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The UK: the far shore for torture survivors

The relatively small number of torture survivors who make it to the UK face disbelief, the threat of detention and removal, and barriers of access to vital services.

The world is currently seeing one of the biggest displacements of people of all time, driven by conflict, humanitarian crises and human rights violations, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the top refugee-producing countries are Syria and Afghanistan, followed by Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar.

It is safe to assume that a significant proportion of the estimated 16.7 million refugees in the world today have suffered torture, given the well-documented violence of state and non-state actors operating within top refugee-producing states. Indeed, the DRC, South Sudan, Afghanistan and other top refugee-producing states are the countries of origin for many of the more than 1,000 torture survivors referred to Freedom from Torture in the UK each year.

The survivors of torture who are referred to Freedom from Torture originate from some 80 countries around the world. Not all of these countries suffer from the intense humanitarian crises that would bring them within the mandate of the UNHCR, such as Iran. Regardless, most arrive at Freedom from Torture traumatised, vulnerable because of their experiences, and fearing further persecution. They have a right to rehabilitation under the UN Convention Against Torture.

Most survivors of torture, however, do not make it to the UK. They remain within their geographic region, hosted by countries such as Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Chad, Ethiopia and Kenya. These are, by and large, less wealthy countries with little to offer in the way of security and specialist support to individuals traumatised and made vulnerable by torture. Survivors of torture in these countries have little hope of fleeing to Europe in order to access the support of a charity like Freedom from Torture. This is because formal schemes for proactively assisting refugees to enter the UK—be they torture survivors or not—help shockingly low numbers relative to the scale of the international displacement.

Resettlement programmes in the UK

The Gateway Protection Programme and the Mandate Refugee Programme are the UK’s official programmes for resettling refugees covered by the UNHCR mandate. Palestine refugees are the most notable group outside this mandate. In January 2014 the UK announced a new vulnerable person relocation scheme (VPRS) in response to the Syrian crisis.

Resettlement programmes like Gateway and VPRS offer important routes to protection in the UK It is not possible to make an application for asylum from outside the UK, and those fleeing torture often lack the documents, visas and monies needed to travel to and enter the UK. Humanitarian crises also inhibit travel to a functioning British Embassy so as to make a visa application. Even if one finds a way to apply, there is no guarantee that a visa will be forthcoming.

Despite resettlement’s importance as a safe and legal access route for refugees, Gateway has brought just 5,500 refugees to the UK over the past decade. VPRS, despite the nearly 4 million Syrians currently registered with UNHCR in Syria’s neighbouring countries, has resettled only 187 people in the UK since it began. The UK’s response has instead focused on financing refugee response programmes in the region itself. It has spent more than £800 million ($1.2 billion) on the crisis since 2011 and is among the top three donors.

The upshot of all this was that in 2014, the year UNHCR declared the global population of displaced people to be above 50 million people for the first time since World War II, the UK resettled just 787 refugees. The general picture is that resettlement programmes cannot be relied on for most of those who come within the UNHCR mandate. They are not an option for those torture survivors who fall outside the mandate, because they are in countries that are repressive rather than in outright humanitarian crisis.

If their family has financial resources, local circumstances permit, and a visa application succeeds, a torture survivor may just be able to travel in an immigration category, for example as a student to the UK. But many, many others with no documentation will run the gauntlet of the Mediterranean crossing and European port officials to claim asylum.

Asylum in the UK

The UK saw just 24,914 applicants for asylum in 2014, and 59 percent of these were refused on the first decision, (although some 28 per cent of appeals against asylum decisions succeeded). Eurostat figures suggest asylum applications in the UK constitute a mere 5.5 percent of the total number of applications lodged in the EU28 (Eurostat).

The majority of those in immigration detention in Britain today are asylum seekers. A significant number of individuals are placed into detention as soon as they file for asylum, their application ‘fast tracked’ to remove those deemed ineligible as soon as possible. It is a system notorious for hampering asylum claimants’ access to careful legal advice and for making it difficult for survivors to disclose upsetting case histories, for example torture and other forms of intimate violence.

Home Office policy states that survivors of torture and certain other vulnerable groups should not be held in immigration detention. If they are assessed to be a victim of torture while in detention they should be released under Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules. Rule 35 also requires medical practitioners in immigration removal centres to report all individuals they consider to be victims of torture, who may then be eligible for release. However, Freedom from Torture has known many torture survivors who have been detained, and once individuals are detained Rule 35 reports are extremely ineffective in ensuring their release.

For torture survivors who find a way to live within the UK community—either as refugees, as asylum seekers with ongoing applications, or as refused asylum seekers—life is a continuing challenge. The constant threats of detention and removal hang over many. Work is generally prohibited for those with an asylum seeker status, and welfare support keeps survivors in poverty, impeding their rehabilitation from trauma. NHS services, while theoretically available to torture survivors, are in practice often denied or are not, in most circumstances, sufficient to meet the needs of their recovery.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and much of our modern international human rights framework were the result of learning from the human rights atrocities and their impact on European victims during World War II. It is a dreadful irony that while a massive displacement of people is taking place today for similar reasons elsewhere in the world, European countries like the UK are making it so difficult for the victims to obtain the protection and support to which they have a right.

Despite the UK’s opposition to any mandatory EU quota system in response to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, there is nothing to stop the prime minister from making a voluntary pledge to increase the pitiful numbers of refugees offered sanctuary under the UK’s settlement programmes. Ahead of the European Council meeting on 25 June, such a move would help the prime minister to head off criticisms that his government is torpedoing EU cooperation without offering alternatives.

About the author

Rhian Beynon is Communications Manager for Freedom from Torture (@freefromtorture), the UK’s only human rights organisation dedicated solely to the treatment and rehabilitation of torture survivors since 1985. Previously she has held communications and policy posts at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Christian Aid and Amnesty International (UK).


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