Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Survivors Speak OUT (ASY 57)

1. Executive Summary

1.1 This submission contains the views and experiences of the Survivors Speak OUT network, which is the UK’s only torture survivor led activist group. Six survivors of torture, who are all members of the network, came together to provide direct evidence for the Inquiry. This paper was then shared with the rest of our members for comment and contributions.

1.2 As a network we have decades of first-hand experience of the asylum system between us and are at different stages of the asylum process: some of us were granted leave to remain relatively quickly, while others have been refused multiple times.

1.3 The evidence contained in this paper is drawn from our varied personal experiences, and is from the Survivors Speak OUT network. We have discussed four areas of the terms of reference that we felt were most important for torture survivors—the effectiveness of screening including eligibility for the Detained Fast Track; the assessment of the credibility of women and torture survivors; whether asylum support is sufficient and effective; and the prevalence of destitution—and identified problems with the asylum system and suggested improvements.

1.4 We found that the screening process was an intimidating and confusing experience, similar to an interrogation, which made disclosure of torture difficult. Problems included: lack of information and privacy provided to people; poorly informed screening officers who failed to ask about torture; inaccurate and partial interpretation; Detained Fast Track is not explained and several of us felt misled into detention.

1.5 We believe that the decision-making process is influenced by a culture of disbelief. Problems included: medico-legal evidence of torture was dismissed as was physical scarring; and clear mistrust prevents survivors of torture opening up and giving evidence and adds to distress.

1.6 Based on our first-hand experiences, asylum support is insufficient and results in poverty, insecurity and humiliation, all of which damage our recovery from past trauma. Accommodation is overcrowded and isolating, often uprooting individuals from established networks and placing them with untrustworthy strangers; section 95 support, at £36 per week, is simply not enough to cover basic needs such as clothes and food; whilst section 4 support provided through the Azure card is extremely limiting and has forced many of us to rely on charity hand-outs.

1.7 Personal experiences of destitution are distressing to recount and described as degrading and traumatising. Three out of six people had experienced destitution. One person spoke about attempting suicide several times.

1.8 We have put forward suggestions on improvements to the asylum system which include ensuring that the screening environment adopts a more customer-centred approach based on respect and dignity; the Detained Fast Track should be abolished so that no other human being faces this traumatic system; the Home Office must take meaningful action to tackle the culture of disbelief within the UK Border Agency; section 95 support should be increased to meet people’s living needs; accommodation providers must be held to account for the poor conditions in which people are forced to live; section 4 support must be scrapped; safeguards must be established to prevent destitution; and asylum applicants with no other means of adequate support should be allowed the right to work.

2. Introduction

2.1 Survivors Speak OUT (SSO) is a UK-based network of survivors of torture and former clients of Freedom from Torture. We actively speak out against the use of torture and its impact. Our purpose is to spread the message to key decision-makers and other influential actors that torture persists and that they have a role in ensuring that survivors arriving in the UK are able to secure necessary protections through the asylum system. The issues that we speak to are based on our lived experience as torture survivors seeking protection in the UK.

2.2 All our members supported the drafting of this paper however six people (five men and one woman) provided direct evidence based on first-hand experiences of the asylum system.

2.3 We came together on 4 April 2013 at Freedom from Torture’s headquarters in London to collect evidence for our response. Discussion points covered issues in the terms of reference that our members identified as particularly important. The range of experiences was varied, from those who were granted leave to remain quickly at the initial decision stage to those who have waited years and received multiple refusals. One person waited for 15 years before being granted leave to remain, while another continues to await the outcome of his asylum application despite having applied eight years ago and submitting medical evidence to support his torture account.

2.4 In our advocacy and awareness-raising work, the Survivors Speak OUT network has made efforts to correct some of the poor practices highlighted in this paper. We have met with John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, to feed into his 2012 Detained Fast Track Inspection and his 2009 asylum inspection. We have also worked with Freedom from Torture’s Training and Capacity Building team to deliver awareness-raising sessions to Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) staff. These sessions, which have taken place in 2011 and 2012, are aimed at increasing the awareness of the issues facing survivors of torture seeking protection, and include recognising the indicators of vulnerability or trauma, which is essential for referrals, recommendations and routing decisions. Further sessions are expected to take place later this year.

2.5 As a network we welcome this inquiry into the asylum system and the opportunity to tell the Committee about our experiences of seeking asylum in the UK and the problems that we have faced, and many continue to face, along the way. We have also put forward suggestions for improvements to the system. We hope that our contributions will improve the system for all those that have no other choice but to rely on it.

