Monday, March 23, 2009

Doctors and Mental Health Professionals Volunteer to Help Survivors of Torture

Human Rights Clinic training prepares doctors, mental health professionals, and social workers to assist hundreds of torture survivors seeking asylum in U.S.

Twenty-five volunteer physicians, mental health professionals, and social workers gathered at the headquarters of HealthRight International on Saturday, March 14, 2009 to participate in a human rights training designed to help them aid torture survivors seeking asylum in the United States.   For thousands of men and women who have fled persecutions and torture —100,000 in the New York Tri-State area alone—finding asylum is a life-or-death matter.  If they fail to convince a judge that their physical and mental wounds are real, they could be sent back to their country to face further torture or be killed.  The training was part of HealthRight’s Human Rights Clinic (HRC) project.

Begun in 1993, the HRC is a national program that trains and deploys volunteer physicians and mental health professionals to provide clinical, medical and psychological exams to torture survivors and to document and bear witness to the scars and signs of torture and abuse.  Offering their valuable time to conduct these exams—sometimes giving 3-4 days a month—HRC volunteers also play a critical role by offering expert testimony in immigration court proceedings.  An affidavit from a HealthRight-trained health care professional attesting to evidence of torture raises an asylum seeker’s chance of success from a national average of about 25 percent to over 80 percent.

“The doctors who donate time to this program are literally saving lives,” said Hari Acharya, Project Manager for HRC.  “Our national program reaches between 360 and 400 asylum seekers per year in 12 states across the nation.   We have represented more than 100 countries, including Guinea, Tibet, El Salvador, Myanmar, Sudan, Pakistan, Albania, Serbia and Bangladesh.”

Participants at the training received advice from experts with extensive experience in the following areas:
• Legal Aspects of Asylum and Documentation
• Documentation of Physical Torture: Conducting the Physical Exam
• Psychological Evaluation of Torture Survivors

“It is my hope that the volunteers appreciate how important and valuable their task is—they further the probabilities of success in the individual case and bear witness to the meaning of the sacrifices so many victims of torture make for justice and individual liberty,” said C. Mario Russell, Esq., Senior Attorney at Catholic Charities who presented on the legal aspects of asylum and documentation.
A new online photo database was also introduced at the March 14 training. This unique clinical tool now provides access to a large collection of photos to help doctors identify signs of torture by showing specific scars from different types of torture, detail the methods and instruments used to inflict those scars, and identify specific countries where certain methods of torture are employed.

Questions raised and answered at the Human Rights Clinic training included the following:

How do you describe the mechanics of a machete attack from the scars on the chest of a Nigerian farmer who was attacked for being brave enough to speak out about pollution from oil production near his village?

How do you identify the chronic musculoskeletal damage caused by the bound inverted suspension suffered by a community activist?

How can a psychological examination help to shore up the credibility of a woman’s story of having been gang raped and having witnessed the murder of her family?

“In my opinion the Human Rights Clinic's work has now become central to whether a case will be successful in court,” said Russell. “With new and stringent credibility tests applied by judges and Homeland Security lawyers in court proceedings, HRC's reports give solid, reliable, and expert corroboration of a person's experience of torture, which she herself may have difficulty communicating because of complex post-traumatic reactions or cultural dislocation.”

Last year, HealthRight worked with 156 volunteers whose expert evaluations allowed the HRC to help 366 asylum seekers.  Over all, 80% of these eventually win their cases and find safe haven in the US.

For a first hand account of the HealthRight Human Rights Clinic training, visit HealthRight’s new blog, Field Notes, at