Focus: Blaming the Victim – Torture and the New Politics of Exclusion

Focus: Blaming the Victim – Torture and the New Politics of Exclusion

Image from ‘Torture survivors failed by unfair detention and fast track processes

Neil Serougi, Freedom from Torture


For most of us, torture is a relatively accessible concept to grasp. It invites revulsion and moral opprobrium at the same time as it raises the spectre of pain, powerlessness and punishment. It straddles some of history’s bleakest moments with a set of referents around religious intolerance and political dogma, brought into sharp relief by accounts of endurance and sacrifice. It is a ‘practice’ recognised by most societies as beyond mitigation and its psychological imprint leaves victims with lives shaped by emptiness and relentless anxiety, as our work at Freedom from Torture bears witness. For some, the most insidious consequence is the hollowed out existence that follows with their capacity to ‘feel alive’ sullied by brutal memories of abuse.

Listening to the personal stories of those who have been tortured isn’t easy as the scale of the damage that can crush the essence of being ‘human’ is laid bare. The feelings of desolation and humiliation are tangible as a source of unvarnished truth of what it means to be tortured. It goes deeper and beyond the journalistic descriptions of misery that we can see every day etched on the faces of victims of war, poverty and disease. Bad as this is, the newsworthiness of the human catastrophe happening ‘somewhere else’ is transient and feels remote. It contrasts with the existential loss brought to the surface by the personal account of a torture victim, the potency of which lies in its power to connect in a way that is direct and demanding. We may ultimately share little in terms of different histories, lives and experiences, but the account of a torture survivor tracks into a common and innate need – the capacity to feel, appreciate and be acknowledged.

For survivors of torture, even recounting their ordeals can be a trauma to be overcome. The first instinct in the audience is silence as words seem inappropriate to register the impact. The second is outrage and anger followed by the need to do something. But what? Though the case against torture is unanswerable and the case for providing sanctuary and rehabilitation the most obvious and indisputable of civic duties, the fact is that those fleeing torture cannot rely on it.  For many refugees in the UK today, their day to day experience reveals that the opposite is true. Ratherthey find their situations exacerbated by a climate of suspicion and fewer rights amidst an institutional landscape designed to deter rather than offer sanctuary.

The reality is that those who flee from persecution and arrive as asylum seekers are faced by a bureaucratic system in which their experiences are diminished and at worst discounted. Uncertainty over their future is compounded by having to repeatedly recount the horrors from the past in order to prove their legitimacy and secure refugee status. Surrounded by antagonistic voices in the media and placed into reluctant ‘host’ communities encountering economic pressures, the environment into which they arrive is a hostile one. Worse still, as the emergence of the political right across Europe articulates a renewed focus on identity, values and cohesion, the lexicon around asylum is altered from one of helping a victim to ‘managing a problem’.

This characterisation of the ‘problem’ in turn has been overwhelmingly linked to a cultural ‘threat’, caricatured through ethnic or racist stereotypes and reinforced by the idea that we are losing something of our identity to an unfamiliar ‘other’.  In this scenario, primarily white indigenous communities faced with immigration and a ‘way of life’ fast disappearing, project an underlying fear of ‘loss’ onto the supposed cause of the problem, leading to community tensions and a latent resentment that surfaces in various antagonistic ways. A key feature is the idea of a shared social space where competition for scarce services is usually framed by an entitlements agenda and where different cultural expressions shape the look and feel of the community.

Research into integration and ethnic diversity in poorer communities illustrates the scale of this challenge (Sturgis et al: Ethnic Diversity, Segregation and Social Cohesion, Ethnic and Racial Studies 2013), but also that polarities can be vague, exaggerated and contradictory. It particularly raises the question of where those fleeing torture fit in into the ‘back story’ behind these attitudes. Clearly there is a symmetry between the narratives that frame immigration issues and those of torture survivors, but with one clear difference; the latter do not for the most part compete in the same social space as the host population.

Indeed, asylum seekers are disadvantaged in so many ways that they are unable to productively participate in economic and social life. It may be, of course, that host communities fail to differentiate duringtimes of austerity between ‘deserving and undeserving’ and consequently attitudes that negate the rights of ‘outsiders’ become entrenched irrespective of merit. The conflation of security, economic migration and terrorism narratives with asylum undoubtedly acts to weaken empathy and strengthen suspicion. The stories of torture victims trying to survive personal trauma are lost amongst the anxieties emerging from these themes.

