement, “Women for peace/Visitación Padilla’, which I was involved in for 15 years. As part of my work with CPTRT, I have been in contact with people deprived of liberty and I have seen the consequences of torture on the bodies of victims. This is why I now feel committed to defending their rights.

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

Sometimes I run into people who have been deprived of liberty who I have interacted with during different workshops. When they see me they stop and greet me, they remind me of the experiences they have gone through and how the CPTRT’s support has positively affected their lives.

Q: How has this work changed you since you started?

This work has strengthened my convictions about the need to deeply engage in changing national and international structures, which are the cause of the exploitation, oppression and repression of those impoverished in the world.

Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors in Honduras?

At CPTRT, we refer to the people we work with as being ‘deprived of liberty’. Their situation is critical and they do not enjoy the full right to rehabilitation. Lack of access to education, health care and employment are also serious problems. These issues are further exacerbated due to overcrowded living conditions in prisons and detention centres. All of this constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, which is very close to torture.

Q: What is a typical day in the office/field for you?

In my management position, I regularly meet with my colleagues to co-ordinate meetings with state operators so we can maintain institutional communication with other organisations to handle and define strategies for dealing with torture cases.

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

The biggest obstacle is that unfortunately the government has delegated the administration of the penitentiary system to the military. If the possibilities for rehabilitation before were minimal, now they have been reduced even more because the military focuses on punishment and vigilance, rather than rehabilitation.

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

Globally, there is not enough funding for the rehabilitation of victims. This is then reinforced by the limited influence that can be exerted to ensure that states make funding available for the rehabilitation of torture survivors.

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 an experience that stays with the survivors for their entire life. Regardless of how much therapy they receive, their brain will always remember the suffering and the horror of such a traumatic experience. Torture affects the behaviour of survivors and often does not allow them to be happy because they have to deal with many fears that stay with them for their entire lives.

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

By example. We should try to be defenders of human rights, both in the office and outside the office. Wherever there is injustice, we need to fight it and turn it into a positive change.

 

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On the forefront: Helping refugees rebuild their lives in New Zealand

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With its remote location – far away from war and conflict – New Zealand is rarely mentioned in discussions about refugee quotas and resettlement. But each year a small number of refugees arrive in the country, where they are welcomed by local rehabilitation centre Refugees as Survivors New Zealand (RASNZ) at the National Refugee Resettlement centre in Auckland.

We recently spoke with RASNZ CEO Ann Hood about the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in New Zealand, many of whom have fled torture and ill treatment, and how RASNZ is helping them overcome their trauma and settle in a new country.

As the CEO of RASNZ, Ann oversees 45 staff and 60 volunteers, providing newly arrived refugees with psychosocial and mental health assessments, brief therapeutic interventions and orientation to life in New Zealand.

RASNZ’s job is to ensure that refugees receive the psychological support they need to adapt to a new country and get the best start for themselves and their families. Something that is vital for those who have experienced torture and other forms of trauma. In addition, RASNZ also supports former refugees who continue to struggle with their traumatic past, despite the passing of many years.

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RASNZ CEO Ann Hood.

WWT: The National Refugee Centre provides a wide array of health services to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of your clients. How do these services help vulnerable people to settle in a new country?

AH: We firmly believe that if the aim is for people to participate in society they need to be mentally and physically well. Otherwise, they aren’t able to learn the language, cope with a job or simply manage everyday life. The health aspect has to be addressed in order for people to live productive lives.

WWT: How does this work in practice?

AH: We have two clinical teams. One team is based at the Resettlement Centre, providing assessment and brief therapy. The other is based in the community in Auckland, covering the whole city, and is able to treat people over a longer period of time. For many traumatised refugees it is often down the track that they need support and treatment. Some don’t need our services for 10 years because they need to meet their basic needs first.

There is also a non-clinical community team mainly made up of former refugees. This team provides services within the community such as psycho education, introductory health programmes, support with education and employment and lots of engagement in activities. For young people we have the youth team with sports and mentoring programmes. For adults we run support groups, such as sewing groups for women and training in road codes and computer use.

