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July 12, 2011

IMPORTANT: Our Blog Has a New Address!

Dear Friends of The Refuge Media Project:

In the process of better integrating this blog, Caring for Survivors of Torture, with our website, it has been necessary to change the blog’s URL. Our new web address is:
            Beginning in July, 2011, all articles will be posted to the new location, which will also include all of our prior posts. Click the link above to go to the new site, and be sure to make the change in your address book and elsewhere.
If you have subscribed to receive notifications of new posts by email, you may need to do so again. The link is just below the picture in the right-hand column. If you haven’t subscribed, now would be a good time to do so.

Thanks for your continued support,
Ben Achtenberg, Project Director & Producer

Immigration Focus: June 25, 2011

June 25, 2011

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist
Reveals He is an Illegal Immigrant

The lead story for this post has got to be Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’s revelation, in the New York Times Magazine, that he has been an illegal immigrant since arriving here from the Philippines when he was twelve. Some highlights of his story are also included in the short video below, from the group Define American.

“Maintaining a deception for so long distorts your sense of self. You start wondering who you’ve become, and why.”

Vargas’s story is too revealing and too important to try to summarize — please read it — but one of the things that most struck me was the many, many people who encouraged and helped the young student, then reporter, to pursue his education and career despite his status. Many of them have authorized Vargas to use their names in his article (and their images in the video) despite the fact that they themselves might be subject to legal or professional sanctions for doing so. 

The most memorable anecdote, to me, was of the high school choir director who cancelled a planned choir trip to Japan and took the group to Hawaii instead, so that Vargas would not need a passport and could be included. It seems to me an apt parable for the kind of welcoming acceptance that Americans are capable of when they are not overcome with anti-immigrant hysteria.

“There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.”

Number of Refugees at a 15-Year High

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that “the number of forcibly displaced people around the world has reached a 15-year high.” For 2010, UNHCR estimates an incredible 43.7 million people displaced by war and natural disasters. Even more disturbing, its report indicates that the number of refugees able to return to their homes – only about 200,000 – was the lowest in two decades, and the number in “protracted situations” was the highest in a decade. An estimated seven million people have been living in refugee camps for ten years or more – many of them for as long as thirty years.
            Contrary to the perception that wealthy, developed nations bear the main burden of hosting refugees, the UNHCR report indicates exactly the opposite. Roughly 80% of the world’s refugee population find refuge in developing nations, many of them among the world’s poorest, most politically troubled, and least able to cope with the influx. Pakistan hosts the largest number, followed byIran and Syria. Germany ranks fourth and the United States is ninth – but welcomes only 26,000 more refugees than the much smaller United Kingdom, which is in tenth place.        

Immigrants Behind Bars: How, Why, and How Much?

This new report from the National Immigration Forum looks at the costs local jurisdictions incur through the often unnecessary detention of immigrants:

“[This] backgrounder provides explanations of the ways that immigrants end up in local custody…In recent years police have increasingly been drawn into immigration enforcement operations, and as a result, local jails are holding increased numbers of immigrants, even those not facing criminal charges. Detaining immigrants in state or local custody creates additional costs and burdens on local law enforcement agencies, and the unnecessary and prolonged detention of immigrants costs local budgets millions of taxpayer dollars per year.”

Visit the Forum’s website for other publications.

Anti-Immigrant Net Snags Citizens as Well

A recent Miami Herald article by Alfonso Chardy documents the arrest of Christopher Zambrano, a U.S. citizen stopped by immigration or Homeland Security officials (in black clothes, in a black SUV) while he was riding his bicycle. Zambrano had no proof of citizenship (he doesn’t own a car, so didn’t even have a driver’s license) so was arrested, handcuffed, and jailed by Miami-Dade police using the excuse of a three-year-old warrant for driving with an expired license.
            The article goes on to discuss a number of other Miami-area cases recounted in El Nuevo Herald (the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister publication). Chardy notes that, while both the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials deny racial or ethnic profiling, “the fact remains that all of the citizens who spoke about their cases with El Nuevo Herald are Hispanic, either native-born or naturalized.” Several such cases are described in the article.