However whilst this account perhaps partly  explains the underpinning surface rationale – and there is indeed something deeply unsettling about the moral panic surrounding asylum seekers currently penetrating the political psyche – few people if asked, would argue against giving torture victims refuge irrespective of the media’s negativity or the economic pressures. Typically, this contradiction between the empathy felt for the plight of those fleeing persecution and the simultaneous resentment of them as intruders is indicative of the contradiction between our altruistic and possessive ‘instincts’. In this context attitudes appear ‘Janus faced’, occupying one set of perspectives predicated on an ethical precept, but juxtaposed with another that is more practicallyanxious and insular.

So even though alternative narratives vis a vis economic migrants, welfare tourism, securitisation all may play into a general sentiment, they are not enough by themselves to explain why there has been a decisive shift in the way we now understand, receive and respond to refugees and asylum. A more expansive interpretation may, I believe, reside in two developments that arose directly from the geo-political consequences of the end of the cold war. Firstly, that the image of the torture victim no longer resonates with the idea of torture as recognised in a binary cold war context and concomitantly, torture as a propaganda tool has become less relevant. Secondly, the rise of pervasive neo-liberal narratives has begun to exert an ideological prism through which notions of solidarity and collective altruism became less mainstream.

Cold War ideology and the idea of torture

In the 70s and 80s the notion of torture was shaped by two abiding images.

The first, inextricably linked with the ‘military coup’ and Latin American juntas that crushed political opposition, provided an accessible and very graphic means of what constituted torture. The torturers and the means by which they plied their trade were tangible as a facet of military power written into a script of fighting communism and the enemy within. This portrayal was epitomised by and encouraged through a deliberate intention to demonstrate a ruthlessness that traded well within the neo-conservative policy circles (Klein: The Shock Doctrine 2007) It served to show that progressive agendas around labour rights and organised protest would not be tolerated at the expense of the profitable relationships enjoyed by international capital and the domestic elites.   Nowhere was this more evident than in Chile where an infamous photograph of Pinochet sitting amongst a cohort of army generals and officers, uncompromising and grim, sent the unequivocal message of the fate that awaited political opponents of economic liberalisation. Significantly, it invited us to understand torture through political dynamics that made sense in other ways.

On the one hand torture occurred because the type of people involved were usually in the military, had a predilection for the use of force and utilised power that was readily available and unaccountable. With hindsight this reliance on pathological personalities may appear simplistic, but torture and its intelligibility was primarily counterpointed against political legitimacy as we understood the concept in western democracy. It followed therefore that torture was a facet of dangerous people in unstable environments.

On the other hand, there were clear ideological fault lines that underpinned the use of torture with obvious implications for who we felt might end up a victim. In Latin America in particular, the well documented abuses that followed military coups, often against radical and left wing activists invited strong political reactions by Trades Unions and, thereafter, the wand public.

The second image involved those regimes that resorted to institutional methods of torture to marginalise dissent. This didn’t exclude the brutal use of physical torture, but added a further dimension that introduced into the public realm a new awareness of psychological and medical abuse. Essentially designed to present opposition as irrational, it created a climate where alternative ideas were defined by theirdeviatince as much as by a political act. Soviet and Eastern bloc countries were typically the ones using psychiatric institutions to control dissidents, effectively equating opposition with a mental illness.

Of course these two representations were not our only exposure to torture in the 70s and 80s. The apartheid regime in South Africa used torture extensively and across the Middle East dictators frequently brutalised their populations to maintain power. In both, the imprimatur of the East – West political theatre was still evident but the congruence of other narratives predominantly framed how we saw them. Firstly, with South Africa its rule on the lines of apartheid was the predominant lens through which we responded. Torture was reviled, exposed and criticised, but the default idea of the tortured victim did not explicitly resonate with the image of a black activist. In the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli wars and the strategic importance of oil similarly had an effect of making torture a secondary effect within a different narrative. In none of these situations was torture less evident, repugnant or cruel, but in each, the way in which ordinary people accessed its presence was mediated through other framings.

In both these scenarios the use of torture, its perpetrators, and who became the victims made sense within a wider narrative. Primarily freedom of speech was a key signifier. Victims were characterised by a common claim around the right to hold dissenting views freely and the fact that this ‘right’ threatened the dominant hierarchy. This resonated with a key element of our own political socialisation in so much as a freedom of speech is held as an inviolable principle of western democracy. Our support therefore amounted to a relatively cost free investment. Seeing torture victims and survivors in this way did not require us to make commitments beyond the immediate value base that we applied to our own lives and neither did it bring into focus other agendas that may have been domestically unpopular.

