Freedom from Torture - Survivors Speak OUT meet with Yvette Cooper

Survivors Speak OUT meet with Yvette Cooper

Blog by Jonathan

On a sunny Thursday in July, I was one of eight members of Survivors Speak OUT who met with Yvette Cooper MP at Freedom from Torture’s London office. It was a bright and sunny day but the stories we told her were ones of horror and hardship.

Let me tell you about myself. I was forced to flee my own country after I was detained and tortured. After I was released I fled to the UK and was eventually granted asylum but it took many years – years when I was also struggling with the mental and physical damage caused by torture.

In my country elections are accompanied by violence and vote-rigging. Politicians rarely go out to meet and talk with ordinary people. So for me, meeting and talking with a Member of Parliament is a real privilege.

Yvette Cooper is more than just an MP. She is the Chair of the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, one of the powerful committees that hold parliament to account. We were honoured to have her attend our parliamentary reception on 26 June, the International Day of Support for Victims of Torture.

Recently, the committee has held hearings on the disgraceful conduct of the Home Office with regard to the “Windrush” generation. Long-established residents were denied their British citizenship, forced into destitution and detention, because they could not fulfil the enormously high standards of proof demanded by the Home Office.

As a torture survivor and former asylum seeker, I can sympathise. We found ourselves in a similar situation when we claimed asylum - our stories were not believed, impossible levels of proof were demanded, and we faced a culture of hostility.

Our accounts of torture, if we are able to disclose them, are often disbelieved by the Home Office as we cannot prove that we were tortured. The physical signs of torture are not always visible on our bodies and those that do have visible wounds and scars often find that they are attributed to other causes. Even when we produce medical evidence of torture by specialist professionals from Freedom from Torture, Home Office officials or judges often disregard them substituting their own unqualified opinion.

Then there is the waiting. The asylum system is confusing, scary and long. You are held in a process that can take years. I spent five years in the system but I know of survivors of torture who waited ten, even 15 years, for a decision. Can you imagine your life being on hold for that long?

While you are waiting, you cannot move forward. If you are lucky, you get some support but it is minimal. When we are assigned housing, it is often poor quality, overcrowded and badly maintained, infested by mice and rats. Like me, many torture survivors have lived on the streets or survived by the goodwill of friends or charitable organisations.

You can’t educate yourself. English language classes have been cut and you cannot afford the fees for further education. We are not allowed to work, although we are keen to support ourselves and to contribute. What are we expected to do with our days?

I know the impact these conditions have on your mental well-being. You feel paralysed, haunted by the past, unable to move on. At times, it feels like the whole system is conspiring against you.

Then there is the ever-present fear of being detained in an immigration removal centre. Home Office guidance says that torture survivors should not be detained for immigration purposes. We know from experience that these so-called safeguards do not work. We also fear that if the Home Office’s new “Adults at Risk” policy alters or weakens the torture definition, more torture survivors will remain in detention.

As a torture survivor I know what it means to be imprisoned without cause, without hope, and without limit. We thought we had reached a safe haven but again we find ourselves behind bars.

If you have never been detained and tortured, you might not be able to understand what it does to an individual but it breaks you. You live in fear, you lose trust and hope, and you anticipate further torture.

Finally, even if we are granted refugee status or the right to remain, we have to regularly renew our status applications. The fees are expensive, thousands of pounds, and force people into poverty and debt. This just doesn’t apply to one person but to family members – so we see children born and brought up in the UK being denied basic rights that will enable them to live as valuable and worthy citizens.

I am glad to have talked with Yvette Cooper and especially pleased that she wanted not just to hear our problems but our ideas for improvement and change at the Home Office. Survivors Speak OUT will look forward to working with her and the Home Affairs Committee in the future.

Jonathan is a Freedom from Torture Service User Champion. He was a member of the Survivors Speak OUT delegation who met with Yvette Cooper MP when she visited Freedom from Torture’s London centre on 19 July 2018.

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