Asylum seekers double jeopardy

Torture victims seeking asylum in Britain face further anguish
as a result of legislation withdrawing their entitlement to
benefits. Mandy Garner talks to a survivor from Sudan.

Abdel Bagi el-Rayah is a lawyer and a victim of torture in his
home country, Sudan. So he is well qualified to lead the first
legal case in Britain under the United Nations Convention against

The defendant is Sudanese doctor Mohammed Mahgoub, who has been
charged with torturing prisoners in Sudan. He will stand trial in
Dundee, where he was working as a doctor until this summer.
El-Rayah claims he was tortured by the doctor.

The case is a triumph for el-Rayah and his Sudanese Victims of
Torture Group, which has painstakingly compiled much of the
evidence against Mahgoub. But he is unimpressed with the help given
in Britain to survivors of torture, especially as most receive no
help with medical or psychological rehabilitation. ‘It is so
expensive to get medical treatment,’ he says.

Since the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, torture victims have
been as badly affected by benefit cuts as other asylum seekers. A
recent survey by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of
Torture found that most of the hard-pressed local authorities now
responsible for asylum seekers were dishing out food vouchers, but
there were also vast differences in councils’ interpretations of
the new legislation.

Some offer travel grants, while others, like the London Borough
of Islington, believe this is illegal. Food vouchers vary in amount
– the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham gives £44.25 a
week, for example, while the London Borough of Hackney allows
£18 a week for those in bed and breakfast. The spread of
asylum seekers across the London boroughs is also uneven: Newham
has 1,500, while Havering has only 20, for instance.

The foundation has seen its counselling work severely cut back
since the new legislation. It has poured its energies into basic
survival programmes, such as emergency grants for food and travel.
Some torture victims have had to walk miles across London to talk
to the foundation because they have no money. Foundation
psychologist Michael Korzinski says the crisis has left him feeling

Helen Bamber, the foundation’s director, compares the food
voucher system adopted by many councils to the torture many asylum
seekers have suffered in prison. She says: ‘Food has a symbolic
meaning for asylum seekers, many of whom have experienced near
starvation in prison. It is used in prison as punishment. Being in
control of food, even if it is not adequate, is very important.
Choice is about dignity, it confirms that they are survivors.’

El-Rayah’s experience in prison after his arrest as a
‘dissident’ is one that a significant minority of asylum seekers
will recognise. During his 52 days in a secret detention centre in
Khartoum he was humiliated and terrorised. At the start of his
detention, he was kicked and slapped, made to assume strange
positions, and forced to make animal noises. He was hosed at night
with freezing water. Every time he went to the toilet he was

Deprived of sleep, he was then made to stand in a bucket of ice
for three-hour stretches during three days. The blood in his legs
froze and he later had to have his left leg amputated. ‘Worse than
the physical torture are the psychological effects of abuse, the
feeling of being dehumanised, of loss of control and dignity,’ he

Eventually he escaped to London, but even then he was persecuted
by officials from the Sudanese embassy who threatened revenge if he
spoke out. Claiming political asylum, he was referred to the
Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which gave
him psychological counselling.

This helped, but did little to alleviate the anguish caused by
the influx of news from Sudan: the continued human rights abuses,
the death from torture of a friend, and the ex-detainee who
murdered his own family on release.

The impact of this kind of experience is only deepened by the
reception that now meets asylum seekers in this country. Michael
Korzinski says the effect of the benefits withdrawal is to ‘turn
asylum seekers into victims again’. He adds: ‘The people who suffer
the most from this are the most vulnerable, the people who have
been tortured.’

Korzinski calls for the assessment of asylum claims to be
speeded up and for benefits to be restored. More support for asylum
seekers, such as sheltered work programmes offering gradual
rehabilitation, should be provided, he says. ‘People need
understanding so they can feel safe again in the community.’

Abdel Bagi el-Rayah was at least able to take action when, in
1993, he set up the Sudanese Victims of Torture Group. With funding
from the UN and the European Commission, the group has set up a
centre in Cairo to treat torture victims. It also has a London
office and has helped hundreds of survivors. El-Rayah hopes that
the legal case will have wider repercussions, making people more
aware of the lasting effects of torture and the need to support
survivors. CC’Worse than the physical torture are the psychological
effects of abuse, the feeling of being dehumanised, of loss of
control and dignity’

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