by Rosa Jones
Empathy is a complex emotion. It is not always readily elicited when the matter in concern is torture. The subject disturbs our natural sense of justice to the point that most will want to shield themselves from the details. It challenges us emotionally, to look someone in the eye and know that they have experienced the most horrific action that one human can inflict on another, and that this experience now exists in their memory to be relived relentlessly. But it is becoming increasingly apparent in my work with Freedom from Torture, that it is the role of empathy, in conjunction with professionalism and determination, that will make change happen.
Freedom from Torture will launch its ““Proving Torture” campaign in Parliament on the 21st November. This event is centred around research that has investigated 50 cases of gross mistreatment of the medical reports that are required for survivors of torture when they are claiming asylum in the UK. Bad practice that contravenes the Home Office’s own policy means that instead of finding protection in the principles of the British justice system, torture survivors continue to live in constant insecurity. At best the psychological torment of survivors is prolonged and their social integration impeded, at worst, they are at risk of being returned into the hands of their torturers.
Intimate forensic examinations and psychological assessments are carried out by Freedom from Torture’s expert clinicians, who are trained in line with the international standards of the Istanbul Protocol. Yet this research suggests this expertise is being picked apart by Home Office caseworkers who see medical evidence as an obstacle to be “got around”. In 30% of cases they have disputed the expertise of the clinician, and in 74% they have substituted their own opinion for that expertise. The overturn rate of 76% when the appeal has then been taken to a specialist immigration tribunal indicates serious mistakes in the handling of the asylum claims of torture survivors.
Moreover, an unattainable level of certainty in the medical evidence in being demanded, contra to the Home Office’s policy as well as international protocols. Caseworkers have repeatedly rejected medical evidence on the grounds that the expert clinician cannot categorically attribute the claimant’s injuries to torture. Such definitive conclusions are generally unusual in forensic medicine let alone in regards to injuries sustained from something as clandestine as torture. As the risks of a wrong decision puts refugees in potentially catastrophic danger, it is clear in UK law and policy that only a reasonably low standard of proof needs to apply to asylum claims. However, this policy is not being adhered to by caseworkers despite an excellent training programme that the Home Office has designed but has never even rolled out.
It seems there is little room for empathy in the way the UK has been dealing with survivors of torture. Nevertheless, empathy is politically realised as obligation. It is the obligation of the decision-maker to honour all of the material facts of an asylum claim on the basis of the available evidence, and to establish whether the claim falls within the protection of the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. But while obligations are reneged by mishandling the survivor’s reports, their welfare and psychological health remains in a jeopardy that should have been ended on the day that they escaped to the UK.
On the 21st of November, we will be in Parliament alongside survivors of torture, MPs, Peers, medical professionals, legal experts, therapists and policy makers, to request urgent action be taken to improve the asylum decision-making process. We will be calling for the existing Home Office policy to be stringently followed and the established case worker training programme to be made wholly compulsory. The “Proving Torture” campaign is an essential statement that whatever the political agenda of the Home Office staff, it cannot be allowed to undermine professional expertise when it is human lives that are hanging in the balance.
Please go online and sign the petition to demand that the Government correct the injustices in the treatment of survivors of torture. Visit the , and follow them on Facebook and on Twitter to keep up to date on the progress of the campaign.
Rosa Jones is a part time MA student of Human Rights, having completed an undergrad in Politics at Exeter. Her specific interest is in refugees and migration, and looking at domestic policies that breach international refugee law. She is currently working in the policy and advocacy department of Freedom from Torture, an internationally esteemed organisation that provides survivors of torture with medical treatment, counselling and therapy, as well as medico-legal documentation.