Hardline immigration policies in the UK have led to traumatised people being left destitute and wrongly detained, according to the chief psychotherapist at a charity which rehabilitates torture survivors.
Fiona Crombie – head clinician with a charity called Freedom from Torture – said that the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy was having a devastating impact on vulnerable people who desperately need help after being tortured by oppressive states such as Sri Lanka and Iran.
Nearly 100 people, mostly asylum seekers, are currently being supported by Freedom from Torture at its only Scottish facility, which is in the south side of Glasgow.
Crombie and colleagues counsel people – including women and children – who have suffered savage beatings, whippings, burnings, cuttings and rape, all common methods of torture.
Psychological terror is also widespread with some people having been forced to listen to someone else being tortured – including family.
Some clients have suffered mock executions while others were offered unimaginable choices to end their pain including the betrayal of close friends and relatives.
Many survivors living in Scotland suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
Aside from counselling people, Freedom from Torture helps them to integrate into communities and the charity plays a vital role in claims for political asylum by producing medico-legal reports (MLRs) which are used to support applications.
These reports verify claims of torture and doctors producing MLRs have a legal duty to immigration courts to be accurate and unbiased.
Yet despite the charity’s credibility and breadth of experience stretching back more than 30 years, Freedom from Torture says that Home Office officials without medical expertise are increasingly undermining reports when considering asylum applications.
It’s been getting worse recently and I think it will get progressively worse. People’s rights are being eroded slowly and quietly. Fiona Crombie, Freedom From Torture
Crombie said that under the UK Government’s ‘hostile environment’ – enacted by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary – people’s rights were being taken away.
She said: “We’ve had every challenge – basic destitution, section 4 not being paid and people getting refusals. It’s been getting worse recently and I think it will get progressively worse. People’s rights are being eroded slowly and quietly. When you put all the pieces of the jigsaw together it’s not looking good.”
Crombie cited the case of one person she was counselling who was recently detained by the authorities and taken to Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre and held for a week, before being freed.
“We had a member detained recently (in Dungavel) due to a failure of Rule 35 basically. That’s an ongoing problem.
“It’s a decision outwith your control – and you go through the anxiety of what it means for their mental health: to sit with a therapeutic dilemma of managing the setbacks and all that entails – the re-traumatisation, the impact for them.
“The standard of proof is really high and the documentation and evidence they are looking for is hard to produce, and if there is a chink of inconsistency then they go with that.
“They would quite happily say ‘you are not telling the truth’ – it could be something such as makes of vehicles, times, dates, places – they use that to dispute, but who can remember 13 years ago whether it was a Tuesday or a Wednesday.”
Torture victims are not supposed to be detained in the UK but Freedom from Torture has condemned the Home Office’s implementation of Rule 35.
A Rule 35 report was devised by the Home Office to protect vulnerable people in detention so that concerns raised by a doctor would likely result in a detainee alleging torture being released.
But a recent report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) revealed that the Home Office overruled expert medical advice more than two thirds of the time.
HMCIP’s report followed an unannounced inspection of Dungavel House in July last year, Scotland’s only immigration removal detention centre.
The report said that of 49 ‘Rule 35’ reports produced over the previous six months, only 13 people were released.
This meant that 36 torture victims were kept imprisoned despite having suffered experiences that often lead to post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
Crombie also commented on a recent ruling by the Supreme Court which said judges were wrong to claim that an asylum seeker may have faked injuries, that he said were inflicted by torturers in Sri Lanka.
In a unanimous ruling the Supreme Court found that evidence of asylum seekers conspiring with others to fake evidence of torture is “almost non-existent”.
Freedom from Torture said this was a significant ruling and lambasted the Home Office for its “deplorable efforts” to discredit the claims of torture survivors seeking sanctuary.
Crombie said: “While we haven’t seen cases of this in the Glasgow centre but we know that all over the country, torture survivors are disbelieved. For years, FFT as a whole have recorded how independent expert medical evidence has been dismissed, circumvented or ignored in order to deny torture survivors safety in the UK.
“It’s good news for us in that they (Home Office) need to investigate more thoroughly client’s explanations but also not to make the presumption that people are lying about something that can’t be physically, easily, identified. Claims should not be dismissed because you can’t see them (injuries).”
Crombie has been in her role for around six months now and previously worked with Vietnamese refugees.
She also talked about the charity’s Healing Neighbourhoods, a community development project which aims to help torture survivors become part of the community in Glasgow.
“One group was involved with the museum section of the city council. They went to art galleries and were able to look at different artefacts and choose different items. They are now on display in the Kelvin Hall where they set up a display to represent service users’ experience in their home country or items they identified with. Another group made a short film last year about their experiences of coming to Glasgow.
“We have a very energetic and outspoken community of survivors and human rights groups, and the Healing Neighbourhoods project has played a vital role in supporting that.
“There is still a lot to learn from each other about how best to support survivors who have experienced the worst of humanity, as well as understanding the challenges that asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow face as a result of the hostile environment.”
Freedom from Torture has helped around 50,000 people from more than 100 nations rebuild their lives and its Glasgow centre opened in July 2004.
