Asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons
Every year war and conflict, together with ethnic, religious and cultural persecution, force millions of people to flee their home country. Today there are approximately 11.4 million refugees worldwide of concern to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (1) Roughly 26 million persons are displaced internally within their own borders. (2) For the vast majority, fleeing their homes is not a choice but a matter of survival.
Who are today’s refugees?
Refugees come from every continent and in recent years have included people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and the Caucasus. Many refugees want to return to their home when it is considered safe to do so. Many, however, cannot return. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states that a refugee is a person who: "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..."
Torture and displaced persons
Because torture is a covert practice and its victims are often unable to report the crime, no comprehensive statistics exist on the extent to which refugees and other displaced persons have experienced torture. However, health professionals and researchers commonly estimate that between 4-35% of refugees worldwide have been subjected to torture. (3) These figures demonstrate that this is not a marginal problem of a marginal community, but a substantial problem that must be duly addressed.
Role of the IRCT
Over the past several years, the IRCT and its member centres have undertaken interventions in support of victims of torture and trauma among refugee and internally displaced populations. For example, we have trained doctors in Kosovo and Pakistan, some of whom were themselves refugees, to offer rehabilitation services to torture survivors in refugee camps. Following conflicts in East Timor and Georgia, the IRCT assisted local health professionals to conduct psychosocial needs assessments of internally displaced persons, which fed into targeted rehabilitation efforts.
As a member of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), the IRCT collaborates with other organisations working on behalf of refugees’ rights in Europe. Through our Liaison Office in Brussels, we have worked with key EU institutions to influence relevant legislations, such as the EU Receptive Directive. For asylum seekers to have their full case heard and to eventually receive asylum and rehabilitative treatment for their torture, it is imperative that asylum authorities to have documentation of the torture. As such we have developed training guidelines and promoted the use of the Istanbul Protocol, an internationally recognised guideline to document torture, in the asylum process.
The documentation of incidences of torture and trauma among refugee and internally displaced populations has proven to be an important instrument for promoting the rebuilding and reconciliation of a post-conflict society, and for understanding the special needs of asylum seekers and refugees from conflict areas.
2. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
3. See, for example, B Sørensen. 1998. Torture and asylum in Torture, Vol 8. No. 2.