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Home Truths About Torture

03/03/2017 12:03

President Trump thinks torture "absolutely" works and Prime Minister Theresa May has failed to condemn his stance. But every day clinicians at my charity, Freedom from Torture, see how torture is used to silence people and destroy lives. Today, 2 March, MPs will debate UK policy on torture.

The pressure is building for the UK to stand up as a champion for the absolute ban on torture across the world as well as survivors' rights here in the UK.

As the co-founder and Co-ordinator of Survivors Speak OUT, a network of torture survivors, every day I meet individuals - asylum seekers and refugees - who have escaped tortuous regimes and sought sanctuary in the UK. We come from many countries and backgrounds and we all have our own story of detention, torture and flight. But a common theme is our search for safety and security, free from torture, and a wish to regain our dignity and humanity.

Sadly, you might think that our torture ends when we reach the UK. But many of us find the UK asylum system another form of torture. Far too often torture survivors find themselves trapped in a hostile and bureaucratic asylum system where Home Office decision-makers will not believe our accounts of torture, even when it is backed by expert evidence.

Last year, I interviewed over 100 survivors of torture who are current or former clients of Freedom from Torture. Over and over, I heard how the best efforts of therapists, lawyers, social workers and others trying to help them, are hindered by their experiences in the asylum system.

One torture survivor told me: "Back home, we are tortured physically but what I have noticed is that the Home Office in this country, they are trying to torture us mentally, and I think it is worse than the physical torture that I have been through."

Another explained how his life was literally on hold: "The situation is like a movie and you press pause, you're not moving forward, you're just standing there and waiting for the Home Office." Another survivor expressed his frustration: "Freedom from Torture is trying to boost our morale and restore everything that we lost, but on the other side the Home Office is pushing us down."

We at Freedom from Torture are especially concerned about the difficulties experienced by torture survivors in proving that they have been tortured.

Contrary to common perception, gaining asylum is not a matter of telling a sob-story to a credulous civil servant. It is not easy for a torture survivor to talk of their ordeal, even to an expert therapist. Imagine how much more difficult it is to disclose your experiences when you are in a crowded, noisy and hostile office to a total stranger.

The process involves a huge amount of complex form filling, numerous appointments with lawyers and case workers, and appearances before immigration tribunals. And this process can continue for months and years, all the while with survivors living in limbo on the margins of society.

Freedom from Torture produces medical evidence of torture in the form of detailed medico-legal reports. Our Proving Torture report analysed 50 cases and found that existing Home Office policy guidance was not being followed and that expert medico-legal reports were poorly handled. In almost three-quarters of the cases, asylum caseworkers replaced the expert opinion of a medical doctor with their own speculation about clinical matters.

Yet when these cases went to appeal at a higher tribunal a different story emerges. In 76% of cases where the final outcome was known, evidence was reassessed and asylum was granted. A good outcome, but only at a huge personal cost to the torture survivors in terms of misery and mental distress, and also at a cost to the taxpayer's purse.

Today's debate will be led by my friend Dr Tania Mathias, MP for Twickenham and a medical doctor with personal experience of working with torture survivors. Beforehand she will be joined by anti-torture campaigners, including members of Survivors Speak OUT, to deliver a petition, signed by over 40,000 individuals. It calls on Home Secretary Amber Rudd to give people who have been tortured the protection they deserve, by assessing expert evidence to avoid delays and errors in their asylum claim.

I stand with her in her belief that only a humane, fair and efficient asylum system will enable torture survivors to gain asylum and begin to repair the terrible scars of torture on our bodies and minds.

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