Archive for category Pacific

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.



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.


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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Countries in desperate need of ratifying the UN Convention against Torture

Despite ongoing international efforts to eliminate the practice of torture, it is not a question of whether torture still takes place, but rather where in the world it is still practised and how prevalent it is. Currently, more than 40 states across the globe have failed to ratify the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) and in many of these countries, human rights defenders are raising the alarm, alerting to the constant flow of cases involving torture and ill treatment.

If anything, the recent report on CIA’s use of torture shows that this crime is more prevalent than most of us probably thought. The US is a signatory to the Convention against Torture, yet its own intelligence agency relied on the practice of torture as an integral part of its interrogation technique.

If a country that has committed to respect the UN Convention still allows for the practice of torture, then what is the status in the 40 something countries that are still to adopt it?

We have looked at three of these countries. Despite facing very different problems, they all have one thing in common: none of them has managed to tackle the problem of torture.


As a country with a population of more than a billion, it is not hard to see what an overpowering task it is to eliminate torture. Set on making the country an industrial superpower and creating more jobs, overcoming the enormity of its human rights problems is not an immediate priority – economic reform is.

Nonetheless, it is very worrying that a large number of torture cases in India happen at the hand of the police, and often while the victim is in custody. From 2001 to 2010, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded 14,231 deaths in police and judicial custody in India. The vast majority of these deaths can be ascribed to torture.

Only in recent weeks, newspapers have reported on the city of Chennai, where three police officers are currently being investigated for sexual torture of a 19-year old at the local police station. There is also the police commissioner in Delhi who has had to deny claims that the police has used torture to extract confessions. And in Calcutta, the West Bengal Government faces heat over alleged police torture of a woman.

According to various rights organisations, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg in a country that still has a long way to go despite its commitments to tackle the most prevalent human rights abuses. While the country has taken positive steps by strengthening laws protecting women and children, its reluctance to hold state officials to account for torture and other abuses continues to foster a culture of corruption and impunity.


To many, Fiji is the perfect holiday destination. With its white sandy beaches and exotic palm trees, this tropical archipelago in the South Pacific could easily be mistaken as paradise on earth. But even paradise has a dark side and in the case of Fiji this dark side involves a poor human rights record.

In recent years, there have been numerous allegations of the use of torture by state officials.
In March 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing two prisoners being badly beaten and humiliated by state security officials. Failure by the Fijian authorities to investigate the case has raised red flags about a culture of impunity for police and security forces.

Following last year’s elections, Fiji had its second review by the UN Human Rights Council which, among other things, urged the state to amend repressive decrees that put severe restrictions on freedom of expression, promote women’s rights and ratify the UNCAT.

Despite these recommendations and similar calls from various human rights organisations, the government is still to take action.

In the meantime, cases of police violence and torture involving state officials continue to emerge.

Central African Republic

For more than two years, a violent, sectarian civil war has left Central African Republic (CAR) paralysed, prompting rights organisations to warn of a human rights crisis spiralling out of control.

In the past 12 months alone, at least 5,000 people have been killed and there are reports of torture, including sexual violence, and other human rights abuses.

In January 2015, UN’s International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, reported that crimes against humanity have been widely committed by all parties to the ongoing conflict. The Commission strongly recommended that accountability mechanisms be put in place to tackle the ‘cycle of impunity’ in the CAR.

However, recognising that the CAR Government simply does not have the resources nor the political incentive to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Commission has urged the international community to step up and fund a tribunal to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity.

These recommendations illustrate how vital it is for CAR to ratify the UNCAT. Until this happens, violence and torture continue to be rampant in the war-torn country.

Source: The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

Source: The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT)

What difference can the UN Convention against Torture make?

In the first instance, the UNCAT is one of the most important international human rights
instruments in the work against torture which outlines the rights of an individual, outlaws torture, and promotes respect for the human rights of an individual.

When a UN member state has become a party to the Convention, the government of that
country is accountable under international law to take action to prevent torture and to support the victims when torture takes place.

According to the Association for the Prevention of Torture, “the Convention against Torture requires that all States, and each of us, remain vigilant to the risks of torture. This is what makes it so relevant in 2014, thirty years after its adoption.”