Also influential was the fact that most of those who we saw fleeing torture spoke European languages, looked ‘European’ and crucially were linked into organised European support networks. Refugees from Latin America had a natural constituency in the Spanish speaking countries that had once been their colonial masters whilst dissidents in the Soviet Union enjoyed wide support at both a political level in the USA and given the nature of the campaigns against Jewish dissidents, amongst Jewish and other support groups in the West. Significantly, they did not share common attributes with other groups that immigrated to the UK and which would have played into different narratives and political agendas. Hence they presented as self-contained groups – victims of torture with no other relevant identities.

So torture became intelligible through these attributes – political values that aligned with our own, cultural identities that we believed we recognised as familiar and, finally, involved group who were not perceived as competing for access to domestic services and resources.


The ‘postcolonial’ present

The end of the cold war changed this landscape not least on the basis of geography. New political contours emerged which created an awareness of a different type of conflict primarily in Africa where the image of child soldiers and sexual violence began to emerge (Rape as Torture in the DRC 2014). The effect of this was twofold. Firstly, the demographic that we encountered was different and, secondly, torture as a practice was no longer coalesced around the conventional props taken from the cold war. In practice this had two outcomes which are significant today. It meant that the torture became more associated with developing countries, African conflicts in particular, and with it an ethnic dimension around the image of a torture victim.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated for it has allowed what might be called legacy colonial values to remerge in a way that framed the plight of the refugee in a very different light. African conflicts that involve war lords resonate with the idea of tribal rivalries and the use of symbolic weapons often captured on television played into an old narrative of ‘civilisation’. Accordingly, stripped of the tangible definition rooted in cold war stereotypes, refugees from third world conflicts were open to redefinition on the basis of other prejudices, stereotypes and at times overtly racist narratives that undermined their claims for respect, sympathy and sanctuary.

In addition, to this overt change in the representations of torture, another related, but not as obvious, transformation took place after the end of the cold war that impacted on attitudes. If the first might be crudely presented as a change in external perspectives about what they were like and who they were the second related more to who we are. The triumph of neo-liberal prescriptions for society and global governance in the late 80s and 90s were instrumental in fashioning a less accommodating approach. Driven on the one hand by the idea that the spread of western democratic institutions and values into the developing world, predicated on free markets, was an antidote to corruption and poverty, the view of refugees as victims was weakened by a focus on the cultural impediments to adopting western political values.

The effect has been to alter the psychological index on which we map our responses to refugees and asylum. Now they bear some responsibility for their own situation courtesy of originating from countries with inferior political systems and authoritarian leadership styles inimical to western models of governance and power.   At the same time, the spread of neo-liberal ideas domestically introduced a discernible shift in the ideas of value. New generations grew up amidst a new way of thinking about themselves in the world. Instead of social solidarity we are encouraged to embrace consumerism, choice and individual responsibility. This not only attacked the idea of welfare and entitlements per se, with predictable effects on attitudes to asylum, but also introduced a subtle nuance into the value of how we viewed civic and personal contributions. What value could a refugee bring to the life of another? The rudiments of a game theory which predicated rational choice on self-interest was writ large into the behaviours of the post-cold war world and if we measured the contribution of refugees as a ‘commodity’ then clearly they could offer little. The alternative of a humanistic contribution that might enhance our collective ‘being in the world’ had little merit in the neo-liberal dystopia where collective responsibility was nothing more than a distortion of the market logic or worse still, unwarranted state interference.

What happens to others and how they relate to ourselves became not a matter of public interest but self-interest. Accordingly, the notion of value evolved a new meaning coalesced around how it affects me and not the ‘other’. Justice and fairness has come to rank lower than the market ethos of individual choice, self-reliance and natural inequalities.  It has opened a corrosive self-defeating route to a collective doctrine lacking a moral purpose or language that could help us reverse the cynicism that ultimately will serve to diminish meaningful social cohesion. The dilution of this moral purpose has now suffused the ‘public interest’ so much so that systematic mistreatment of ‘outsiders’ does not register on the scale of public outrage or dissent .

