Torture knocking on Denmark’s door

Victims of torture flee their tormentors in all corners of the globe. Some land on Scandinavian shores, where they walk anonymously among us. If they come forward, they are helped by rehabilitation organisations that uncover the grim reality of commonplace torture

Torturers aren’t just war criminals, terrorists and serial killers: they’re more prevalent than we can imagine and their victims walk amongst us, even in the cold Copenhagen streets.

“We have torture happening almost everywhere and its scope is incredibly vast,” explains Victor Mardigal-Borloz (below), secretary general of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture (IRCT).

Now based in Copenhagen, the Costa Rican national has worked with human rights for decades and is also a member of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“Torture is commonly used by police to extract confessions and expedite cases. It’s also used as a tool of repression, for example in Latin America, where it is used to punish people for gender non-conformity. It’s also used as means of social control. In Congo, rape is commonly committed as a means to stop women from claiming property rights. In these cases, it is individuals committing the act, but it is tacitly approved of by the state, which does nothing to intervene.”

On our doorstep
Torture is something that most of us assume only affects those in developing nations, where civil wars still rage, governments are heavily corrupt and poverty plagues the masses. But while it is more prevalent in these nations, Amnesty International found evidence of torture in 79 countries, all of which had ratified the UN Convention Against Torture.

The IRCT is a leading organisation that helps rehabilitate these individuals, with 144 rehabilitation centres providing holistic treatment to torture victims in 76 countries.

Asylum seekers arriving in Denmark often bring with them scars from their encounters with torturers. In Copenhagen, the Oasis rehabilitation centre has just 15 staff members tending to approximately 130 victims, mostly hailing from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Somalia. Its sister organisation, Rehabiliteringscenter for Torturofre (RCT) in Jutland, treats many people from the Balkans, Chechnya, Syria, and the Post-Soviet Republics.

Both organisations treat the victims using a range of services and personnel, including social workers, psychologists, physical therapists and psychiatrists.

“We treat many civilians who have been victims of, or have witnessed organised violence against others, either during armed conflicts or under terror regimes, but we also treat perpetrators, as many from the Balkans were forced into military service against their will,” explains Mikkel Auning-Hansen, an RCT psychologist.

“Chechen refugees are damaged in many ways. Some were hunted, interrogated or tortured by paramilitary groups. Most of them have family members missing, hiding away from home or hunted for their political views. Some still feel that they are being hunted in Denmark.”

Ruth Lauge, the Director of Oasis, says soldiers are often the perpetrators.

“We’ve treated a number of people who were kidnapped by the Taliban. For example, young children who were beaten and forced to put on suicide vests and being psychologically prepared to die, before they escaped,” she explains, adding that many victims have been living in Denmark for years, even decades, before they seek treatment.

“Many people come from being on the run and they just want a normal and safe life, with a home, family and work – just like anyone else,” Auning-Hansen says.

“Most cope for a limited time, but eventually, stress at work, problems in the family, loss of job or other unforeseen stresses tip the load and that’s when people reach out for help.”

A global solution
Mardigal-Borzol is tired by the Danish immigration debate of the past 20 years. The fear of foreigners, particularly asylum seekers, is overblown he argues.  Very small numbers of asylum seekers arrive in Denmark – less than five thousand last year – and only about a quarter of those who arrive are granted asylum. Lebanon, on the other hand, received two million refugees and Jordan one million.

“I’m not saying Denmark should accept flows of thousands, but societies do not change because you admit a few thousand new people every year,” Mardigal-Borzol argues, adding that European states should adopt methods to identify torture victims early in the process and priortise them for asylum.

“Governments have been resilient to this approach because once a person is identified as a torture survivor, there is a higher likelihood that they will receive refugee status,” he explains.

RCT psychologist Auning-Hansen says there are also some local issues that need to be addressed.

“Resources can be a problem, time is especially crucial to establish basic human trusts, we have to navigate in an arena with strong political views and we have service goals enforced by the regional boards of healthcare.”

Lauge from Oasis agrees, adding that she is disappointed by the eight-month waiting list for victims to receive treatment. She is also focused on improving the training of healthcare professionals to speed up the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It gets more and more difficult to treat someone when these symptoms have gone undiagnosed. The earlier the treatment, the more well functioning they are afterwards.” M

Features, News

By Lesley Price

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