You can read more about the countries that have ratified the UNCAT by clicking on this link. For comprehensive profiles on each UN member state, the United Nations website provides a full country list.

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‘Body Movement Reconnect’ – An interview with a STTARS Survivor

A circus is a show featuring colourful, entertaining and often daring acts. A circus aims to amuse, to entertain and to joke. And a circus is also a method of rehabilitation.

'Body Movement Reconnect' is a joint initiative between STTARS and Uniting Care Wesley Bowden

‘Body Movement Reconnect’ is a joint initiative between STTARS and Uniting Care Wesley Bowden

Despite the fun factor, circus acts and similar physical activities are used by IRCT members to encourage confidence, creativity and cooperation among torture survivors.

One particular example of this is the ‘Body Movement Reconnect’ programme, a joint initiative between Australian member STTARS and the group Uniting Care Wesley Bowden.

With the assistance of trainers at the South Australian Circus Company, this six-month program from February 2014 helped female survivors of torture body awareness, develop social connections, improve fitness and build self-esteem to reduce the impact of chronic pain.

For Katie, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, the STTARS programme restored happiness and a sense of belonging, missing after years of fear during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, her subsequent move to Iran and her experience of rape as a child.

“When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan [in 1979], I was 11 years old. At this time, the Soviet soldiers were catching girls and disappearing with them. They would also come after the young boys taking them in the name of military service,” Katie explains.

“At the time, I didn’t feel that affected because I was young. But I remember many girls disappeared. If you left the house then you could be taken. So we did not leave the house.”

In 1980, Katie and her mother, four sisters, three brothers and grandmother fled to Iran. Her father stayed in Afghanistan to fight. He was killed.

“In Iran, I didn’t go to school. Half of the children did not go to school because of the expense, the rent of the house, and living in a country illegally,” says Katie.

“It was only after we moved that I began to recall trauma I suffered in Afghanistan. I had been lying to people to stop them finding out.”

While bringing a meal to her brother-in-law, Katie was imprisoned in his home and raped.

“I didn’t know anything about being a woman,” Katie says. “I did not know what had happened to me as I passed out. I felt ashamed and embarrassed.”

“It was hard to forget the memories when I was 11 years, but my husband was a good man. We had a beautiful son together, but when my son was five-years-old, he became sick and died. That was the saddest time of my life.”

This culmination of sadness from fleeing Afghanistan and her rape began to takes its toll on Katie.

“My life during those times was coloured with sadness. I came to Australia with hopes for a better life. I was very scared in the beginning. Everybody spoke a foreign language and everything was unknown,” Katie says.

“When I came to STTARS three years ago, I met ladies from my country, it was here that I began to feel safe.”

Katie soon joined the Body Movement Reconnect programme, participating in a range of circus activities accompanied by therapy and group counselling.

After six-months of support from STTARS, Katie feels reinvented.

“For me it was like being with my sisters again, there were women laughing, having fun, exercising. We shared lunch and talked about our countries and background. It always felt like a safe space and I knew the women there understood me and I understood them. I am a strong Afghani woman, and that makes me feel proud.”

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On the Forefront: Restoring justice in Bangladesh

WWT - Members series
Even following the ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture in 1998, alarming estimates predict as many as 220,000 people are tortured in Bangladesh every year.

It seems implausible but, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, it is something quite possible while torture in Bangladesh is not punishable as a crime, due to domestic laws which do not meet the definition of torture according to the Convention Against Torture.

The team at BCHRD recently campaigning for women's rights

The team at BCHRD recently campaigning for women’s rights

The result is a society with little faith in the judicial system when it comes to reparation for the crimes of torture – a state-of-mind which has bred mass impunity due to widespread beliefs that claims of torture will simply not be taken seriously.

Tackling this impunity is the Bangladesh Centre for Human Rights and Development (BCHRD) which, since 1994, has stayed true to its one objective: to provide immediate assistance and rehabilitation for victims of trauma, particularly children and women.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, torture is routinely practiced across the 629 police stations of Bangladesh as investigators see torture as an acceptable and effective means of gathering evidence.

Countering this, the BCHRD works closely with victims of torture in detention to report their stories, to collect their data, and to reintegrate them into society. Approaches to rehabilitation are both administered after the torture and preventatively to stop the cycle of torture in the country.

The main multidisciplinary approach of BCHRD is one known as the integrated rehabilitation approach (IRA) which involves professionals including physicians, physiotherapists, psychologists, counsellors, lawyers and social workers who met frequently to form a united workforce which can target and assist victims of torture in every field necessary.

The benefit of this approach is not only that torture survivors are assisted, but it promotes cross-training and sharing of information among Bangladesh’s most important groups in the protection of human rights.

To find out more about BCHRD, please click this link.

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Creating a world without torture: February in review

Despite being the shortest month of our calendar, February has been packed with important news stories, statements and developments across the anti-torture movement.

We summarise some of our most popular blogs, social media content and news releases below. Simply click the relevant links and pictures to read the full stories.

STTARS Survivors of Torture & Trauma Assistance & Rehabilitation Service, Australia

STTARS Survivors of Torture & Trauma Assistance & Rehabilitation Service, Australia

10 questions and answers about torture rehabilitation

Ever wondered what can be achieved through rehabilitation? Ever wanted to know exactly what can be done to help victims of torture overcome their past? Or have you simply questioned how many centres across the globe offer torture rehabilitation services?

This month we collected the top ten questions asked by our readers about anti-torture work and answered them with links to our work. Just click the picture or this link to read more.

IRCT President awarded Council of Europe prize

IRCT President Suzanne Jabbour

IRCT President Suzanne Jabbour

Another popular story this month came from the IRCT whose President, Suzanne Jabbour, has been awarded the prestigious North-South Prize from the Council of Europe in recognition of her lifelong commitment to preventing torture.

The award, which will be presented this Spring in Lisbon, Portugal, has a long list of famous previous winners including Kofi Annan and Bob Geldof.

Suzanne is overjoyed with her victory and we want to thank everyone who joined us in congratulating Suzanne on this award. Read the full story here.

‘Wheel of Torture’ shows more must be done to stop torture in the Philippines

Detainees can be subjected to torture such as “20 seconds Manny Pacman”  which means 20 seconds of nonstop punches. (Courtesy of the Commission on Human Rights)

Detainees can be subjected to torture such as “20 seconds Manny Pacman” which means 20 seconds of nonstop punches. (Courtesy of the Commission on Human Rights)

A prison guard takes a detainee from his or her cell, escorts them to a roulette-style wheel listing different methods of torture, and spins the wheel to determine just how much pain should be inflicted on the prisoner.

This ‘Wheel of Torture’, which uses torture as a game, came to light in the world media this month following an inspection of prisons in the Philippines and shocked human rights groups worldwide.

The practice not only showed us how torture is still being reinvented and adapted in sadistic ways, but also showed just how little is being done in the Philippines to stop torture. You can read our full blog on this, and the statement from human rights defenders in the country, by clicking this link.

‘Act of Killing’ BAFTA victory is important for anti-torture movement

A story we shared on Facebook this month garnered much attention – the vivid, hard-hitting documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ achieved must deserved recognition from the British Academy of Film, Television and Arts (BAFTA) this month, receiving the award for Best Documentary at the latest awards ceremony.

Click our status below to watch an interview with the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer following the award.



The challenges facing torture rehabilitation in northern Iraq

The logo for the new centre

The logo for the new centre

We caught up with IRCT member the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims in Iraq this month to see what they are doing to help survivors of torture in the region.

The newest member of the IRCT movement, the Kirkuk Centre have extensive links across the north of the country to aid victims of torture from all backgrounds, from those affected by the war in Iraq, to the recent influx of Syrian refugees in the region.

It comes as part of our ‘On the Forefront’ series, which you can see all the entries for by clicking this link.

Tunisia passes new constitution


Incredible news from Tunisia this month, who passed a new constitution promoting equal rights for women, freedom of religious expression, and freedom from torture – all ratified just three years after revolution.