3. The effectiveness of the UK Border Agency screening process including the methods of determining eligibility for the Detained Fast Track (DFT)

3.1 We discussed our experience of the screening process and there was consensus that ‘getting it right’ at this early stage in the asylum application was crucial for the path that our applications followed. To begin, as a group we felt that there is a lack of information available to people about this process and no individual at this early stage of their application knew anything about screening before attending the interview. None of us received written information about screening in advance, nor were we told what screening was, its purpose, or what would happen during the interview. This lack of information resulted in people (who were already deeply traumatised) being confused and unprepared for an interview that would significantly impact our applications and for some of us, lead to fast track detention. For example, of the six members who provided direct evidence for this paper, three of us were routed into the Detained Fast Track system. We were all survivors of torture and believe that our lack of understanding of this process from the outset contributed to fast track detention. One person felt that: ‘they (the Border Agency) did not want you to be prepared; otherwise you would have a better chance of being believed’.

3.2 The screening environment was hostile, intimidating, chaotic and lacked privacy. As a group, we felt that the interview was similar to an interrogation; that the style of questioning attracted minimal answers; that there was no real opportunity or time to explain torture; and that questions asked about our health were not sufficient to identify torture, despite some of us implying that torture had taken place. There was little or no effort on the part of screening staff to build a “human relationship” despite the fact that we were seeking help. People said: “I felt they already had an opinion about me”. “I didn’t feel I could talk. I felt no trust. Nobody listened to me, nobody wanted to know. Being in the interview was the same as being in prison all over again”. “You are a liar until you prove yourself innocent. The environment is hostile; this is the last thing you need.”

3.3 One member said that he had been through so much before coming to the UK following months of torture and hiding that he arrived at the Home Office psychologically and physically traumatised. This distress was deepened by the chaos, long queues and lack of available help. He stood in one queue from early morning only to be told at 5pm that he had to go to another queue. When he eventually got to the other queue he was told to go away and come back the following day, despite the fact that he was homeless, spoke very little English and was very scared. When he arrived the next day and was eventually seen, he was interviewed by two men (including an interpreter). He was unable to speak properly, because he kept breaking down emotionally and other claimants were so close that he could hear what they were saying: “There is a lack of privacy”, he said. “I had young children sat next to me, I could overhear their stories and at points they were looking at me. I was scared to talk and it had an impact on what I said. I didn’t feel able to say what had happened to me”. He went on to say “I think screening is deliberately meant to feel frightening, they don’t want you to feel welcome”.

3.4 Another member recalled a similar experience, “You can overhear people disclosing personal stories. For me, there is shame in doing that. I was struggling with myself, should I disclose or shouldn’t I? There was no place for me to open up and be myself”. One other spoke about the fear of the screening environment. He fled his home following torture only to arrive in the UK to be stripped and searched at the airport to then enter a screening environment which was chaotic, hostile and made him feel even more afraid.

3.5 A female member explained that when she first arrived at the screening interview she felt “very intimidated”. She was interviewed by two men and was unable to say what had happened to her. She felt that she may have been able to speak differently had she been interviewed by a woman. She said that during the interview the officers stood up to interview her rather than stay seated. As a lawyer in her home country, she recognised this as an interrogation technique. She said that through their style of questioning, they were “putting words into my mouth what he wanted to hear from me”. She concluded by saying that she had been ‘set up to fail’ (see section 4 under Credibility of women and survivors of torture). There was a consensus in the room that this mirrored the experiences of many of us.

3.6 We also felt that the content of the screening interview was problematic as Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) officers had little or no knowledge or context of the countries we had fled and what was happening there. This made it difficult for many of us to disclose what we had been through. As one of our member’s explained: “They have no knowledge about the country you’ve been forced to leave. You have to convince them about what is happening in your country. They don’t want to believe it. Perhaps they cannot understand that these things have happened”. Members also commented that questions were too general and were a “copy and paste.” “Screening for me happened in 1994, so a long time ago but from what other people are saying, the asylum questions at screening are the same set of questions for everyone yet all out experiences are different. I was asked about Sudan yet I’m not even from there”.

3.7 Poor Interpretation was repeatedly raised as an issue with concerns noted about the impartiality of interpreters. “The interpreter sat opposite me and next to the screening official. We spoke in French. I did not realise that the interpretation was wrong until a later interview when another official questioned something I had allegedly said at the screening interview. ‘Oh now you are saying this, why did you say that at your screening interview?’ Another member said, “If I had not been strong enough to challenge him my case would have collapsed”, who went on to say that the interpreter misled him, assuring him, “don’t worry, you are going to a safe place”, disguising the fact that he was about to be taken into fast track detention. Another member also spoke of poor interpretation and lack of trust, “I did not trust the interpreter and knew that what they were saying was wrong as I understood a little English but I felt I couldn’t fight the battle, it was too much for me”.

