10 Mar 2017, 00 mins ago

The UK’s treatment of the survivors of torture came under further scrutiny last week when the Minister of State for Immigration, Robert Goodwill, confirmed to Parliament that the Government does not necessarily consider being tortured as reason enough to offer someone protection.

Goodwill’s comments were made during a parliamentary debate on torture, as a result of a report by Freedom from Torture, which accused the Government of “egregious mishandling of medical evidence” in its consideration of asylum claims involving the survivors of torture.   

The report examined 50 cases between January 2014 to December 2015, in which the applicants’ asylum claims had all initially been rejected by the Home Office. The report found that judges often had to correct Home Office decisions, with 76% of cases involving victims of torture being overturned in favour of the applicant on appeal. Indeed, of the 50 cases considered by Freedom from Torture, 22 out of 29 were granted on appeal. The remaining cases were still active when the report was published, however, so the final number could be higher.

An explanation can perhaps be found in Freedom from Torture’s research, which reveals that in 74% of the cases, immigration officials with no medical qualifications replaced the need for a medical report with “their own speculation” on clinical matters when making a decision on asylum applications. The report also claims that, even when medical documentation of physical harm and psychological trauma is available, the government’s sheer bureaucracy means that survivors of torture could still be refused asylum.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found last year that victims of torture who had made claims for asylum face up to two years in delays for processing, due to having to wait to be medically examined and a lack of qualified doctors able to conduct these examinations.

Responding to MP’s concerns over the accusation of ignoring or mishandling proven evidence of torture, the Immigration Minister failed to address why so many viable claims were not being recognised earlier in the process. He chose to emphasise instead that, while the Home Office wants to get it “right from the first time” and that all staff received “extensive training”, survivors of torture do not “automatically qualify for protection” by virtue of having been tortured.

An individual seeking protection “needs to show there is a real risk of serious harm or persecution on return to their home country. In some cases that situation in a country can become normalized so indeed that situation can change. Indeed we welcome when conflict finishes in countries around the world”, he said.

Goodwill’s assertion that in Britain’s view torture has “no place” anywhere in the world, although welcome, provides meager reassurance in a climate in which the treatment of asylum seekers, especially while they await a determination of their case, is causing increasing concern all over Europe. Last week, the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights released a report which highlighted that EU countries are failing migrant victims of torture and trauma by not having appropriate systems in place to recognise the ordeals they have suffered and adequately support them on arrival.

A recent report from The Guardian found that the UK – far from representing a shining example in this context – is one of the worst destinations for people seeking asylum in Western Europe. Bureaucratic, lengthy delays, insufficient financial support and inadequate housing and forced destitution were highlighted among the key failings compared to other European states. A month ago, the Home Affairs Select Committee released a report that found that asylum seekers coming to the UK are often placed in accommodation infested with rats, mice, and bedbugs.

The parliamentary debate last week highlighted another apparent systemic failure, the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the UK’s treatment of asylum seekers. As the debate goes on over the adequacy of the response of European states to a seemingly endless migration crisis (and the UK’s role within it), the focus seems to finally be shifting towards the adequacy of care we provide to those who are ‘lucky’ enough to make it, and to the level of humanity with which we treat them on arrival.

The full Freedom from Torture Organisation report can be read here: