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Opinion: Spare a thought for the victims of torture among us battling their trauma daily

On United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, John O’Donoghue of Spirasi discusses the impact torture can have on victims.

WHAT OFTEN SURPRISES me most in the discourse on migrants, and asylum seekers is that no one asks what caused them to leave their country in the first place.

Maybe it is hard to ask such a question. After all, the answer might be too difficult to hear. Or maybe we just don’t want to hear the answer anymore.

Maybe we’ve developed compassion fatigue.

When we do get an answer it often sounds something along the lines of “wanting a better life.” But I think this is a loaded statement, and I really don’t expect someone to disclose their entire history the moment they come off the plane or arrive on Europe’s shores.

Victims of torture

Today is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Like other commemoration days, this one pays homage to those who suffered unimaginable pain at the hands of another fellow human being.

Most commemoration days remember the dead. This one remembers the living too. Those who have lost a piece of themselves at the hands of another human being for the purposes of suppression, or the pleasure of cruelty, usually by a state official, sometimes under the guise of lawful punishment.
At other time it is at the hands of non-state actors with the acquiescence of the state, and at others, it is non-state actors the state is unable to protect citizens from.

There is still not enough research on the number of refugee victims of torture. A study in 2013 estimated that approximately 50% of forcibly displaced migrants who end up living in Ireland had suffered torture. This figure is grim, and given the European migrant crisis in 2015, the number of refugee victims of torture may be considerably high among the asylum seeker population. Worldwide, the number of forcibly displaced persons exceeds 80 million.

IMG_20190612_123955548_HDR Staff at Spirasi work with victims of torture. Source: Spirasi

But the European migrant crisis has also given rise to debates between nationalist and cosmopolitan voices on the question of borders—who should enter, who should not, and why. These debates are important (and I’m not going to get into them here), but they must not run the risk of generalising, relying on blanket statements, or othering people.

Terms like; “these people,” “them,” “those,” “you people,” “go back to where you came from,” – the language of us and them does not give pause for thought in particular to consider those people who risk death if sent back to their county of origin. Words matter.

The problem though is that I too must use these pronouns to explain a group of people for this article at the risk of othering them. My use of statistics risks also reducing lives to a bunch of numbers.

The complex healing of trauma

In 1999, Ireland signed a commitment to provide access to rehabilitation under article 14 of the UN Convention Against Torture. Rehabilitation from torture is deeply complex, the work happens at the physical, mental, and emotional levels.

Those who arrive at our offices on the North Circular Road are often clutching their head in their hands, unable to stop gruesome flashbacks incessantly repeating, begging for them to stop. 

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Anyone who has suffered a trauma knows that an easy fix is never possible. Building someone back up can be slow and cumbersome work.

The fact that torture is inflicted by another human being destroys a person’s capacity to trust and to enter into the social contract. This also places the torture victim in a difficult position: either I keep away from everyone and live with the plague of my thoughts tormenting me, or I go out into the world and risk being harmed again. This is the choice the torture victim is left with. And because of this, a person’s integration can be a start-stop process.

And yet, what is remarkable is that these people (yes, I said it again) do go out again, work, go to school, take their children to school, and engage in communities once again.

Every day becomes a risk-taking exercise in re-engaging with people and society again: making small talk with the shopkeeper, sharing a coffee with people at work, going to church, going to university, complaining about the weather, watching the premier league with friends, meeting up on the pitch to play football and every other act of normality that allows someone a place in the world once again.

I think this is rehabilitation proper. I firmly believe that today’s diaspora, knowing what it means to live in a society of belonging, inclusivity, and dignity will strive to make a world where torture is no longer experienced.

John O’Donoghue is a psychotherapist working for Spirasi, which is the national rehabilitation centre for the victims of torture in Ireland. It aims to rebuild the lives of Asylum Seekers and Refugees who are victims of torture (through its holistic approach).

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