We joined world leaders in congratulating Tunisia on this move which will hopefully push other contries to follow the lead.

Click here or the picture for more information.

Change in Bahrain is needed now, not in another three years

Bahrain anniversary protests (picture courtesy of BCHR)

Bahrain anniversary protests (picture courtesy of BCHR)

However in Bahrain, which also experienced uprisings against the government three years ago, the situation of ill-treatment of protestors and limits to freedom of expression has not changed.

Protests continue on a daily basis, and the three-year anniversary since the beginning of the protests was tragically marked itself by further protests and excessive crackdowns from the authorities.

Bahrain needs to change now. It simply cannot wait any longer. Read the full story by clicking the picture or clicking this link.

For further information from World Without Torture, do not forget to ‘like’ us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Click here to visit our Facebook page, and here to visit our Twitter feed.

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‘Wheel of Torture’ shows just how prevalent torture is in the Philippines

Detainees can be subjected to torture such as “20 seconds Manny Pacman”  which means 20 seconds of nonstop punches. (Courtesy of the Commission on Human Rights)

Detainees can be subjected to torture such as “20 seconds Manny Pacman” which means 20 seconds of nonstop punches. (Courtesy of the Commission on Human Rights)

The game of the ‘Wheel of Torture’ is simple: a prison guard takes a detainee from his or her cell, escorts them to a roulette-style wheel listing different methods of torture, and spins the wheel to determine just how much pain should be inflicted on the prisoner.

It sounds like a macabre gameshow in a dark future where “30 seconds of hanging” and ”20 seconds of beatings” are used for entertainment. But as recent news has shown, this game is a reality – and it may not be an isolated incident, one anti-torture union claims.

Following reports of the torture wheel’ earlier this week, the United Against Torture Coalition (UATC) in the Philippines is concerned that while the torture wheel is an extreme example of torture, it exists in a context where there is room for further practices like this to exist.

“The existence of secret detention facility indicates the government’s reluctance to ensure full implementation of the Anti-Torture Law [which gives room for] routine and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody,” the statement reads.

The coalition – a union of over 30 human rights groups including IRCT members Balay Rehabilitation Center and the Medical Action Group (MAG) – believe that while the 2009 Anti-Torture law is in place in the Philippines, it is having minimal impact on the prevention of torture.

“Four years since the law took effect, the number of cases brought to court against perpetrators remains a drop in the bucket,” the statement continues. “The government has overlooked zero-tolerance of torture and full implementation of the Anti-Torture Law, and has further set the stage of existing culture of torture impunity in the Philippines.”

The ‘wheel of torture’ discovery inside the Philippine National Police Laguna Provincial Intelligence in Biñan, Laguna province, has seen 44 detainees complain to the prison authorities. However, unofficially, the number of victims of this cruel practice could be much higher.

The officers involved in the case will be dismissed, but this is not enough to redress the victims, or to stop a similar situation of torture developing in the future.

There needs to be full investigations into this incident which sees offending officers disciplined for their actions, to ensure justice for the victims. There needs to be routes to rehabilitation for the victims also so, no matter what their experience, they can overcome their experience of torture. And there needs to be comprehensive reviews of the current state of policing in the Philippines, particularly in detention facilities, to prevent this torture happening.

It is an argument echoed by through the statement from the human rights defenders: “There needs to be more diligent implementation of the Anti-Torture Law. Currently the policy of “zero tolerance” is just to draw away the attention of the public and international community of the government’s failure to eliminate torture in the country.”

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On the forefront: meet the organisations behind the torture rehabilitation movement

WWT - Members series

Through more than 140 rehabilitation centres across the globe, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is the largest international network against torture, providing rehabilitation, justice and hope to victims of torture all over the world.

Although under the same umbrella, each of these organisations is unique and operates in a variety of contexts. There are centres working around the clock to deal with humanitarian crises – such as Restart in Lebanon, or the Institute for Family Health in Jordan, which are currently struggling to respond to the challenging influx of Syrian refugees, many of them victims of torture, and groups working with the victims of long past dictatorships, such as those of Latin America in in 1970s.

