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Who Cares for Survivors of Torture?

Goldfishbowl Girl won't talk about her past. Not too much anyway. But she writes, and she paints. The paintings communicate for her. "That's helped me to come out of the whole darkness I was in." ...

Goldfishbowl Girl won't talk about her past. Not too much anyway. But she writes, and she paints. The paintings communicate for her. "That's helped me to come out of the whole darkness I was in."

One of her most beautiful, and powerful works is striking for the depth of its blackness. Dancing across the stygian canvas is the lithe, lissom body of a girl, arms thrown back, her blood-spattered head raised up towards the cool light of the moon.

Her own darkness has been fear, loss, and isolation.

Like the other artists who painted in the tiny London studio, her journey here was spurred by imprisonment, and torture. Hers took place in a Tehran prison. "For being active in the women's movement", she told her art therapist. "I escaped to the UK in 2009 to seek asylum".

But that was just the beginning.

"They arrive alone, frightened, and dislocated from all things familiar. They cannot work, they cannot to do voluntary work, they cannot study, in short they cannot integrate into our society", was how Tania Kazcynski, their art therapist had explained the crisis to guests at their first exhibition last December.

That show had been named Thirty-Six Pounds, after the value of the meal vouchers the government gives asylum seekers to live on per week. No cash.

The universality of torture meant people came to the studio from all parts of the globe: Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast. The weekly meetings with her artists showed Tania the inhumanity of the voucher system up close. Like the mother who needed to redeem them so her son could have a meal, but had no bus fare to get to the specified outlet. Or the family visited by NASS (National Asylum Seekers Services) subcontractors, who, like bailiffs, removed them from their housing with such precipitance that they had no time to pack even a saucepan.

"All this is contrary to public belief, that asylum seekers are taking our jobs", says Kazcynski. "It is the biggest and scariest misrepresentation, and we see it daily on our TVs, in newspapers and the general mood of the country. They live like this for any where between two and ten years. They live like ghosts in our machine, a lonely limbo place."

In the limbo years, the ghosts are kept occupied with coming up with proof of their torture. "I don't think that there is really any exemption from detention for those who state that they have been tortured when they arrive at the airport, or are first apprehended by the border police", says a member of a refugee support charity located near the Dover Immigration Removal Centre, who works in close quarters with asylum seekers who have experienced extreme violence. But the perniciousness of having experienced torture also silences some survivors. Many don't even mention it, because they want to forget.

Once inside the detention system, proof can be difficult, or impossible to obtain. Finding appointments with the doctors who assess scars and injuries is tricky. Moreover, a decade of experience as an expert witness in asylum cases has evidenced to him that detention is part of a mechanism that suppresses evidence. "Detention prevents torture from being investigated", he says.

Indeed, a 2012 report by Medical Justice, an organisation seeking basic rights for detainees found the UK Border Agency in breach of its own policy with respect to the detainment and deportation of survivors of torture. Deep flaws in the process of Rule 35 - a UKBA protocol designed to identify torture survivors and ensure their immediate release from detention - was directly resulting in torture survivors being detained and deported.

In the main, the running of detention centres has been outsourced by the Home Office to private businesses - famously G4S (under whose guard a deportee was killed, a death that was never brought to trial), but also other outsourcing companies: Mitie, GEO and Serco.

In addition to these, a service-level agreement had been made for full-blown prisons to accept 1,000 migrants. As a result, places like Wormwood Scrubs in West London now house people who have experienced torture in their own countries. Importantly, once in prison, there is no formal mechanism at all for identifying them. For these detainees, there will be the added trauma of imprisonment with no access to any kind of therapy.

Meanwhile, in North London, Tania Kazcynski and her artists also remain in limbo, after funding cuts meant their open art studio had to pare down on activities.

They hope to find new support to overcome what Kazcynski calls "the events they endured that only exist for us in our darkest nightmares", and encourage the "...universal life force that has always existed, the need to make art, to put a mark on paper - to say, I'm still here."

UCL Science, Medicine & Society Network is sponsor of Who Cares for Survivors of Torture? a public discussion event on March 25th, 2014