WWT: We tend to often talk about refugees, but you also treat asylum seekers. As clients, how do they differ from refugees?

AH: When it comes to asylum seekers we tend to work with them particularly during the determination process as this is when they’re really struggling. Their future and fate is in the hands of the government. And they lose a lot of hope and faith during this process.

WWT: You actually worked at RASNZ as a clinical psychologist before taking a job elsewhere for 10 years. You returned last year as the CEO. How do you think the sector has changed since you first started working?

AH: I’ve seen a change in who are coming as refugees. New Zealand doesn’t take many people from Africa now, but focuses mainly on people from Burma, as well as refugees from Afghanistan and Colombia and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. The government has also changed its policy on specific issues over time. Like now, New Zealand no longer accepts unaccompanied minors.

WWT: Speaking of the government. New Zealand has such a strong history of protecting human rights and an equally good refugee settlement programme so we were a bit shocked to find out that the country only takes 750 refugees every year.

AH: In general, there is an overwhelming support for refugees in the country and when the government recently announced that it would increase the intake of refugees, there were great expectations about the number. It is fair to say there was an outcry when the government announced it would only increase the intake from 750 to 1000 refugees. New Zealand takes a very small number of refugees but I think that its resettlement programme is well regarded and we provide a very good service and system. From the moment refugees arrive in the country they get New Zealand residency and have access to the full range of health services.

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

Refugee crisis: New Zealand has agreed to increase its intake of refugees from 750 to 1000 (Courtesy of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies used via Flickr creative commons license)

WWT: It sounds like an efficient system with a strong focus on health and rehabilitation. Does this mean that you have the backing and support you need or do you still face challenges?

AH: We constantly need more money and run at a deficit. My number one priority is getting resources, and not just resources but sustainable resources. We can only employ people for the amount of time that we have money. Regarding our services, there is also a great need for clinical training and various aspects of working with trauma victims. Our team need to be up-skilled, such as being trained in the Istanbul Protocol. We work closely with lawyers and doctors, but at the moment we don’t have any doctors in New Zealand – as far as I know – who are trained in Istanbul Protocol, so it’s crucial.

We are relatively small with just two services in New Zealand and New Zealand is pretty isolated. So sometimes it can feel like we are a long way from the action. I think it’s really important to get that international perspective and to understand not only what’s happening around the world in terms of refugee and asylum issues, but also how other organisations are working and how we can work more collaboratively and support each other. Basically to keep up to speed. I would like our organisation to be able to grow in terms of research and advocacy, but at the moment we just don’t have the resources.

About RASNZ

RASNZ has helped resettle United Nations quota refugees since 1995 and is one of just two services in the country providing treatment to refugees. Under international humanitarian conventions, the centre’s clinical team additionally delivers specialist mental health services for convention refugees and asylum seekers either in detention or with cases before the Refugee Appeals Authority. The centre has to date provided support to thousands of people.

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Sanctuary and Sustenance: Photographing the journey towards a better life

The United States-Mexico border at San Ysidro, in the county of San Diego, is the busiest land border crossing in the western hemisphere. Every day, these people, who come in search of protection and a better life arrive in San Diego; one of the many cities that have seen an increase in refugees and asylum seekers.

The inspiring and shocking stories of some of these people have been captured by photographer Misael Virgen and were until recently on display at the La Mesa Library in San Diego.

The photo series focus on the journey from the points of entry to San Diego, beginning with the border and the airport. A collaboration between the organisation ART WORKS Projects and International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS), the photographs are San Diego’s version of the international project Sanctuary and Sustenance, which tells the stories of some of the more than 60 million people currently without a permanent home because of war or persecution.

“The images help us share several of the thousands of stories of newcomers to our community,” explains Niki Kalmus, Community Relations Manager of SURVIVORS.

