Archive for category Rehabilitation
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
As the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 26 June is a day when the world commemorates and honour torture victims, express solidarity and take action to support them with rebuilding their lives.
As this year’s 26 June approaches, we look at why this day is so important to victims, their families and communities and those who work every day to support life after torture and towards a world without torture. Here are five reasons why 26 June is important.
1. The world listens to victims of torture
It is a day where we can speak openly about torture and its devastating consequences without shame and without being met with suspicion. Many torture victims express that one of their main obstacles to rebuilding a life after torture is the lack of official recognition that torture takes place. This makes it difficult and often dangerous for victims to speak openly about what they have been through and the physical and psychological trauma they experience. The world actually listens to victims on 26 June.
2. The world unites to support victims of torture
While victims often feel isolated and that they must live alone with their experience and suffering, on 26 June, we all stand together in solidarity and support life after torture. Families, communities and supporters all join with victims to mark the 26 June. It is a crucial for victims to be reminded that while most states have ignored their obligation to torture victims, there are people and organisations all over the world who continue to try to succeed where the state fails.
3. The world demands that rehabilitation be funded
26 June is an opportunity to tell the decision-makers of the world that torture victims do need support and that they have an obligation to deliver. Torture happens in more than 140 countries all over the world according to Amnesty International. Torture victims often feel powerless, guilty and ashamed, triggered by the humiliation they have endured. The effects of torture reach far beyond the victims. They spread to their children and family who suffer similar symptoms with devastating impact on their lives. The global resources available to support victims to rebuild their lives are completely inadequate and do not meet the needs of millions of victims globally. On 26 June we can express this demand for change loudly and clearly.
4. The world demands that rehabilitation be put on the political agenda
The world needs to know about the efforts that do take place to support life after torture. We know that rehabilitation helps victims recover from their physical and psychological trauma, we know that documenting torture helps victims seeking justice and recognition for the wrongs against them, we know that identifying and supporting torture victims among asylum seekers helps them get integrate in their host countries and we know that strong anti-torture legislation helps protect against and redress torture. We also know how to do all these things, but unless they are backed politically, their effect will be limited. 26 June is an excellent day to put political decisions-makers on the spot and demand the political action that is sorely needed in many countries.
5. The world takes action in emotional, creative and inspirational ways
Finally, 26 June is a day where we can all do something. Victims and their families can speak out, rehabilitation centres and others working to support victims can hold events and take political action to mark the day. We can do this on and off line, at events and gatherings, through cultural activities and by raising awareness in our communities. In previous years, organisations have run a diverse range of events, including conferences, picnics, seminars vigils, dance and music events, as well as theatre. Poster competitions, face painting, kite-making and musical performances involving children have showcased the creativity and diversity of the organisations involved.
26 June Campaign Kit
To support all these activities and more, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) has developed a new campaign kit. The kit contains material designed to support life after torture. To show your solidarity and support for victims of torture on 26 June, check out our campaign kit for inspiration.
Use the hashtags #SupportLifeAfterTorture and #26June on social media and use the logo to turn your profile picture into a message of solidarity. You can also read factsheets on lots of different topics and use them to raise awareness, read the global reading on the day or host a screening of Oscar winning film maker Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest movie, The Look of Silence. For more information click here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Tika Ram Pokharel is a Legal Officer at the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Nepal, based in the capital Kathmandu. He tells us about how post-conflict Nepal is struggling to overcome a past where torture was commonplace and how many of his clients who receive free legal aid become more aware of their rights and take on the fight for other victims’ rights.
Q: How long have you worked on torture rehabilitation and human rights?
I have been working on torture rehabilitation and in the human rights sector since 2002.
Q: How did you end up doing this work? Was it something you specifically wanted to do or was it more of a coincidence?
Having observed many injustices in society, I was motivated to study law at college. It was at a time when the Maoist conflict was at its peak, and torture and other human rights violations in custody and prisons were rampant. As a result, the number of cases of torture in Nepal increased dramatically.
After witnessing the ‘real’ practice of law, I was encouraged to work on the rehabilitation of victims of torture. Furthermore, I attended an International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture (IRCT) funded workshop on torture in Nepal in 2002, which increased my desire to work for and with torture victims. Hence, I ended up working as a legal aid lawyer for TPO Nepal.
Q: Tell us about the situation for torture survivors where you are/or in your home country?
Nepal is suffering from a post-conflict situation. At the time of the conflict, from 1996 to 2006, thousands were victims of torture and other human rights violations. Despite government claims that torture has been eradicated since the conflict ended, the reality is that torture has become routine in custody or prisons. Torture has not stopped, the methods have just changed. Even though Nepal is a party of the Convention against Torture (CAT), torture has not been criminalised in the country.
Impunity is rampant and not a single perpetrator has been punished in a case where they were accused of torture. Generally, confessions made by torture victims have been taken as evidence in court. As a result, innocent people have been victims of miscarriages of justice. There is no state provision of rehabilitation for victims of torture nor a national preventive mechanism. Hundreds of thousands of victims still live without reparation and justice.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you have seen your work make a difference?
In the beginning, torture survivors were treated in hospitals like those with medical problems. Survivors didn’t get any legal aid services so cases were not properly documented and they could not access rehabilitation services. Nowadays, the documentation process is hassle-free and we carry out medico-legal documentation in a number of hospitals in Nepal.
This medico-legal documentation helps the survivor seek justice at national and international level, which helps them through their rehabilitation process. TPO Nepal has developed a range of services. Now most survivors know where to go for rehabilitation and other organisations know where to send them. Many survivors receive free legal aid and are more aware and better educated about their rights.
In my experience, at the beginning torture survivors hesitate to speak about their rights. After receiving our services, including psychosocial counselling, they speak without hesitation. Some are ready to fight torture and injustice for the rest of their lives.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the torture rehabilitation sector?
The biggest challenge we face is a lack of funding because there is no support from the state. We completely rely on international donors for all funding. Torture survivors are discriminated against by the state and society. Rehabilitation requires a sufficient budget and it is very challenging to provide services for all torture survivors with such a limited budget.
Furthermore, there is no proper legal provision regarding the rehabilitation of torture survivors and government institutions are always unwilling to support rehabilitation. The court and National Human Rights Commission have already recommended some cases to the government where the survivor should receive compensation but they pay little attention. Most victims come from poor economic backgrounds and many lose their jobs after torture.
Finally, the opinion of the general public is also a challenge, as they think that when the police arrest someone torture is acceptable and they have no sympathy for the victim.
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?
The Nepali government and some of the political parties have said time and again that, “Torture and other human rights are a thing of the past, they should not go to the court”. Ultimately the government and political parties want impunity for perpetrators in Nepal. Yet, torture destroys the personality of the survivor and is directly related to a person’s dignity, hence it cannot be forgotten easily. Torture does not only destroy the life a single person but their entire family and society as well. It creates negative consequences for the entire nation.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
I do have hopes! The new Nepali constitution, introduced in 2015, declared that torture will be punishable, but a comprehensive law is needed to implement this provision. I hope Nepal will get this law in the near future and rehabilitation and justice will be available for all victims of torture.
If the international community could put pressure on the Nepali government it would help us greatly. Also, we have no support at the national level, so need long-term financial support from the international community so our services can reach all torture survivors. Lastly, torture is generally accepted by society. People are not aware of psychological torture and its consequences. We need a long-term awareness-raising programme that can change their minds.