‘We are not allowed to contribute to society’
“I have a mark on my head here where I hit on the head at a protest,” said Ali*. An asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo he leaned forward in his chair and bowed his head to reveal a scar about two inches long, before continuing with his story.
“I collapsed after being hit (by the police) and when I opened my eyes again I was in a cell. I was bleeding heavily. I couldn’t breathe very well,” the 39 year old said as he explained the circumstances that led to him leaving DRC for the UK to ask for political asylum.
“They used to treat us very badly sometimes (in prison). They made us clean toilets without using gloves. They would beat us if we didn’t work fast enough. They kept telling us, ‘you have no-one you can complain to’. It was the police who carried out most of the violence,” Ali said.
As a youth in Kinshasa, he dreamt of a better future and became involved in politics with the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. He was a good public speaker and would convince people to attend meetings and protest against the government – the authorities viewed him as a threat.
After being assaulted and knocked out by police at a protest, Ali spent around 11 months in detention in Kinshasa – without any trial – where he suffered regular beatings. He said conditions were dire and guards would often kill detainees, particularly people who did not have friends or family on the outside trying to help with their case. His mother passed away while he was in detention and – fearing for his life – he left DRC with the help of an uncle.
After so long I am still an asylum seeker and it’s been really painful living in limbo for such a long time. You don’t know what to do and we are not allowed to contribute very much to society. Ali*, asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo
Next month will mark 13 years since Ali arrived in Glasgow. So far, the Home Office has refused to accept his story and rejected his applications for political asylum. The prolonged insecurity – and possibility of being returned to DRC – has left him suicidal at times.
“After so long I am still an asylum seeker and it’s been really painful living in limbo for such a long time. You don’t know what to do and we are not allowed to contribute very much to society. I nearly committed suicide because of the length of time I’ve been an asylum seeker. It’s been very difficult for me.”
He has submitted five applications to the UK Government for political asylum, the most recent last November when he travelled to Liverpool to put in a fresh claim, supported by a MLR report from Freedom from Torture who verified that Ali suffered tortured in DRC.
“The main problem we are facing is that even though we submit a report from Freedom from Torture, the Home Office tries to turn it round, to try to look for different ways to deny it,” Ali said. “We are trying to tell them exactly how we are feeling. It is easy for the Home Office to dismiss a medical report for clients. They just copy and paste reasons for decisions. They often give a standardised response.”
Ali has been receiving counselling for nearly two years now and describes his progress as “unbelievable”.
He said: “I live on my own and I don’t how I would be without their help. They have helped me rebuild my life and they’ve given me confidence. They give me hope and support and they are always there. They are there for me. I don’t if I’d still be alive if it wasn’t for them. I was 25 years old when I came here. I was young and struggling because of all the barriers. Now I am 39. I have made friends here and we support each other.”
As a result of Freedom from Torture’s Healing Neighbourhood’s project, which helps torture survivors integrate, Ali now volunteers with a charity called Number 1 Befriending and cares for older people with dementia.
“They gave me training and I am looking after one person who lives in Springburn. I go there once a week and enjoy this work. I’m also learning about social care with the Marie Trust after receiving a grant. But I am not allowed to work or go on publicly funded courses.
‘It is not easy to close your eyes and sleep’
Mohammed* is a 39 year old man from Cameroon who has been in the UK for seven years. He currently lives in Glasgow but has spent many months on the streets destitute following rejections by the Home Office. He has a fresh claim for asylum to be be submitted in Liverpool in June.
“I was in Stockton-on-Tees before coming to Glasgow. I’ve been homeless and destitute for more than half the time that I’ve been in the UK – more than three years on the streets. I still do not get section 4 support (short term support for failed asylum seekers).”
“The Home Office say I was in Ghana at the time of my persecution. But this is a mistake because I was in Cameroon. I’ve put in five applications now but they give the same reason.”
Mohammed left Cameroon after being arrested for printing leaflets for a political party called the Southern Cameroons National Council. He said this was purely a business contract he received payment for but he was detained for four months in a prison where he was treated appallingly by the authorities who were condemned last month for killing civilians.
I’ve been homeless and destitute for more than half the time that I’ve been in the UK - more than three years on the streets. Mohammed*, asylum seeker from Cameroon
In a damning report Human Rights Watch criticised government forces for killing scores of civilians and torching hundreds of homes. Since last October at least 170 civilians have been killed.
Mohammed is extremely frightened of being sent back to Cameroon, despite the dire problems he has faced in Scotland.
The longest period Mohammed spent homeless in Glasgow was from January 2014 to March 2015. Although he slept in Glasgow’s night shelter, he says days were long as people must leave the shelter at 8am each day and they can’t return until evening.
“It is not easy to close your eyes and sleep. It is very difficult,” he said.
Mohammed – who has a wife and three children still in Cameroon – has been trained in mindfulness and now volunteers at Lightburn Hospital in Glasgow.
*The above two names are pseudonyms at the request of Freedom from Torture.
A version of this article was published in the Sunday Post on 28 April.