SAN DIEGO, CA-NOVEMBER 09, 2015: | A Sudanese refugee is greeted by her family where they reunited at Lindbergh Airport in San Diego for the first time in years. At 23, she arrived with her two young boys. | (Misael Virgen/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Sudanese refugee reunited with her family at San Diego’s airport. Courtesy of Misael Virgen/ San Diego Union-Tribune

“We want San Diego to understand the long, arduous journeys our clients, refugees, asylum seekers, and all migrants make to rebuild their lives in our city. We also want to show that the lives these migrants lead are very similar to our own. The images Misael captured demonstrate how torture survivors’ lives are hardly different from the lives of you and me.”

SURVIVORS and ART WORKS Projects hope to raise awareness of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers, as well as of their resilience, to spark conversations about collective responsibility, welcome newcomers to communities, and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.

“So far we have been able to reach many people who had never heard of SURVIVORS. The clients featured in Misael’s photography were excited to raise awareness about torture survivors, and came to see the exhibits when they were unveiled. One of the clients is highly involved with advocating for the rights of transgendered individuals, the reason she was tortured and forced to flee her home country,” explains Niki.

According to her, the exhibition, which was shown at La Mesa Library throughout the month of June, has inspired lots of visitors to get involved.

“Many of them now volunteer at SURVIVORS or have sought more information from us about how they can help torture survivors. Lots of people commented that they had no idea this was still an issue today, and especially not that it reached our community.”

Exhibition at Carmel Valley Library

The Sanctuary & Sustenance Exhibition in San Diego. Courtesy of SURVIVORS.

Sanctuary & Sustenance is a multimedia projection of photography, film, music, and words, launched on June 20, 2013 in honour of World Refugee Day in cities around the world.

Through photographs, moving graphics, and music, viewers have an opportunity to trace the journey of a family during the catastrophic events of displacement, on a path to sanctuary, and through the long process of rebuilding life in a new community. Across the world, it aims to raise the public consciousness of these issues and facilitate conversations about the collective responsibility to welcome refugees and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.

Niki says that in San Diego, SURVIVORS does its best to educate the public about torture and its consequences.

“We raise awareness through community outreach such as this exhibit to let our community know that torture survivors are an underserved and often invisible part of the population. The most important thing we can do is simply understand that they are among us and spread the word about the important work of SURVIVORS and torture treatment centres throughout the world. We believe that by raising awareness about the existence of torture survivors in our very neighbourhoods we can create a more welcoming community.”

SURVIVORS is currently seeking other locations to show the exhibition. You can find out more about the Sanctuary & Sustenance project by clicking here, see more of the work from the exhibition by going to Misael Virgen’s website or get the latest news from SURVIVORS by following them on Facebook.

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Still no justice in the “Wheel of Torture” cases in the Philippines

In February 2014, the world was shocked to learn about the “Wheel of Torture”, a sadistic game being used inside the Philippine National Police Provincial Intelligence Board (PIB), a secret detention compound in Biñan, Laguna Province, Philippines.

The “game” is played when a police officer spins the roulette-style wheel, which lists different methods of torture, to determine which punishment they should receive. These include “30 seconds of hanging” and ”20 seconds of beatings”. The PIB was shut down after a visit from the Commission on Human Rights Region IV Office and more than 40 detainees complained to the authorities that they had been subjected to the Wheel of Torture.

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MAG and the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines using the symbol of the Torture Wheel to raise awareness during an EU project called End Torture in the Philippines. (Courtesy of MAG)

LC is one of the detainees who was tortured for months. Once he was taken to a small hut inside the PIB and forced to drink water contaminated with dog faeces. Another time, two of his toenails were almost taken out with pliers and officers poured alcohol and gasoline over him and threatened to set him on fire. LC says one of the guards was, “looking for a lighter but could not find one at the time.”

RA is another one of the victims. He was beaten with the handle of a dustpan, a piece of wood, a steel baseball bat, a plastic chair and their fists and feet. He was also electrocuted, blindfolded, and repeatedly gagged.

Despite the many complaints and the fact that 25 cases were filed, only four remain pending and no police officers have ever been convicted. IRCT member in the Philippines, the Medical Action Group (MAG) has provided rehabilitation services and legal referrals to many of the torture victims held at the PIB. MAG documented a total of 27 clients out of 41 who were initially interviewed. The others did not want to be documented.

