What is torture?
Article 5 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human
Rights says: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
A child’s plastic train set lies on the waiting room
floor. Above a squashy red sofa hangs a poster made of colourful
postcards from well-wishers saying “Welcome” in
different languages. One card reads: “You are safe and
Reassuring words. And they need to be because the people waiting
their turn have been raped, beaten, hanged, mutilated or had
electric current passed through them, writes Anabel
Welcome to Star House, a grey brick building on a grey north
London street in Kentish Town. Behind its glass front doors lies
the UK’s only dedicated treatment centre for torture victims.
It is run by the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of
Torture, which helps about 3,000 new asylum seekers and refugees a
year pick up the pieces of their lives.
Torture, including rape, has an enormous effect on an
individual’s personality and their emotional response to the
world, says Petra Clarke, an examining physician and gynaecologist
at the Medical Foundation. “They lack confidence and feel
guilty that they have allowed themselves to be raped,” she
Although usually associated with women, men are often victims of
rape. Clarke interviews and examines women who have been raped and
writes medical legal reports to support their asylum claim. Women
claim asylum as a result of rape because in some cultures they are
ostracised and their husband might leave them, taking their
children. “If a woman is beaten in her home country
she’ll often accept it and lead a quieter life. But the
culture in somewhere like Kosovo views the rape of a woman as a
symbol of shame for the whole community,” Clarke says.
Some women who have been raped internalise feelings of shame, and
rarely speak to other female rape victims. Clarke says: “I
saw one 17-year-old African woman who told me she understood why
boys would think nothing of her because she has been
Half of male clients sexually assaulted
The Medical Foundation’s health and human rights adviser,
Michael Peel, says that about 50 per cent of the Medical
Foundation’s male clients say they have been sexually
assaulted and 5 per cent admit to being raped. He has worked with
Tamil men who were raped and tortured while in detention in Sri
Lanka in the 1990s, and reports that the men internalised the
stigma of being raped and asked themselves why the guards chose
them. “It made them doubt their sexuality and the
perpetrators played on this,” he says.
Peel says that at least half of the men he referred on to therapy
did not attend more than one session. “They simply did not
want to address it,” he says.
Wondimu Yohannes, director of development and integration at
Refugee Action, says tortured asylum seekers may be too traumatised
to give a full account of what happened to them in their initial
asylum interview. Also, he says, many do not know that rape
constitutes persecution and do not refer to it in their asylum
claim. “Such omissions are held against them by the Home
Office and used to discredit their claims.” Peel says the
psychological impact on a person can depend on their expectations.
He says: “Research in the 1970s in South America showed that
people could prepare themselves for torture and contextualise it as
suffering for their cause.”
People who are forced to watch the torture and rape of others
suffer terribly because they were powerless to stop it. “It
is an image that comes back to haunt them again and again,”
says Andy Keefe, the Refugee Council’s acting specialist team
There is not enough specialist provision to meet the needs of
victims of torture, says Clarke, who describes it as a
“national disgrace”. Men who have been raped find it
difficult to access appropriate help, especially outside London.
Keefe believes the dispersal of asylum seekers to cities such as
Birmingham, Glasgow and Sheffield has resulted in the development
of more services, but says torture is such a serious issue it
should be addressed wherever an asylum seeker or refugee lives.
Tortured asylum seekers and refugees often find it difficult to
trust anybody in a position of authority. Rachel Witkin, a refugee
case worker at Amnesty International, says many traumatised asylum
seekers fear lawyers and immigration officials, and find it
difficult to differentiate between the meaning of
“authority” in the UK and in their native
Social care professionals can help their asylum seeker or refugee
clients who disclose torture and rape by believing them and not
responding in a shocked way, Keefe says. “We need to reassure
them that they are not going mad, but that terrible experiences do
happen and we can help them deal with it.”
It is vital to use professionally qualified interpreters
experienced at dealing with asylum seekers, so that they feel safe
confiding in them. Significantly, social care staff need to
reassure clients they are there to help them. As Witkin says:
“People come from paranoid regimes where talk costs lives and
you need to explain to asylum seekers and refugees that you are
working on their behalf.”
Case study of Iraqi woman:
Hind Salman (not her real name) is a 43-year-old refugee who
fled Iraq after being repeatedly raped by a security officer. After
receiving a first class university degree in accountancy the Iraqi
government agreed to let her study to become a chartered accountant
in England. They withdrew the offer when they found she and her
family were not members of the ruling Ba’ath party. She says
their Catholicism was also a factor.
Instead the government forced Hind to be an accountant at Iraqi
Airways, where she worked for 11 years until the Gulf War in 1991.
After the war the government told her she would be the new
accountant at Saddam Hussein’s private hospital. Two days
later four security officers went to Hind’s house and told
her that if she refused the job she would be executed. She
protested, saying she had to nurse her diabetic mother as her
father had died and her siblings lived with their own families.
“The guards said I had four days to decide or they would
destroy our lives.” On hearing this, Hind’s mother
collapsed and later died in hospital.
Hind worked at Saddam’s hospital for several years and was
responsible for the medical equipment supplies.
One day a store room manager told her £4 million worth of
equipment had disappeared overnight. Hind called the
hospital’s general manager and head of security, who accused
the store room manager of stealing. When Hind defended the woman
they insisted she sign a document ordering the woman’s hand
be cut off. She refused but they went ahead anyway. For three days
Hind was detained and raped by the head of security. On two further
occasions he detained and raped her.
Hind did not tell her brothers or sister about being raped. One
brother arranged her marriage to a much older Iraqi man, a British
citizen, so she could escape. She flew to Manchester in 1997. Her
husband was violent and abusive so she fled to London.
She claimed asylum and learned English by watching EastEnders.
In June 2001, she was granted leave to remain for four years. She
says: “I cannot forget what has happened to me, it has
injured my heart.”
She receives regular counselling from the Medical Foundation and
has taken anti-depressants for six years. Hind dreams of visiting
Italy: “I want to go to the Vatican with my family, it would
mean a lot to them.”