Perhaps nowhere is this most apparent than in our attitude to the poverty created by the regressive measures imposed on torture survivors. The reasons for this impoverishment are clear and by design. Specifically, the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act reduced the level of support based on a belief that mainstream welfare benefits were a ‘pull’ factor that enticed people to claim asylum. To counteract this, asylum seekers were henceforth excluded and provided with a lower level of support, deemed sufficient only to meet their essential living needs. The negative effect was clear. Section 95 reduced the level of support from 90% to 70% of mainstream income support and with inflation there is a compelling argument that its value is even less at 55%. (The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation, 2013).

Consider the facts in terms of human duress – victims spend months, sometimes years, awaiting decisions whether they will be granted asylum. During this period they are never permitted to support themselves by working or accessing mainstream benefits. Clearly in terms of Article 14 of the UN Convention against Torture, the approach is entirely inconsistent with the duty to ensure effective rehabilitation services are accessible to survivors – rehabilitation is integral to reparation and the UN basic principles on remedies for victims provides that rehabilitation should include medical and psychological care as well as legal and social services. Creating and perpetuating impoverished circumstances that deprive survivors of a safe recovery environment for rehabilitation raises serious questions about compliance with our legal obligations to provide the means for as full a rehabilitation as possible.

The sum effect is to convey a message about their desirability and self-worth that reinforces the very invalidation visited on them by the torture to which they were subject and the torturers they sought to escape.

Final thoughts

The unedifying spectacle of politicians of all denomination scrambling to acknowledge previous laxity around immigration and asylum is instructive.

It is not unusual to see the political establishment seize on the misfortune of others simply to create a climate advantageous to electoral popularity.  Some might argue that this is indeed the staple diet of the political system where politicians assimilate and reflect back the concerns of the constituencies they serve. In broad terms it comes down to a combination of what we experience and how we interpret our encounters with the ‘other’. Stuart Hall aptly described how reactionary and regressive policy prescriptions could be introduced by attributing a social phenomenon rooted in social injustice and economic inequalities, to alternative explanations coalesced around the idea of hostile, alien and inimical cultural practices. The subsequent stereotypes deployed to explain the ‘phenomenon’ reinforce identity politics and normatively, a set of values around which regressive policies could be introduced often beyond the issue which precipitated them.

This now feels to be the case with those seeking refuge from torture. Its authentic representation in the public imagination has been compromised by a discourse replete with a subtle signification that rearticulates humanitarian needs as a conditional. Its linguistic structures have been used to create a field of descriptive logic that invites repeatedly the use of negative language to make sense of genuine needs. Institutionally the reaction has been to formalise cruel and dehumanising practices by officialdom; essentially, ‘re-interrogating’ victims to find proof of dishonesty. Increasingly, the outsourcing of care and responsibility renders vulnerable people even more so as recent events at Yarl’s Wood have depressingly demonstrated. On top of this, the practice of the Detained Fast Track, as it is known, has exacerbated the nightmarish trauma of those who for administrative convenience are detained in conditions identical to a high security prison. The question is how can we respond?

There are no quick or easy answers, but any response must be emphatic.

The twin challenges of rehabilitation and the need to articulate a counter narrative to help end the culture of impunity are formidable ones. Pressure will grow in tandem with demand. Applications for asylum in 2013 increased for the third year running: there were 23,507 applications for asylum last year, up 8% on 2012 and up in total by 31% on 2010. The Home Office anticipates that numbers will continue to rise for the next five years to around 25,000 and the UNHCR expects higher numbers of refugees in the world than ever before. It will be critical to realign resources to increase the reach and effectiveness of services for asylum seekers amidst a home office policy of wider dispersion but perhaps equally as important, will be the need to challenge myths through real stories by real people whose real situations have for too long been marginalised.

This should not be underestimated in its capacity to make a difference.  Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed the de facto normalisation of torture whereby respectable politics can seemingly accommodate illegal abduction and torture through rendition. More insidiously commercialisation, via the development of digital games has allowed generations of youngsters to see the issue as entertainment by adopting the identity of a torturer in a virtual world. Torture is not normal, respectable or a ‘game’. We owe it to victims and survivors, past, present and no doubt in the future, to do something about it.


Neil Serougi is a Trustee of Freedom from Torture. He has worked at a Board level in the NHS for 10 years, primarily focusing on ICT implementation, and was previously a Probation Officer and held office as Secretary of West Midlands Association of Probation Officers. He has also worked on the West Bank and Gaza as a volunteer with UNRWA. Formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Freedom from Torture has been working for more than 25 years to provide direct clinical services to survivors of torture who arrive in the UK, as well as striving to protect and promote their rights. Since its inception, over 50,000 individuals have been referred for help.