MAG says that it is both sad and disappointing that out of 25 cases, the local human rights office in-charge of the case has filed, only four remain pending. “Some clients have died during the process and some withdrew their complaints and took the side of the alleged perpetrators as a result of threats and intimidation.”

LC is still one of MAG’s clients and continues to suffer from nightmares. He feels extremely angry and upset whenever he thinks about what happened at the PIB, but the scars from his beatings and burns make it hard to forget.

MAG was due to have a meeting with the local human rights office, along with the Central Human Rights Office about the cases in May. However, it was cancelled because of the presidential elections and no new date has been set. “It is all too common that cases like this are never heard and reported. With medical and psychological help and support, we can heal the wounds of the survivors but they may never get back to the place they were before they were tortured. This particular case reminds us that torture can never be justified in any circumstance,” says MAG.

The Philippine Government passed an Anti-Torture law in 2009 but human rights groups say things have been slow to change. However, there is some cause for hope, as on 29 March 2016, a Philippine court made a historic ruling in which a police officer was convicted of torturing a bus driver to confess to crimes he denies he committed. It was the first conviction under the 2009 Anti-Torture Act.

The Philippines is now in a period of transition with newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte having spoken openly about his hard stance on law and order. The future is unclear for the country but for the victims of the wheel of torture the past cannot be forgotten.

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Why International Day of Action for Women’s Health matters

Since 1987, 28 May has marked International Day of Action for Women’s Health. Today is an opportunity to remind governments and the general public alike that women’s health matters. Many female victims of torture struggle with lifelong physical and mental health problems as a result of their experiences and the type of torture inflicted on them because of their gender. We share the story of NB, a survivor of sexual torture from the Central African Republic, to show that the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the human rights of women and girls, including their sexual and reproductive rights is always worth fighting for.

In March 2013 the Central African Republic (CAR) was in turmoil. The Séléka, an alliance of rebel militia factions had overthrown the government and were starting to target the Christian population, murdering people and ransacking and destroying their houses.

CARCrisis_Flickr

At the time, NB was happily married with four children but after a run in with rebels that were renting a house from her husband, her family suddenly found themselves as targets. They fled their village but NB decided to return to their house to get their identification documents before they left the country for good.

She was captured by Séléka rebels looking for her husband. They beat and repeatedly raped her for several hours. Then they ransacked the house, before leaving her in a state of shock. She eventually made her way to her parents’ house and then joined her husband and children and they fled to Cameroon.

NB is one of the many female victims of sexual violence during the CAR conflict, a time when disorder reigned and rape was used as a weapon. In late 2013 Amnesty International researchers reported that they had spoken to many women in the capital Bangui, who reported having been raped by Seleka soldiers. Most of these women and girls did not want to be interviewed for fear of being identified or stigmatised.

In Cameroon NB tried to make a life for her family, despite receiving no medical or psychological care after her ordeal. Eventually other CAR refugees told her and her family about the Trauma Centre in Cameroon (TCC), a member of the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture. They were assessed and received psychological services, including individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy.

Even with the much-needed support they got from TCC, NB and her husband struggled to keep their relationship going. Things became even harder when she was diagnosed with HIV, contracted when she was raped. In many cases in countries, such as the CAR and DRC Congo, HIV-positive rape victims are dying because they cannot afford antiretroviral medication.

NB is one of the lucky ones, as she continues to get treatment from TCC. She and her husband are still together and the family is part of an income-generating scheme. As a result can pay their rent, take care of basic needs and their children can go to school. Without it they would struggle to survive.

NB’s story shows there are still many places in the world where basic health services are not available or inaccessible, often affecting women and children the most. The psychological effects of the trauma that sexual violence causes are ignored or gender inequalities make it more difficult for women to access medication for diseases like HIV. Sexual torture affects victims’ health and identity, as well as their relationships with family and friends.

International Day of Action on Women’s Health is a day to remember women like NB. Her story shows that survivors of sexual torture need support to rebuild their lives and that women’s mental and physical health should always be safeguarded.

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

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

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

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

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

Staff from Omega

Staff from Omega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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