Exclusive: GP sexual violence expert criticises government treatment of victims

A former GP who has been advising the Foreign Office on prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence in conflicts around the world has slammed the government's own treatment of survivors who flee to Britain.

Dr Cohen: critical of treatment of victims of sexual violence (Photo: Freedom from Torture)
Dr Cohen: critical of treatment of victims of sexual violence (Photo: Freedom from Torture)

Politicians and officials from around the world are in London this week for a summit on sexual violence in conflict organised by foreign secretary William Hague.

The conference, co-hosted by actor and  UN special envoy Angelina Jolie, is being used to launch a new UK-led international protocol for documenting sexual violence to increase prosecutions. 

Dr Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at the non-governmental organisation Freedom from Torture and who has worked with the Foreign Office on the international protocol, told GP the UK government’s own treatment of survivors fleeing torture and sexual violence was magnifying their suffering and ‘re-traumatising’ them.

Dr Cohen, who provides medico-legal support to asylum seekers, called the Home Office’s detention system ‘grim’, criticising prison-style facilities where torture survivors can have difficulty accessing adequate healthcare and specialist medico-legal support.

Poor access to justice

While the UK treats asylum seekers ‘a lot better’ than many other countries, said Dr Cohen, many refugees have ‘suffered living in this country with poor access to justice [and] poor access to health’.

Dr Cohen, a former GP in London and Oxford sat on the expert reviewer group for the Foreign Office initiative advising on gathering evidence from sexual violence survivors. In an exclusive interview with GP she criticised the initial asylum screening interview where refugees are not asked in detail about their claim and do not have a legal representative with them, leading to many being detained.

‘The problem is that at that time they may not have been able to disclose that they are a victim of sexual violence and other torture because the way the asylum screening interview is carried out is public. There are people listening all around you, they might be able to overhear your language, be from the same country.’

‘It's a really intimidating and uncomfortable setting to start to talk about such things. And people don't want to. So they can be routed into detention and into the fast-track decision making process for their claim before they have had a chance to actually talk to anybody about it.’

Suffering is magnified

A recently revised procedure for safeguarding against continued detention of torture victims called Rule 35 ‘doesn't work at all well’, said Dr Cohen. ‘We still pick up, routinely, people who have been tortured, people who are victims of sexual violence, in immigration detention centres where frankly their suffering is magnified in many ways,’ she said.

Putting survivors of torture and sexual violence into detention in what amount to prisons, she said, was ‘re-traumatising’, particularly if the last time the person was detained was when they were tortured or raped.

Detention also makes it difficult for asylum seekers to collate evidence for their claim and access specialist forensic clinical support.

‘They are on a fast track, so the whole process is decided very quickly. If they are not able to disclose in this very difficult environment , they can be refused and on the plane before they even get a chance. I think that is really wrong. I think immigration detention is acting in very much the wrong way.’

Intimidation and distress

Dr Cohen also said women survivors held in detention ‘reported feeling frightened, intimidated, upset, [and] distressed by the presence of male staff checking on them in their cell’.

‘There is no doubt if you are a victim of sexual violence, you will find that very difficult to deal with - the idea of male guards constantly having access to your cell and coming in to check on you,' she added. 

‘They are prisons. You can call them something different, but they are prisons. Security is tight. They are prisons. All prisons are grim.’

Launching the new international agreement on Wednesday Mr Hague said: ‘This protocol is the first of its kind, and we hope it will play a vital role in shattering the culture of impunity for sexual violence in conflict. This impunity is a major factor in why these crimes continue.

‘We know that one of the primary reasons for the lack of prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict is the difficulty of gathering evidence that can stand up in court, and the trauma and the stigma faced by survivors in the process. This Protocol is designed to overcome those fundamental barriers.’

The government came in for similar criticism from the Refugee Council which said there was a 'dangerous lack of joined up thinking in government when it comes to tackling sexual violence against women'.

Progress in conflict zones

Women’s advocacy manager Anna Musgrave said: 'On the one hand, you’ve got real progress being made in conflict zones overseas, but when those very same victims make it to UK shores it’s a completely different story. Women often aren’t believed, and instead of being protected they’re further traumatised by the asylum system.

'It seems like the government only wants to deal with this problem at arms length; when it’s on their own doorstep they don’t want to know.'

A Home Office spokesperson said: 'The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it and all applications are carefully considered.

'We are committed to treating women who seek refuge on the grounds of having suffered sexual violence with dignity and respect and our staff receive mandatory training on managing such cases sensitively.

'Where asylum applicants are found not to need our protection, we expect them to leave at the earliest opportunity. If they refuse, we will enforce their removal, but survivors of torture are only considered suitable for detention in very exceptional circumstances.'

The spokesman added that Rule 35 was revised in 2012 and training provided to detention centre doctors and Home Office case workers and is currently the subject of a quality audit, the results of which will be used to identify good practice and any areas for improvement.

  • See the next issue of GP magazine, dated 23 June, for a full interview with Dr Cohen 

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