Special Visas Available as a
Tool to Protect Trafficking Victims

It appears that a valuable tool which can be used to protect trafficking victims in the United States is not being widely utilized. According to an Associated Press article by Russell Contreras, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has initiated a national educational campaign regarding visas which can be offered to illegal immigrants who are victims of human trafficking. 5,000 of the special visas are available, but only 3-500 were issued last year. By contrast, there is another type of special visa available to victims of mental and physical abuse such as domestic violence victims. 10,000 of these are available, and in most years all 10,000 are issued.
            Contreras quotes the agency’s Boston director Denis Riordan as saying “It’s not that people are getting denied. They just aren’t applying.” Riordan said that victims are afraid to come forward out of fear of deportation, and that their traffickers exploit that fear to maintain control over them. “A situation…that promotes fear and hopelessness and isolation is unacceptable in this country,” he said. Some information about the special visas is available from these website locations.

T-Visas (for trafficking victims)
U-Visas (for victims of mental & physical abuse)

Note that family members of victims of these crimes
may be eligible to obtain visas as well.

Resources: June 24, 2011

June 24, 2011

 “The discourse on torture
has changed for the worse…”

The International Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (IRCT) has released it’s annual report for 2010, the Center’s 25th anniversary year. IRCT is one of the foundational organizations of the anti-torture and torture rehabilitation movements worldwide. It now has 147 member centers in 73 countries on all continents. Yet, as the Report’s introduction says: 

“In recent years, the discourse on torture has changed for the worse. While torture has never before been so prominent in the public debate, we’ve witnessed a gradual erosion of the absolute prohibition of torture. We can see some of those formerly or even currently in positions of authority in powerful countries manipulate the public into thinking there is some sort of “torture lite,” that torture is acceptable in some circumstances. In this harsh climate where some, including a former U.S. President, continue to justify the erosion of the most fundamental of rights, it is our duty to continue to remind the world that notions of the acceptability of torture are as odious as they are illegal.

Torture Journal – Latest Issue Now Available

The latest issue of the IRCT’s Torture Journal is now also available online. Lead articles focus on the reconciliation process in Cambodia, mental health care for refugee torture survivors in Hungary, and evaluating the services provided by torture rehabilitation programs around the world. 

Do Empathy and Violence Follow the Same Brain Pathways?

Ken Pope passes on an interesting news release from the Spanish Foundation for Science & Technology. A February, 2010, article in Revista de Neurologia suggests that the brain structures and pathways which play a “fundamental role” in empathy, are also those most implicated in regulating aggression and violence. Lead author Luis Moya Albiol told the interviewer: “We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on violence, but this may not only be a social question but also a biological one – stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other.”
            “Educating people to be empathic could be an education for peace,” he added, “bringing about a reduction in conflict and belligerent acts.” At one level this seems reasonable, maybe even obvious, but how do we square it with the many accounts of loving family men who were concentration camp administrators by day.
            The article, Bases neuronales de la empatia, is available online (in Spanish). The other authors are Neus Herrero and M. Consuelo Bernal. There’s a brief summary in English at the end of the article.

A Day to Support Torture Survivors

June 22, 2011

Sunday, June 26th, a Day to Support Survivors of Torture

Sunday, June 26th, is recognized by the United Nations as an International Day in Support of Torture Survivors. (See Wikipedia for further background on this event.) Though it’s unfortunately not much noticed in the United States, except by those involved in the care and support of immigrant survivors, it’s celebrated by such organizations throughout the world, in an effort to better inform the public about survivors’ needs and concerns. 
            TASSC, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition, one of the organizations the Refuge Media Project has been working with, is hosting a weeklong calendar of events entitled “We Remember the Names and Faces.” TASSC’s annual observance has become well known in the Washington, DC, area and around the country. Another of our partners, the Center for Victims of Torture in Minnesota, holds an annual tree-planting ceremony at its Minneapolis headquarters.

IRCT’s “Micro Film” Competition Winner Announced

For the past several years the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Survivors, based in Denmark, has held a competition for short films to mark the event. The IRCT reports that filmmakers from Kenya to the Netherlands submitted films to its “Micro-Film Competition” this year, and the winner was Tom Erik Douglas Smith, with his short animation, “Overcoming Psychological Torture.”  

In its statement announcing the award, the IRCT noted: “Poverty is the theme of our campaign this year. Poverty is a root cause of torture and also an effect of torture on individuals, their families and wider societies. Providing rehabilitation to survivors, as well as working for justice and prevention of torture therefore helps break a cycle of poverty.”

The Refuge Media Project was the winner of the IRCT’s 2009 competition for 30-second public service announcements. My son, filmmaker Jesse Achtenberg, and I put together the winning TV spot using footage shot for the Project’s documentary-in-progress, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of TortureYou can see our award-winning spot on the IRCT website.

Taking Action: When Healers Harm

June 20, 2011

When Healers Harm

This new campaign is an effort by the respected Center for Constitutional Rights to hold physicians and other health professionals accountable for participation in “enhanced interrogation,” and to call such participation what it really is: torture. The campaign’s website,, “will house a growing roster of psychologists and physicians who were complicit in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The site will be updated as new information about the torture program and its players are revealed.” The following is from the campaign’s statement of purpose:

“Despite the health professions’ universally recognized duty to do no harm, doctors and psychologists have played a key role in the U.S. government’s policy of torture in its overseas prisons. They crafted and justified torture tactics, inflicted pain, oversaw abuse and enabled, covered up and turned a blind eye to cruel treatment. Yet, in the face of clear evidence, government officials, licensing boards and professional associations defend their failure to take action against these health professionals by claiming that they do not have enough information.”
            “The Center for Constitutional Rights disagrees and, through its When Healers Harm campaign, presents compelling evidence that supports the need for ethical, and in some cases criminal investigations of health professionals complicit in torture and other forms of abuse.
            “It is time to hold accountable the healers who have harmed…Accountability is vital to survivors of medical torture and to health professionals, most of whom take seriously their commitment to do no harm.”

Pending Legislation: New York’s Anti-Torture Bill

For several years now, I have been interviewing immigrant torture survivors and the professionals who care for them. Over and over again, I’ve been told that as many as 50% of survivors report the presence of a doctor or other healthcare professional during their torture. Wouldn’t it be comforting if we could hang onto the belief that the doctors, med techs, nurses, and psychologists on “our side” would never be guilty of such behavior? Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the still-unacknowledged “black sites” have robbed us of our innocence on that issue.
            One of the pitifully few concrete campaigns to do actually do something about this issue is underway right now, and needs your support. Healthcare professionals and their organizations, along with activists and concerned citizens in New York State, have persuaded their legislators to introduce legislation “to ensure accountability for torture and to prevent such atrocities from happening again.” Bills A. 5891 in the New York State Assembly and S. 4495-A in the Senate: 

  • Confirm that NY-licensed health professionals’ duty to do no harm applies to their professional relationships with all patients and under all employers;
  • Reaffirm that health professionals licensed inNew Yorkare prohibited from involvement in torture or other abuse of prisoners, wherever that abuse takes place;
  • Remove NY-licensed health professionals from interrogations; and
  • Help NY-licensed health professionals resist unlawful orders that could place them at risk of criminal prosecution and civil damages lawsuits.

Detailed information on the campaign, and the texts of the proposed bills, are available on the When Healers Harm website. The campaign’s supporters are asking New York residents to contact their legislators as soon as possible. Letters from non-New Yorkers are also welcome. Professional, religious, and human rights organizations, wherever they are, are invited to send letters of concern and support. See the website for a listing of current supporters

Neglect of Medical Evidence of Torture
in Guantánamo Bay: A Case Series

What about health personnel who may not themselves have participated in torture, but who knew that it was happening. Writing in PLoS Medicine (a journal of the Public Library of Science) physician Vincent Iacopino and retired general Stephen N. Xenakis have examined this question with regard to the prison at our Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “Little is known,” they report, “about the role of health providers…who should have been in a position to observe and document physical and psychological evidence of torture and ill treatment.”
            Examining all available documents, including medical records and case files on nine individual prisoners, the authors conclude that “the medical personnel who treated the detainees at GTMO failed to inquire and/or document causes of the physical injuries and psychological symptoms they observed…The findings in these nine cases from GTMO indicate that medical doctors and mental health personnel assigned to the DoD neglected and/or concealed medical evidence of intentional harm.”

“The abuses reported in this case series could not be practiced without the interrogators and medical monitors being aware of the severe and prolonged physical and mental pain that they caused.”

The Iacopino/Xenakis study was profiled by Dan Vergano in USA Today under the title “Medical care props up Guantánamo tactics.”

In the News: June 15, 2011

June 15, 2011

Humanitarian Crisis: The World’s
Largest Refugee Camp is Overflowing

Writing from Johannesburg in The Guardian, David Smith reports that the situation in the world’s largest refugee camp has become a humanitarian crisis. While desperate refugees from Somalia continue to flow in, the international medical organization Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) says that Dabaab camp in Kenya has already far exceeded its capacity. Tens of thousands in the  camp, mostly women and children, face disease, starvation, and even predation by wild animals.
            MSF describes what it calls a humanitarian emergency in the camp, as its population climbs toward half a million people by the end of the year. “Children who have fled war in neighboring Somalia are left without food or shelter in dry heat of 50C (122F),” the organization says.

“We’ve got nothing to build a shelter with,” Fatima, a 34-year-old refugee from Mogadishu, told MSF. “It’s very unsafe here – at night, we’re scared that wild animals will eat the children, and we’ve had threats of violence from local people who say the land is theirs. Children are even being killed by hyenas because they have no protection.”

“More refugees are on their way,” Nenna Arnold, an MSF nurse, told Smith. “We are already at bursting point, but the figures keep growing. This situation is a humanitarian emergency.”

Europe Leads the Way on Accountability for Torture

Writing on the Soros Foundation’s blog, Amrit Singh notes that the European Parliament  is demanding that the United States not apply the death penalty in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri “on the grounds that the military commission trials do not meet the standards internationally required for the application of the death sentence.” The Open Society Justice Initiative had previously filed suit on al-Nashiri’s behalf against Poland, before the European Court of Human Rights. Al-Nashiri had been “rendered” by the U.S. to Poland, where he was tortured.

“Official U.S. government documents confirm that during this time, U.S. interrogators subjected al-Nashiri to mock executions with a power drill as he stood naked and hooded; racked a semi-automatic handgun close to his head as he sat shackled before them; held him in “standing stress positions,” lifting him off the floor by his arms while they were bound behind his back and almost dislocated from his shoulders; and threatened to bring in his mother and sexually abuse her in front of him.”

He was then transferred back to U.S. custody, despite the European Union’s policy, under its Convention on Human Rights, of not extraditing prisoners to countries which employ capital punishment. The United States Supreme Court, for its part, has repeatedly refused to review challenges to the practice of “extraordinary rendition.” 

Restoring Dignity After Sexual Torture

That’s the title of the latest issue of Storycloth, the newsletter of Minnesota’s Center for Victims of Torture (one of the Refuge Media Project’s Advisors  and Outreach Partners.)  The organization reports that 67 percent of the clients they care for in Minnesota – both men and women – have experienced some kind of sexual torture which, in addition to physical and psychological trauma, puts them at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted disease, and can leave them unable to have children. Storycloth is available online.

“By its very nature, rape is more invasive than other forms of torture, and often results in overwhelming feelings of shame…Lots of women come to us saying they can’t trust a man. They may feel so branded or shamed that they become convinced strangers can identify them as a rape survivor, as if it’s tattooed on their forehead…When a woman can accept herself again, then she is making steps towards healing.”
                             – Andrea Northwood, CVT’s Director of Client Services.

Physicians’ Responsibilities Regarding Terrorism & Torture

June 10, 2011

There’s one encouraging and one very disturbing report in today’s forwards from the ever-invaluable Ken Pope. Let’s start with the dark side.  

British Doctors Will be Asked to Report
Patients “At Risk of Becoming Terrorists”

Ken reports that an article in the new issue of British Medical Journal, indicates that an upcoming revision to the country’s “Prevent” program will call on physicians “to help identify people at risk of becoming terrorists.” According to the article’s author, Clare Dyer, the British Medical Association says it has not been consulted on the new policy, and that the move would put doctors “in an impossible position.”
            The new policy, according to an article in The Guardian, will be released on Tuesday. BMJ says that the forthcoming document, “suggests that people with mental health problems or learning disabilities may be more easily drawn into terrorism.” (The article can be accessed online, but only by subscribers or by payment of a $30 one-time/one day fee. Universities and other institutions may also be able to provide access.)

Alan Travis’s piece in The Guardian is more helpful. It indicates that the new policy is quite controversial within the UK government, and has, in fact, delayed publication of the revised program for five months. The “Prevent” program was first developed to combat home-grown terrorism following bombing incidents in 2005. It’s currently funded at £60 million per year (about $90 million.)
            Travis writes that the revised document will ask doctors “to identify people who may be ‘vulnerable’ to recruitment by terrorist groups.” He quotes a BMA spokesperson as saying “Doctors cannot look into the future and say how someone might behave. This would threaten the trust of the doctor and…patient relationship. A doctor’s role is to treat the patient in front of them, not predict how the patient will behave in future.” (NOTE: “Prevent” has provoked controversy from the start. For a little background see the articles here and here.)

N.Y. Medical Board Could
Discipline Physicians for Torture

On a somewhat more hopeful note, Kevin B. O’Reilly writes on that first-in-the-nation legislation proposed for New York would give the state’s Medical Board the power to discipline physicians and others “who take part in, or conceal evidence of, torture.” The bill (see full text here) “would give the state medical board and other health professional licensing boards the explicit authority to suspend or revoke practice rights.” It prohibits health professionals from “directly participating in torture, treating patients with the intent of determining when torture could continue, concealing medical evidence of torture or taking part in individual interrogations. Health professionals could generally advise interrogators on rapport building or other nonabusive techniques.”
            “We want to clarify that this is, indeed, grounds for discipline and also to achieve a preventive effect” said Dr. Allen Keller, Associate Professor of Medicine at NYU School of Medicine. Keller directs the Bellevue Hospital Center / New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, in New York City. 

“It’s easier for individuals to torture than we’d like to think, because of hierarchies and environments that allow it. We believe this legislation would help physicians who are put in an untenable position to say, ‘I can’t do this; I’d lose my license.” 
                                                           — Dr. Allen Keller

While the Medical Society of the State of New York has opposed physician participation in torture or direct participation in interrogations, it said the matter is best handled at the federal level. Keller responds that “health professionals — whether they practice in their state or in the Army or wherever — they do so because they have a license that is issued not by the federal government or the Army but by a state.”

(NOTE: Regarding the poster at top of this post. I would welcome any info. The one I’ve reproduced here is clearly a parody. For example, the text at lower right, next to the credit card, reads: “Terrorists often have dubious sources of income. Do you know any bankers?” However, I have not been able to determine whether “If you suspect it, report it” is a real government campaign, and whether it is related to the “Prevent” initiative. Help!)