Posts Tagged torture

Falling through the cracks: France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Refugees living under a bridge in Paris. Copyright Gail Palethorpe

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

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

To read the report in full, click here.

 

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Alba Mejia

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

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

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Alba Mejia

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

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

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

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

Q: How did you end up doing this work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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RASNZ CEO Ann Hood.

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

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

WWT: How does this work in practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About RASNZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sanctuary and Sustenance: Photographing the journey towards a better life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibition at Carmel Valley Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World Refugee Day: More funding needed to support traumatised refugees

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

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

Making a difference in Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only one provider of psychological support in Serbia

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

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

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

Refugees in Belgrade (Courtesy of International Aid Network)

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

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

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

To support refugees we need more funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why International Day of Action for Women’s Health matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fighting Torture: Q&A with Tika Ram Pokharel

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

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.

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Tika Ram Pokharel

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.

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Remembering the atrocities of the war in the Former Yugoslavia

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

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

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

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Courtesy of Toni Buzolic via Flickr Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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