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'I still feel like a prisoner': Sudanese torture survivors neglected by the UK Home Office Open in fullscreen

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

'I still feel like a prisoner': Sudanese torture survivors neglected by the UK Home Office

The treacherous Mediterranean route has cost thousands of migrant lives [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 September, 2019

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Asylum seekers who suffered under the former regime of Bashir in Sudan now face another obstacle in their bid for safety and a new life: the UK Home Office.
Fleeing Sudan in a smuggler's truck, to escape torture and save his own life, only to be sold into slavery in Libya after risking the dangerous crossing to Europe, *Kamal, describes his perilous plight and refuge to Britain. Like many others, his mental well-being is worsened by the UK's neglectful policy towards asylum seekers.

The New Arab spoke to anonymous asylum seekers in London, who bear the physical and mental scars of suffering under the former regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. Now they face another obstacle in their bid for safety and a new life: the UK Home Office's efforts to make asylum seekers struggle to gain status.

Currently, they receive treatment at the London-based Freedom from Torture centre, which provides crucial therapeutic care for torture survivors, whilst campaigning for better asylum rights.

"The Home Office places a burden on asylum seekers to prove their circumstances, yet it often ignores or disbelieves their past suffering. They are trying to severely limit the number of people settling here, focusing more on statistics than the urgent humanitarian needs of torture survivors," Sile Reynolds, Lead Asylum Policy Adviser at Freedom from Torture, told The New Arab.

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Though Bashir was overthrown in April after months of protesting economic and political difficulties, victims of his repression are still forced to relive the suffering they endured under his 30-year-long reign.

Kamal, 28, reached in the UK in 2017. In Sudan he suffered extreme torture whilst in prison, falsely accused of financing an opposition group in Darfur, whilst he was simply sending remittances to family whilst working in a Khartoum market.

"They beat me with sticks, rods, and whips in prison, for something I had not done. Yet since I was from Darfur, they thought I was helping opposition groups. They had a prejudice against me, and many others from Darfur, for that," said Kamal.

"Eventually they threatened to kill me whilst beating and questioning me. They really wanted to get information from me, which I did not have."

He was let free, yet authorities continued to harass him, and he had to report to local authorities once a week, making him feel like a prisoner. Sensing his life was in danger, Kamal paid smugglers to go to Libya – the traditional point for asylum seekers crossing to Europe.

Moving around Libya, he eventually arrived in Tripoli, where he was in a detention centre, once again facing torture and physical abuse.

Like countless others, he was sold into slavery, working on a fruit farm. Slave smugglers preferred Sudanese slaves because they spoke Arabic

Like countless others, he was sold into slavery, working on a fruit farm. Slave smugglers preferred Sudanese slaves because they spoke Arabic. For a short period of time, he described a monotonous, abusive life of work and sleeping.

Managing to escape, while risking the treacherous Mediterranean route which has cost thousands of migrant lives, he eventually reached the United Kingdom after months of trying. Though he was not seeking the UK originally, he was simply desperate to reach safety.

Describing the terrible conditions in the camp and being treated like a criminal in detention for 23 days, he said he felt grateful, compared to the horrific conditions he faced before.

Now settled in Hayes in London, Kamal's future uncertainty of his asylum status adds further stress, developing the extreme abuse he faced in Sudan.

"I have no idea about what is happening. I feel distressed and hopeless. Many people had an easier process in different countries. While I am waiting, I cannot study or work," said Kamal.

His story reflects that of *Haj Yusuf, 39, a former pro-democracy activist, who had struggled to secure asylum since 2011, since arriving from Sudan as a refugee. Previously he was a pro-democracy activist, inspired by the events in Tunisia, and sought to raise awareness about the Sudanese government's oppression.

Describing his experiences in a Sudanese prison, he said "they treated me like an animal. They beat me and electrocuted me. I suffered sexual abuse too. They wanted to break me, so I could not criticise the government and continue activism.

"I kept having to report to them even after being released. I could not do normal things and enjoy my life. I was always being watched," said Haj.

After reaching the UK, the Home Office completely disregarded his circumstances, despite clear marks from the torture and his story that he could not live in Sudan anymore

"There was no freedom in Sudan. As students and as dissidents, we were being watched all the time."

After reaching the UK, the Home Office completely disregarded his circumstances, despite clear marks from the torture and his story that he could not live in Sudan anymore.

It took several appeals and even expert medical opinion, which was initially ignored, to finally help Haj acquire asylum status.

"Many people are waiting so long. They really suffer, and it makes them feel more suicidal. If the Home Office worked much faster, it would really help them, "said Haj.

Yet as he has finally gained status, despite the past trauma, Haj said he feels life is slowly looking more positive. Showing how a more efficient asylum process helps really individuals.

*Ayman also faced torture in a prison, for working in for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), as an activist. His main work was publicity. He was from Darfur and escaped Sudan in 2005. Until this day he has no settled status, despite seeking this in several European countries.

"Because I was from Darfur, the government had tried to discriminate against us. There was clear racism."

The Sudanese government conflicted with Darfur since 2003 after liberation movements sought to end the repression and discrimination against the non-Arab populations.

Ayman was smuggled out from his prison from Khartoum by the rebel group he worked for, eventually crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. After years of moving around between Greece, Italy, Austria and France, he arrived in Britain in 2012.

"I was arrested and imprisoned in nearly country I went to. By the time I got to Britain, I was desperate. I smelt and I spent such a long time begging and being homeless. I often struggled to get food," he said.

Arriving near London in a desperate state, Ayman found someone who spoke Arabic, who helped him reach the immigration authorities in the Home Office.

However, the environment he has been subjected to has not just made it impossible for him to settle in the country; it has worsened his mental standing and personal conditions.

"Being in the detention centre in Dover was like being in prison in Sudan. It was completely dark most of the time, I felt empty and lost. It gave me horrible flashbacks. I even tried to hang myself," said Ayman.

Being in the detention centre in Dover was like being in prison in Sudan. It was completely dark most of the time, I felt empty and lost. It gave me horrible flashbacks

"I really want to settle in. I want to develop my education further and work and contribute to society. Yet as I have not been granted asylum yet, my life is on hold and I cannot do anything."

Ayman feels that the UK government, particularly the Home Office, is purposefully trying to make life unbearable for him, to make it hard for him to settle and integrate into British society.

"The British people are good. I have had no problems from them. I just feel the Home Office is not welcoming to me and is trying to make my life difficult and prevent me from settling," he added.

Ayman still showed great enthusiasm about the prospect of becoming educated in IT and working in Britain. He seemed very keen to contribute and get his life back on track. At the time of this article, his application status is pending, and is becoming more hopeful.

Asked why the UK Home Office is making it difficult for asylum seekers to settle in Britain, Sile Reynolds of Freedom from Torture said, "There is a culture of disbelief about asylum seekers' circumstances. It is largely reinforced prejudices and hostile narratives from certain media outlets and political figures, creating a negative tone about asylum seekers, that they simply want to receive benefits and take from the state. The Home Office is trying to appease this cultural narrative."

The Home Office is trying to make life so unbearable for asylum seekers, that they would choose to leave and not settle here

She argued that the Home Office is trying to make life so unbearable for asylum seekers, that they would choose to leave and not settle here.

Furthermore, it is trying to convey such a negative image of the asylum process that people will avoid coming to Britain.

"Ultimately change needs to happen at the highest levels [of the Home Office]. It must put humanitarian needs at the forefront of its policies, rather than appeasing this hostile political rhetoric against asylum seekers," Reynolds added.


Please click here to donate to Freedom from Torture's support for torture survivors.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

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