UK

Torture evidence ignored by Home Office, says charity

Man with scars on his back Image copyright Will Baxter

The Home Office is "disregarding and mistreating" medical evidence of torture in UK asylum claims, a report by a charity suggests.

Asylum seekers in the UK who say they are torture victims can have medical assessments to verify their claims.

But charity Freedom From Torture said judges were correcting poor judgements at "considerable cost to taxpayers".

The Home Office said "an exceptionally small sample" was used in the report and all evidence was considered.

Sonya Sceats, director of policy and advocacy at Freedom From Torture, told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme its findings showed "egregious mishandling of medical evidence" in 50 cases over a two-year period, from January 2014 to December 2015.

Freedom From Torture produces medical reports when lawyers for asylum seekers who say they have suffered torture, instruct clinicians and other healthcare professionals at the charity to carry out detailed assessments.

But Ms Sceats said the Home Office asylum case workers were too often "dispensing with the expert views of [these] doctors" when considering, for example, how scars had been caused.

Image caption Sonya Sceats said asylum caseworkers are "entirely unqualified" to make medical assessments

She said caseworkers were instead "substituting in their own view", despite being "entirely unqualified" to make such judgements. She added that doing so was "forbidden by the Home Office's own policy".

Home Office instructions on how to deal with this kind of medical evidence state that "it is not the role of caseworkers to dispute the clinical findings in the report [of such charities] or purport to make clinical judgements of their own".

In each of the 50 cases highlighted by Freedom From Torture, the person's asylum claim had initially been rejected.

Twenty-nine of the cases have since been resolved and in 22 of these, asylum was granted on appeal. The remaining cases are still active.


Mamie's story

Mamie - not her real name - was an opposition political activist in the the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was imprisoned by the country's security services and tortured.

"I've been left with scars all over my body," she said.

"It was so bad. Many men, people I didn't even know forced me to have sexual intercourse with them.

"Sometimes they used to force me by using violence... one of them used an iron to burn me on the back. I've even been left with big scars on my back."

Mamie applied for asylum in the UK without medical evidence, and was rejected.

She then applied again with a medical report - which showed 20 scars that a doctor said were evidence of torture.

Mamie was turned down for asylum again, but this time that decision was overturned by a judge and she was allowed to stay. The judge attached significant weight to the medical evidence and said a doctor had carefully considered other possible causes for the injuries.

"It's really, deeply hurtful when you've been through torture and abuse and they seem not to understand and not to even believe your story."


Other organisations dealing with asylum seekers have complained about the same problem.

Chai Patel, legal and policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said it has experienced medical evidence being ignored because of understandable inconsistencies in victims' accounts of torture.

"Where an expert finds that physical or mental injuries and symptoms are consistent with a history of torture, it is highly inappropriate for Home Office officials to seize on inconsistencies in other aspects of the case to disregard medical evidence.

"Torture can, and does, affect memory recall, and it is wrong when officials use the effects of that trauma to discredit victims' accounts."

Image copyright Freedom From Torture
Image caption Freedom From Torture's medical assessments highlight injuries resulting from torture

Dr Tania Mathias, a Conservative MP and GP, argues that Freedom From Torture's research shows a worrying trend.

"This could be addressed if the Home Office rolls out a one-day training programme for caseworkers," she said, adding that the Home Office has endorsed the idea, but not put it into practice.

"We need to trust the expertise of doctors and stop this waste of time and money, and the stress it causes to vulnerable people that need our help."

But a Home Office spokesman said: "This report is based on an exceptionally small sample - less than one tenth of a per cent - of the 52,000 asylum decisions taken over the respective time period.

"Asylum decision makers are required to consider and give equal weighting to all the evidence provided and our guidance clearly states that it is not their role to dispute clinical findings in medical reports."

He said all staff undertake "a rigorous training programme" that covers how to deal with claimants who claim to be victims of torture.

"The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those who genuinely need our protection," he added.

The Victoria Derbyshire programme is broadcast on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.

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