3.8 Three of us spoke about our experience of being routed into the Detained Fast Track. We all spoke about the difficulty of disclosing torture, lack of effort from officials to find out what had happened to us as well as not being told as to why we were being detained. “The screening interview resulted in my detention but the officer didn’t even try to find out what happened to me. There was no attempt to establish a relationship. It is easy for someone who has been tortured to end up in detention if this is the environment you find yourself in...I didn’t know that I was being taken into detention, no one told me but there was so much security that I knew something was wrong...another guy with me was telling me that they are taking us to detention but I was thinking that he had done something wrong because he was in handcuffs. I hadn’t done anything wrong”.

3.9 “I was not encouraged to say what had happened to me at my screening interview instead I was asked ‘Why did you not go to France?’ I didn’t understand. After the interview I waited for 3–4 hours before I was taken down a narrow corridor. An official speaking through an interpreter said ‘don’t worry, you are going to a safe place, they’ll give you food, clothes, underwear, a phone card, a toothbrush and shower gel, they’ll look after you’. I was happy to go and I signed the paper. I then saw the officials and it clicked. If I am going somewhere safe, why are they wearing uniforms?”

Improving the system:

  • People seeking asylum should receive information about the screening process in advance of the screening interview that explains clearly what screening is, its purpose and consequences, what will happen in the interview and what rights individuals have;
  • Questions asked at the screening interview should be adapted to each interviewee in order to take into account the different circumstances of people seeking protection;
  • All staff at Asylum Screening Units, including interpreters should receive regular mandatory training on working with survivors of torture, including: identifying signs of trauma, improving reception conditions and ensuring respect for other human beings;
  • Private facilities should be available for interviews so there is a safe environment for disclosure;
  • Interpreters should be independent from the UK Border Agency and act in a professional and impartial manner;
  • There should be an effective complaints procedure in place that clients are made aware of, is easy to navigate, and responds to concerns raised to improve the process;
  • The Detained Fast Track should be abolished;
  • People seeking asylum should have the opportunity to work with their solicitor to prepare and file their case before decisions are taken about who is fit or not for the Detained Fast Track system;
  • People seeking asylum should be allowed to request the gender of the interviewer and interpreter including the screening stage.

4. The assessment of the credibility of women and victims of torture and within the decision-making process and whether this is reflected in appeal outcomes

4.1 “There is a culture of not believing anybody and it starts at screening” was the opening sentence from a member who despite being a survivor of torture found himself routed into the detained fast track. “A guy from Senegal was interpreting into French for me. I went through the details of my journey. ‘Why didn’t you stop in France?’ I was following someone to safety. ‘Do you have any documents?’ No, because the person took my passport and I was carrying the bags. The officer checked my face to see that it matched the picture. She (the officer) told me I was a liar and that nobody would believe me”. Other members who were also routed into fast track detention spoke of similar experiences during screening interviews. “I wasn’t believed because I was asked too many questions in an interrogative way and it was very difficult. They would ask lots of questions in one and they’d want you to answer quickly. ‘What is your name, where do you come from?’ Then ‘why did you not go to France? Why did you come here?’ It felt accusatory so from the start it felt like I was being discredited”. Another member said, “they did not believe that I had health concerns back in Cameroon. I showed them my health book. They also asked me, ‘why didn’t you go to France?’ My brain was not clear and I was too scared to answer them in case they did not believe me”.

4.2 One of our female members also spoke of not being believed by male officials at interview, during which they stood up to interview her “looking in your eyes, like on top of you”. She recounted that the interview style “was like an interrogation where they turn your yes to no and no to yes” and that at points during the interview they laughed at her, leaving her feeling “degraded”. She explained, “my account of torture as a woman was not believed at all, I looked like I was wasting the time of the officers. I had nothing special to tell them, they looked like they already knew what I am going to tell them, from the start till the end. I felt very uncomfortable as if they could not believe a human being could be subject to a torture, it was like I was telling them something from a movie”. Continuing, she spoke about showing scars of torture on her body to the male officials who responded by saying “Is that everything you’ve got?” “Whatever you say will be held against you, they are taking notes, collecting proof whilst you have nothing, no evidence”. She explains that she was unable to disclose her experience to a GP as she was too emotionally distressed, “you are ashamed of yourself”.

4.3 We all felt that time constraints and lack of trust during interviews with officials and non-specialist medical staff made disclosure of torture almost impossible and therefore hindered the gathering of evidence.

4.4 Our female network member told us that she complained (through her solicitor) to the Home Office about her initial screening interview including that it was carried out without her consent. She subsequently received an apology and was allowed a new screening interview. Had she not been strong enough to challenge her initial interview, she could have found herself in a very different situation than she is in now, having been granted refugee status.

4.5 The collection of evidence was a concern for all of us, with reports of people being asked to provide evidence but then discredited when they tried or were able to produce it. One of our members who first applied for asylum in 2005 said that, “they officially don’t believe I have been tortured even after two medical legal reports have been submitted. I’ve been asked about my political background in court and when I was able to respond to their questions they said, ‘you have come well prepared’. They didn’t consider all my evidence; they missed points and twisted information. Documentation was even sent to an expert in France to check whether it was legitimate. They accept I’ve been in trouble of some sort but do not accept that it is party political or that I have been tortured”. The female member referred to above also said that though she eventually secured refugee status, earlier refusals from the Home Office said that “almost everything was false” but she believed they had no evidence for supporting their argument. A member who waited 15 years to eventually be granted Refugee Status spoke of, “junior Home Office staff dismissing medical evidence”. “You are deemed to fail from the outset”.

Improving the system:

  • Case owners should have an increased understanding of working with survivors of torture and the challenges survivors face in disclosure;
  • Case owners should adapt interviewing styles including body language so that the interview does not feel like an interrogation and is focused on making people feel at ease;
  • People seeking asylum should be given appropriate time to prepare for interviews and to gather evidence;
  • A more gender-sensitive approach should be adopted by officials working with male and female survivors of torture, so that same sex interviewers are offered to people;
  • Immigration officials and judges should avoid contradictory comments on evidence gathering, where too much preparedness is cause for suspicion and too little preparedness is cause for disbelief;
  • The UK Border Agency should consider employing former asylum applicants in advisory and other roles so that their service is informed by those with direct experience.

5. Whether the system of support to asylum applicants (including section 4 support) is sufficient and effective and possible improvements

5.1 In regard to accommodation, none of us were given an option about where we lived or the type of accommodation we were housed in: “They will send you to wherever they want taking you out of the community where you have a good network away from Freedom from Torture, your GP, your friends. This is very difficult for survivors of torture”. Many members spoke about the challenges for survivors of torture of being placed in shared rooms in overcrowded houses with people from different countries who neither understood each other’s cultures nor shared a common language. This made interaction difficult. However, the main concern was sharing with people who did not understand what we had been through and some of the related problems associated with trauma. One member said that this was “another place of distress, not a place to rest or lay your head down”. Others spoke about being scared and suspicious of new people and particular those who did not have similar experiences: “I felt safer around other survivors of torture, they understood what I was going through. You find yourself living with people who don’t understand you. Some of them have criminal minds”.

5.2 Another one of our members who had been moved around the country to different accommodation spoke about living in overcrowded houses with 14 other people sharing one kitchen and one toilet. He also witnessed violence including a fight between nine men who shared the house he was living in. “They were from Iran and Iraq and they had been drinking and things turned violent. I was scared. I could not understand what was happening. The owner of the house didn’t care what happened. There were no locks on the door. You could not leave food in the fridge as it was stolen. I was robbed of my belongings so many times but I could not say anything to the four people who did it”.

5.3 People felt that the lack of hygiene in shared accommodation was also a concern. “The place was dirty, there was no mop, no hoover, people had different habits and ways of doing things,” reported one member whilst others spoke of foul smelling rooms, sores all over the body because of bed mites to filthy kitchens and bathrooms.

5.4 On Section 95 financial support everyone agreed that £36 a week is not sufficient to live on and that you cannot buy meals for all seven days of the week. Many members of the network have and continue to rely on charity hand-outs for clothes and have been restricted from travelling as transport costs are too expensive. This sometimes meant we missed medical and solicitor appointments. “When you are new in an area you can make mistakes at shops and on the transport not realising how much you have paid. There is no room for errors with just £36.00 a week”.

5.5 There were other concerns, specific to survivors of torture, over restricted financial support. A member explained, “as a survivor of torture, when I am feeling scared I go to a public place, that way if anyone comes for me I will have witnesses. They will shout and help me. But I need money to get the transport there. That is freedom—to get from one place to another. But you don’t have that when you have just £36 a week”.

