Theresa May's Speech Stigmatises All Torture Survivors, Like Me

07/10/2015 18:38 BST | Updated 07/10/2016 10:12 BST

I listened to home secretary Theresa May's speech at the Conservative Party Conference with mounting distress and sorrow. I heard her labelling people like me who survive torture as "illegal immigrants" who abuse the system by smuggling themselves into the UK, and declare that she would institute a new "tough" system to weed out such undeserving cases.

I imagine she is speaking about someone like me. Let me explain that ten years ago I was an exile, without a home, a victim of cruelty, and this country, which has a reputation for upholding the best that humanity can offer, gave me protection and refuge.

Years ago when I fled my torturers, the only thing that was important for me was to be as far away as possible. I had lost all faith and hope in humanity but the people of Britain helped to restore my trust by assisting me to navigate a very complex asylum system, of which I had no knowledge or experience.

Today, I have refugee status and have rebuilt my life in this country. I have also given back as a professional and, through Survivors Speak OUT, as an advocate for other torture survivors who have made equally difficult journeys to sanctuary.

Many torture survivors who have found refuge in this country would have obtained no support for overcoming our trauma if we had waited out our lives in resettlement camps. Like me, they decided that the only option was to sacrifice everything and leave their community and country, however difficult and dangerous that was. We have not suffered torture any the less because we fled by the asylum route.

In the UK we were able to seek support to enable us to overcome the impact of our torture, both on our bodies and our minds. Freedom from Torture was able to provide us with medical and therapeutic services, legal and welfare advice. Other charities and campaigning organisations have been crucial in protecting and supporting the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees.

The thrust of Theresa May speech was that claiming asylum is a straightforward process, easy to enter and easy to abuse. It is not. Already, the asylum system is hard enough for people who are badly traumatised by human rights violations. Torture survivors are routinely disbelieved, detained, denied protection. Even when we present forensic evidence of our torture from doctors, this can be ignored or misinterpreted by the officials who determine the outcome of asylum claims.

Yet rather than reform and improve the asylum system, Theresa May wants to make it even more complex, supposedly to discourage fraudsters from cheating the system. The effects will be to make it even more onerous for torture survivors seeking lawful sanctuary.

Crucially she appears to suggest that the international legal definition of a refugee needs to be changed.

I would remind her that the UK's obligation to protect torture survivors stems from a well established principle of international law, enshrined not only in the Refugee Convention but also in the UN Convention Against Torture and many other treaties to which the UK is party. There must be no retreat from these principles - many torture survivors might not have recovered and be alive today without them.

I am grateful that the UK accepted my claim to asylum - it gave me safety and security I would not have had in my own country. But many other torture survivors have not been so fortunate.

Nine years ago Freedom from Torture helped me to set up Survivors Speak OUT, a torture survivor activist network for the charity's former clients. We act as own advocates, to speak out for change and to support others who have been through the hell that is torture and flight. I wish that Theresa May and other politicians, who so blithely talk about the "abuse" of the asylum system, would heed our words.

Kolbassia Haoussou is Advocate and Co-ordinator of Survivors Speak OUT, the torture survivor activist network supported by Freedom from Torture