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asylum seekers, detention

A holistic approach to rehabilitation for torture survivors

REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Torture, extreme violence and cruel treatment are some of the reasons people leave their countries to look for a better life. Too often, however, migrants and refugees also face human rights violations on their journey or at their destination. Experts estimate that around 90 percent of refugees who travel through North-Africa are torture survivors.

“Our experience shows that nine out of ten migrants arriving in Italy from sub-Saharan Africa have suffered torture and ill-treatment in their country of origin or along the migratory route,” said Alberto Baribieri, the general coordinator of Medici per i Diritti Umani (MEDU), in a UN Fund for Torture Victims brochure.

“Two-thirds of the 50,000 torture victims assisted by the UN Fund for Torture Victims [yearly] are migrants and refugees,” states the United Nations Human Rights Office of the Commissioner’s website. “Experts stress that migrants and refugees who have experienced torture must be identified and offered treatment as soon as possible upon their arrival in border areas and reception centres.”

Tripoli, Libya where many African refugees cross the sea trying to reach Europe. UNHCR

The Humanitarian Affairs Unit of the Future Worlds Centre offers multidisciplinary rehabilitation assistance to torture survivors who arrive in Cyprus.

“We provide the only specialised services available for torture survivors in Cyprus,” Director Corina Drousiotou said. “With limited resources and capacities, we strive to fill a gap in the system.”

Rehabilitation is a crucial step towards integration. Many survivors, however, remain unidentified, Drousiotou said.

“Receiving treatment is essential in order to prepare for the examination of the asylum application as well as adapt to the community,” she said. “Unfortunately, systematic identification is lacking in Cyprus and as a result many survivors do not receive any treatment.”

The identification and protection of survivors is mandatory by law.

“Beneficiaries of the Unit are mostly refugees and asylum seekers who by law should firstly be identified as possible survivors,” Drousiotou said. “They should have the soonest possible access to rehabilitation services as well as special reception conditions and procedures throughout the examination of their asylum applications.”

The legal division of the Unit overlooks those special procedures, said the Unit’s legal advisor Mary Zalokosta.

“Procedural guarantees are in place for certain vulnerable people like torture survivors,” she said. “For example, involved actors like asylum examiners must be trained for vulnerable people so we might accompany the client to make sure this is the case.”

To make sure that torture survivors receive the appropriate procedural guarantees, the Unit’s legal team works together with its social workers.

“We work together with the social workers to observe that the guarantees are met,” Zalokosta said. “Sometimes we see that there is a deficiency and sometimes the social worker notifies it to us.”

In all parts of the asylum process, authorities are legally obliged to consider the specific needs of the asylum seeker.

“If necessary, we might intervene when authorities act in a manner that contravenes their legal duty to take into account and address the procedural needs of people throughout the asylum process,” Zalokosta said. “For example, say that a client wants, for a specific reason that is related to his or her personal circumstances, a female officer or a female translator and the authorities do not provide for this.”

Together, the Unit’s legal advisors, social workers and psychologist can offer well-rounded rehabilitative assistance for torture survivors.

“The unit adopted a holistic approach geared towards rehabilitation,” said Fatema Islam, the Unit’s social worker who assists torture survivors. “This includes specialised psychological, legal and social assistance.”

Many of the Unit’s clients are torture survivors who faced sexual and gender based violence. For some, this torture was afflicted by traffickers or during detainment.

“Most of the torture survivors we provide our services to encountered female genital mutilation and other kinds of sexual and gender based violence, which amounts to torture,” Islam said. “Many are victims of sex trafficking while others survived torture while being detained. More recently, we have also been providing services to refugees who were subjected to torture due to their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or non-adherence to social norms around gender and sexuality.”

Purification by Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Togou, a work on human rights violations. Photo by Fatema Islam.

Torture happens in all parts of the world. The Unit’s clients come from Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Iran and Syria.

Salome (name changed) came to Cyprus from sub-Saharan Africa. Her family was politically active and while Salome was living in Cyprus with a work permit, two of her siblings were murdered.

She went back home to see her family in their time of grief. At the airport, she was arrested and put under detention. The police accused her of murdering her own family.

While in detainment, Salome was gang-raped, electroshocked and burnt with cigarettes. This experience left her highly traumatized and suicidal.

When a neighbor in Cyprus witnessed her attempting suicide, he contacted the Unit.

“That’s when we first met her and could provide assistance,” Islam said. “She suffered from PTSD and told us that she associated everyone with the perpetrators. When she saw police on the street, she would think it was one of them.”

Salome felt that she couldn’t trust anyone. If someone helped her, she thought they had ulterior motives.

“Everything was negative,” Salome said. “I used to get goosebumps when I was close to a man. It still makes me nervous but I don’t believe that everyone is evil anymore.”

Salome had limited social support and felt secluded in Cyprus, which she says is partially due to her fear towards people. Salome had no one who would listen to her.

“I never felt like I was accepted,” she said.

Since she couldn’t talk about her experience to others, she spent a lot of time listening to her inner voice, which constantly reminded her of the pain she had encountered.

Together with the unit’s psychologist, Salome overcame her past, became more social and found her place in Cypriot society.

“After a while I started seeing things differently and gained a more positive perspective,” she said. “I can now smile while recounting my past experiences.”

The Unit provided her with rehabilitation services for years. After long-term psychotherapy coupled with social and legal assistance, she has overcome all the obstacles and psychological consequences of her torture experience.

“I used to be scared of men,” she said. “But now I have a child.”

Salome has a very productive and active role in society now. She is mothering a child as a single parent and has hopes and dreams. She dreams of securing a job that can give her financial stability so she can offer her daughter good schooling.

“The wound is gone but the scars are still there,” she said. “They remind me of what I went through but it also gives me a lot of strength.”

Another source of strength is music, which Salome initially hated after her experience with torture.

“I used to be annoyed by the sound of music, and now I like it too much!”

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