There are also centres focused on healing entire communities through group therapy and counselling in places where armed conflict created deep societal wounds, and centres who are working with victims of terrible, and often covered-up, state torture, in countries usually assumed democratic and free from torture.

The range of focus areas is vast and, to counter this, so are the different methods of rehabilitation: there are traditional methods of rehabilitation, from psychotherapy and counselling, to group projects focused on rebuilding a community; there are innovative programmes such as yoga sessions which offer physical solutions to long-term pain; storytelling classes and artistic events across centres allow survivors of torture to express their pain in a personal and enlightening way; and projects such as the natural growth project, run by Freedom From Torture, which allow survivors of torture to find their place in the world by reconnecting them with nature and society.

Despite the differences, these organisations share an aim: to create a world without torture.

Over the coming weeks we will be focusing on particular torture rehabilitation centres from across the globe, giving an insight into how they operate and the work they complete on a daily basis.

Every week we shall turn our attention to a different centre and showcase how the centres and programmes work within varying national and local contexts, with different target groups, and use a range of methods to address the effects of torture on individuals, families and communities.

Torture has far-reaching consequences. Rehabilitation too has a far-reaching impact, one which can assist a person, a family, a community, and even a region, in moving on from their past and into a pain-free life once more.

Join us from next week as we go behind-the-scenes of the centres.


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It seems Australia is stopping the boats, but at the expense of human rights

Thousands join a pro-asylum rally in Melbourne, Australia (courtesy of Ali Martin - used under Creative Commons Licence, Flickr)

Thousands join a pro-asylum rally in Melbourne, Australia (courtesy of Ali Martin – used under Creative Commons Licence, Flickr)

“This government will not give an inch when it comes to protecting our borders,” says Australian Immigration minister Scott Morrison in a rather definitive sound-bite.  

But the lack of negotiation is not a hard-line response to a threat. The position of the government is not to tackle an impending disaster. Instead the anti-asylum stance – which particularly targets refugees fleeing Indonesia by perilous, horrifying makeshift boat trips across the Pacific – is one promoted to ensure political success, even at the possible expense of thousands of lives of asylum seekers who are simply holding regard for their own life.

In October 2013, this blog covered the story of Operation Sovereign Borders – a seemingly militaristic operation, led by decorated Major General Angus Campbell, under the coalition government of Australia, which aims to halt the arrival of asylum seekers by sea.

The rhetoric is clear, the message direct: stopping the boats is the number one priority.

It’s an aim which some commentators have already hailed as a victory, allowing Australia to move past its days of “lost sovereignty and lawless migration”.

Currently all unauthorized migrants – or ‘illegals’ as the State shorthand seems to suggest – are detained. The detention exists as an intermediary phase whereby assessments can be carried out to determine the legality of a person’s stay. The alternative method to deal with arriving immigrants is to send them back to their homeland.

The detention, while in theory short-term, often transforms into long-term detention, causing great psychological harm to asylum seekers, who remain estranged from humanity with many detention centres constructed away from the mainland. Reports of depression and anxiety are unsurprising and, unfortunately, these symptoms are similar to those experienced under torture – the frightening reality which may have triggered the risky boat journey to Australia in the first place.

IRCT member Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS) in Perth, Western Australia, provides counselling and mental health services for asylum seekers in the region who are currently in detention. But with the government seemingly succeeding in their clampdown on the “boat people”, ASeTTS may no longer have access to asylum seekers via state detention centres, purely because asylum seekers will not arrive at all. In fact state detention centres could closedown altogether, meaning there will be no support for asylum seekers, many of whom need vital help to move on from experiences of torture in their past.

And perhaps this is exactly what some political figures want – a complete end to the boats, an end to asylum seeking, and an end to the apparent ‘threat’. But what this narrow, vote-pursuing policy also ends is fair human rights treatment. So while the policy is claimed to be a success, it all comes at the cost of the Australian human rights record.

As signatories of various international human rights conventions upholding rights for asylum seekers – particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention – Australia’s government should give fair and proper consideration, screening and treatment to anyone seeking asylum, to identify potential trauma and suffering which forced them to take the decision to leave their country. But even more basic than that, to assure basic protection of human rights, correct and fair treatment of asylum seekers is a must.