5.6 On Section 4 financial support, the Azure card was both a huge practical challenge for people whilst also being the source of mental distress. There is a loss of freedom in having to survive on cashless support, restricted to essential goods at selected stores. One member spoke of buying food in a shop in an area that he didn’t live in. “They stopped my Azure card as I had bought food in a new area. They wanted to know how I had got the money to travel there. They said ‘we don’t give you money, so how are you able to travel?’ I felt very upset by that. I didn’t know I was being watched”. Another member recalled his Azure card being stopped for ‘misuse’ after he bought shoes for his son. “They stop your card if they don’t like your spending. The money you are given is policed. You have to watch how you spend your money and be careful to know what to buy and when. There is a list of things that you can and can’t buy but when you get to the till point they might tell you that you cannot spend your money on a particular item.”

5.7 People spoke about wanting to buy food from ‘back home’ that was not available in supermarkets and having to walk to places rather than spend the money on bus fares. Many of us have been forced to rely on charities for grants, food and other support. There was a shared concern that, with increasing spending cuts in the UK, some of the most vulnerable will have no other means of support.

5.8 The mental stress of living in poverty “is an extra burden” for survivors of torture. As one member put it, “The external obstacles make your recovery more difficult. It is difficult to blend into a community and learn to live again. One way to do this is to forget what is happening and speak to people but it is difficult to do that when your clothes aren’t nice and you can’t eat properly.”

Improving the system:

  • Survivors of torture must be housed in single occupancy accommodation that is not overcrowded;
  • Managers of houses should be accountable in practice for accommodation making sure that it is safe and clean. Cleaning products and appliances should be provided;
  • Accommodation should be checked on a regular basis, not just when people move in and move out, to ensure that it is fit for living ;
  • There should be more than one fridge where there are many people sharing and people should have locks on their bedroom doors for safety and privacy;
  • People seeking asylum should be allowed subsidised or free travel on local transport;
  • Section 95 support should be increased to meet people’s basic needs;
  • Section 4 cashless support should be scrapped and replaced with cash support so that people have the money to buy food and other items or use the transport as they need.

6. The prevalence of destitution amongst asylum applicants and refused asylum seekers

6.1 Despite many of us knowing each other a long time, people found it very difficult to speak about this issue. Experiences of destitution have caused severe distress and unresolved trauma. People spoke of sleeping on the streets, feeling scared, vulnerable and with suicidal thoughts. One member, who waited ten years before he was granted status, said “I had been refused five times. Each time, I was kicked out of my accommodation with nowhere to go. It was mental torture. I slept behind a pub where the bins were for a short time. The police would move me along sometimes. Maybe I would sleep in a cell some nights. The police were racist in Wales. They would keep you there until they had looked into any break-ins or other trouble in the area. Then they’d let you go. I would sometimes find help from a church or from someone who would let me stay in their house for a short time, but it was never long and I’d have to start again. Life became very difficult for me...I thought of and attempted suicide several times”.

6.2 It is difficult to rely on homeless shelters or charity groups because most are over-crowded and unable to provide support. Relying on the help of others also risks creating further problems: “I had nowhere to go so I moved in with my partner; they stopped all her benefits as she let me stay there. I had nowhere else to turn and in the end it just caused more problems.”

6.3 “It is a sad, sad situation,” said one member who still awaits the outcome of his application. “I’ve slept behind wheelie bins, in train stations, on buses, it is too difficult for me to speak about right now. If it wasn’t for Freedom from Torture or a friend who let me share food I don’t know how I would have survived. Refused asylum applicants are pushed into very difficult situations. If they refuse you completely, at least support you until they return you”.

6.4 “It is inhuman to sleep on a long route night bus as it is perceived better than sleeping rough. People should be assisted from the time they set foot in this country until they’re removed. If people are denied basic needs, that is tantamount to mental torture. It is this that we need to fight. Organisations like Freedom from Torture do a fantastic job rehabilitating victims of torture but this is only reversed and made worse by the Home Office”.

6.5 As someone explained, “You feel like a dog. Wherever you go they say go away. People want to know your story and it is embarrassing. People don’t understand that you don’t want to talk about it and how embarrassing it is”.

Improving the system:

  • Establish safeguards which at the very least treat human beings with some dignity whilst arrangements are made to remove those that have been denied protection;
  • Provide basic help to the destitute including a bed for the night, one meal and a phone card;
  • Allow asylum applicants the right to work especially for those who have no access to adequate support to meet their living needs.

Survivors Speak OUT

April 2013

Prepared 11th October 2013