While the Detention Forum was encouraging groups and individuals to take part in the detention inquiry by submitting evidence, we were contacted by individuals and groups who said they wanted to take part but they simply could not. Room to Heal was one of them, so we asked them to explain why. Written by Gracie Bradley at Room to Heal.
Room to Heal is a non-residential therapeutic community for people who have survived torture and other forms of organised violence and are living in exile in London. Our members include people who have been tortured by governments for political reasons, people trafficked to the UK, and people who have been forced to flee their country of origin on sexuality-based persecution. We aim to enable people to heal from their traumatic experiences, find renewed meaning in life and reintegrate into society.
We want to contribute to discussions around immigration detention because many of our members have been profoundly and negatively affected by experiences of detention in the UK. However, we do not currently have the resources to make a comprehensive submission to the Detention Inquiry. We have a small, over-stretched staff team who work therapeutically and in a casework capacity with around eighty asylum seekers and refugees. Our small therapeutic team also has to raise the money to continue our work, in an increasingly difficult funding environment.
The majority of our members have been tortured in detention in their countries of origin, and suffer profound psychological and physical repercussions of this mistreatment. For example, they frequently ‘relive’ their torture experiences, suffering flashbacks and nightmares. Recovering from these symptoms is problematised by people’s insecure immigration status, which means they live in constant fear of being returned to the countries from which they fled.
We have to take all this into account when we consider engaging in an inquiry such as this, as it opens up people’s wounds. Starting this conversation with our members requires doing it properly, with sufficient resources, and with the knowledge that we can effectively communicate their messages. We are not currently in a position to do this. As a result, our contribution to the wider conversation on immigration detention consists of this post, from the perspective of our therapeutic staff, and the wider Room to Heal community.
Detaining survivors of torture and the fundamentally social nature of healing
At the centre of the complex web of legislation, guidelines, litigation and international legal norms prohibiting torture and providing for the rehabilitation of survivors, there are people. Peoples’ experiences of torture may leave them crippled by a range of post-traumatic symptoms, from flashbacks, nightmares, and hallucinations, to anxiety, depression, and difficulty remembering things. These symptoms may be so severe as to meet the threshold for diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, for which typical treatment tends to consist in prescription medication, specialist trauma-focused therapy, or a combination of the two.
However, in reflecting on the effects of torture on individuals, and on how best a person might begin to heal from their traumatic experiences, it must be recognised that torture is often practised in the pursuit of wider social and political gains; indeed for the “punishment and systematic repression of whole communities” (Turner & Gorst-Unsworth, 1993, p8). At the heart of healing therefore, is not only a simple reduction in post-traumatic symptoms, but more broadly, the task of facing every survivor’s “existential dilemma” (ibid, p7): coming to terms with existence in a world in which everything that makes you human has been used to cause you pain. This dilemma is compounded by the loss of one’s home, family, livelihood and community, which are all too often substituted for material destitution and social isolation on arrival in the UK.
The fundamentally social nature of torture and exile is often unrecognised when working within a purely medical framework. Indeed, Turner and Gorst-Unsworth argue that of all possible psychological reactions to torture that, the existential dilemma is “most difficult to conceptualise in medical terms” (ibid., p7). It is this inability to trust or relate to other people, and the shattered sense of self reported by many survivors of torture, that informs Room to Heal’s therapeutic community model of working, and the holistic approach of other torture care organisations. Through engaging in a weekly therapeutic support group alongside others from all over the world who have this common experience, people come to understand that they are not in fact alone. They begin to recover the capacity for relating, that has been destroyed through torture. This in itself is profoundly healing and very often is the beginning of a process of rediscovering the humanity in themselves and others.
Once a person begins to relate to others in the therapeutic support group very quickly they become empowered to talk about the things that matter to them, be it a traumatic episode from the past, another delay or setback in their asylum claim, a problem in their shared hostel, or ongoing difficulties in not being able to sleep properly. Being able to talk openly about such matters, and having such matters understood and taken seriously by other group members, is also experienced as profoundly healing. Our members experience this kind of group dynamic as being something that ‘rehumanises’ them, helping them to shift from a deadened and depressed mental state, to one where they begin to see, despite everything that has happened to them, that they still have a life worth fighting for.
Yet this fundamentally social healing process is precisely what becomes impossible and undermined in immigration detention. Detention centres and prisons are designed to minimise any sense of community, solidarity or welcome. Men and women are locked in their cells for hours at a time, either alone or with a stranger with whom they may or may not share a common language. It is difficult to contact lawyers or to obtain expert medical advice, and people are often moved, without notice, between different facilities in the UK detention estate, rupturing any fragile relations of trust or personal connection that they may have managed to forge. These are issues that must be negotiated by any detained migrant, not limited to the special category of those seeking asylum, or even survivors of torture.
Vulnerability to re-traumatisation is something that is particularly evident in survivors of torture and it is for this reason that they are recognised expressly as a special category in the Detention Centre Rules 2001. Men and women who have survived torture are often very afraid of people in uniforms, sirens, narrow corridors and locked doors. The conditions of immigration detention here in the UK can be experienced as very similar to their own original detention experiences, whether or not this is factually the case. When detained, torture survivors are likely to lose any sense of safety and security they might have found, and to fall into a state of panic, and potentially suicidality. Subject to the ceaseless sound of planes flying overhead at centres such as Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, the threat of return to imminent death at the hands of their torturers becomes even more real.
In an ideal world, the experiences of survivors of torture in immigration detention would not be at issue. If immigration detention existed at all, detailed, attentive screening interviews, an efficient Rule 35 process and cooperation with large torture care organisations would ensure that people who have escaped such serious harm would be protected from re-traumatisation at the hands of the UK immigration authorities. However, the experience of our small community has shown, confirmed by a comment by LJ Ouseley in a recent ruling on the lawfulness of the Detained Fast Track process, that Rule 35 reports “are not the effective safeguard they are supposed to be.” All too often, men and women who have survived rape, torture, and other forms of organised violence are being locked up and re-traumatised in IRCs across the UK. More worrying still is the prospect that in light of the well-documented barriers that asylum seekers face in disclosing traumatic experiences to others, and the increase in the use of immigration detention over the years, an untold number of torture survivors who have been unable to access specialist therapeutic care are currently detained and suffering in silence.