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Stop fighting the boats: Australia needs to focus on human rights protections

Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia, which holds, according to the Department of Immigration, "single adult males who arrived as irregular maritime arrivals." Photo by Department of Immigration and Border Security, available on Flickr through Creative Commons license.

Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia, which holds, according to the Department of Immigration, “single adult males who arrived as irregular maritime arrivals.” Photo by Department of Immigration and Border Security, available on Flickr through Creative Commons license.

It’s called Operation Sovereign Borders. “It will steadily be put into effect and I am confident we can stop the boats,” says Major General Angus Campbell, who will be running the new operation. Recently promoted to a three-star general, the military leader had previously served in Australia’s forces in the Middle East and East Timor.

It sounds like a dangerous military operation. They’re trying to “stop the boats,” like an impending invasion. But it’s not. Full of military language and coded with imagery of the shores of Australia being overwhelmed, Operation Sovereign Borders is the new Coalition government’s plan to divert boats of migrants and asylum seekers from ever stepping foot on Australian soil.

“If the government is successful in doing this, then conceivably there will eventually be no asylum seekers in the Australian mainland, and the mainland detention facilities will close, and we won’t provide counselling to asylum seekers,” says Bowen Summerton, Asylum Seeker Services Coordinator at Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS). ASeTTS, an IRCT member in Perth, Western Australia, currently has access to provide counselling and other mental health services for asylum seekers in detention in the region. However, with a different government and policy, this may change – an extremely worrying situation for torture survivors who seek asylum in Australia.

Detention centres in Australia

Detention centres in Australia

Asylum seekers and refugees are clearly a fraught issue in Australia. So much so that many have claimed the recent election of opposition leader Tony Abbott, whose campaign slogans echoed the “stop the boats” rhetoric, was as much about tax and political infighting as it was a referendum on the current immigration policies. More than 17,000 people arrived by boat in 2012, the majority from Iran, Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka. This was up from around 4,500 the previous year.

Currently, all people who are unauthorized to be in Australia – whether arriving by plane, overstaying visas or coming by boat – are detained. Previously, there were some exceptions, namely the health of asylum seekers.

“Long term detention is significantly correlated with poor mental health outcomes regardless of a background history of torture and trauma,” says Bowen. ASeTTS has access to the three immigration detention centres in the Western Cape, of the total of eight in the Australian mainland, and alternative and community detention in the region. For those victims of torture in detention, they can provide counselling and, depending on needs, access to a psychiatrist.

Research strongly suggests that detention of asylum seekers greatly worsens health, particularly mental health, with many reporting systems of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. These are common psychological effects of torture, which are also greatly exacerbated in detention settings.

“Assisting recovery from torture and trauma is generally more difficult in detention, regardless of the length of time, because of the environment, which can counteract attempts to restore safety, meaning and dignity,” he says.

However, despite the risks of trauma and the health needs of asylum seekers, the new government has promised to end the exceptions. All unauthorized immigrants will be detained, many of them in the off-shore detention and processing facilities in Christmas Island, a territory of Australia, Nauru, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, or Papua New Guinea.

It’s far too politically easy to say simply “stop the boats,” backed by military might. Rather than quick slogans and three-star generals, Australia needs to assume the more difficult responsibility to international human rights obligations. As the Australian Human Rights Commission describes, “The Australian Government has obligations under various international treaties to ensure that their human rights are respected and protected… These rights include the right not to be arbitrarily detained.”

Asylum seekers need to be screened for traumas, such as previous cases of torture, to ensure that they are both, not detained, but importantly, given access to appropriate care and treatment as soon as possible.


By Tessa, Communications Officer at IRCT


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Chile: Marking 40 years since Pinochet coup

A photographer approaching police during one of the many protests against Pinochet's regime (courtesy of

One of the many protests against Pinochet’s regime
(courtesy of

When the heart attack came on 3 December 2006, Augusto Pinochet probably feared the worst. At 91-years-old he must have known this was the end of a controversial, turbulent life.

But what were his last thoughts as he lay in on his deathbed: regret, remorse, sorrow?

One hopes something was felt for the thousands of helpless Chileans who suffered from Pinochet’s brutal 17-year rule of the country.

Yet the fact still remains that the truth surrounding Pinochet and his rule was never discovered.

He died on the 10 December 2006 with over 300 crimes still against him, ranging from human rights abuses to embezzlement and tax violations.

Rather than celebrating his death or the passing of the oppressive regime, the Chilean people instead commemorate the 11 September each year – the date which, in 1973, saw Pinochet come to power via the violent military coup.

This year marks 40 years since the coup and is a special reminder about how far Chile has come as a nation and, perhaps, how far is still left to go.

A great divide

The rule of Pinochet is a topic which still splits some Chileans. The opposition to Pinochet use the 11 September anniversary to reflect upon the torture and inhumane treatment of up to 40,000 Chileans, and use the day as an opportunity to establish the truth from Pinochet’s dark regime.

According to former President and running presidential candidate for this years’ elections, Michelle Bachelet, the point of the 11 September anniversary to reopen the “painful wounds” of Chiles’ past, not to victimise people or governments, but “to get to know the truth.”

On the other hand there are people who, while agreeing with others in the denouncement of Pinochet’s reign, were once supporters of Pinochet and feel that the military coup was inevitable and any human rights violations were merely expansions upon the crimes committed by Pinochet’s predecessor, the left-wing President Salvador Allende – the world’s first democratically elected Marxist leader.

Whatever the political standing, everyone can acknowledge at least one truth – the human rights violations, which saw 3,000 Chileans simply disappear off the face of the earth and tens of thousands tortured, was one of the darkest periods of Chilean history.

Beyond the numbers

To date only 262 people have been sentenced for their part in the human rights violations of Pinochet’s regime. Over 1,000 judicial cases of human rights violations remain open today.

Pinochet (courtesy of © AFP/Getty Images)

Pinochet (courtesy of © AFP/Getty Images)

It has taken a lot of courage, honesty and investigation to even get to this point of human rights prosecutions. Many procedural changes from the state and justice systems have ensured that families affected by the torture have found justice.

But there is still a long road ahead.

While official figures state almost there were 40,000 victims of torture, detention and human rights abuses during Pinochet’s reign, experts believe that unofficially the number is much higher.

It takes continuous bravery for a torture survivor and their family or community to pursue justice. The crimes they know of may be too much to talk about – the details and sadness may just be too strong.

But survivors of torture, and their families, do talk. Thanks to limited positive cooperation from the Chilean judicial system, progress has been made with the transfer of some proceedings against human rights violators from private military courts to the civilian courts, which apply greater transparency and independence.

However, jurisdiction surrounding military crimes still applies to human rights violations committed by the state. The result is that justice is still needlessly difficult to achieve for many affected by torture and, if justice is pursued, it is often in private.

The future

The 40th anniversary gives Chileans an opportunity to show the world their progress post-Pinochet, to show every person who was perhaps skeptical of the country that Chile has evolved in ways once thought to be unimaginable.

More needs to be done to fully establish the truth surrounding Pinochet’s rule. For the past few months, Amnesty International has collected more than 25,000 signatures through an online petition calling for more open and accessible justice systems for torture victims, and for greater enforcement of human rights law in Chile.

It is a reminder that while the past is gone, dealing with this past properly is the only way to shape the future.

The reign of Pinochet is something which will not, unlike the victims of his regime, disappear any time soon.

On the 17 November the Chilean people will be reminded of the horrors of Pinochet once more, as they vote for their next President – the two candidates, Ms Bachelet and Ms Matthei, are daughters of two generals who suffered different fates under Pinochet’s rule.

As the BBC reports, Gen Alberto Bachelet was arrested, tortured and died in detention. Gen Fernando Matthei became a part of Gen Pinochet’s regime.

Pinochet may be gone but, for better or worse, he is certainly not forgotten.

AshleyEditor’s note: Ashley Scrace is a Communications Officer with the IRCT and writes from their office in Copenhagen, Denmark. He can be reached by email at You can also follow him on Twitter by going to @Ashleyscrace

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