Monday, 22 June 2009

FWC's URVT featured in the Cypriot media: Lack of funding hampers work for torture victims

This article originally appeared in the Cyprus Sunday Mail on Sunday, June 21, 2009.

Lack of funding hampers work for torture victims
By Simon Bahceli

FRIDAY will mark the 22nd anniversary of the coming into effect of the United Nations’ Convention against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The agreement, signed by all member states in the UN, was an unprecedented attempt to address the issue of torture on a global scale, and the anniversary of its signing will be met with events and celebrations around the world. This year, there will however be no events to mark the day in Cyprus.

“This year we do not have the sufficient funding to hold celebrations,” says Corina Drousiotou, a legal advisor at the Unit for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture (URVT) in Nicosia. The lack of funding, Drousiotou says, is primarily a result of the government’s failure to place its application with the EU’s European Refugee Fund (ERF) on time.

“Cyprus lost this year’s budget, so we have been operating on a shoestring,” she says. Drousiotou adds however that the URVT, an NGO set up to help immigrants who have suffered torture in their home countries, managed to secure emergency funding from UN that will allow it to continue operating this year.

Despite the lack of funding, 75 per cent of which is meant to come from the ERF, Drousiotou and her colleagues at the URVT have nevertheless managed to provide vital services for around 120 torture victims that have come to their attention since the body was set up in 2006. The victims come from a surprisingly wide range of countries, but perhaps unsurprisingly the largest groupings are made up of Turkish and Syrian Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians.

The URTV’s mission is to help these victims overcome the physical and mental wounds of torture and to rehabilitate them for life and work in Cyprus. This they do through the provision of psychological counselling, medical support, legal advice and social support, which includes helping victims to access welfare and work.

Apo (not his real name) was one of the first torture victims to be assigned to the URTV more than two years ago. Captured as a Kurdish activist, Apo was branded a terrorist by a Turkish court and served eight and-a-half years in prisons across Turkey. Apo alleges he was physically and psychologically tortured before his sentencing by police seeking a confession and the identities of his compatriots. These allegations have been confirmed and corroborated by the URTV and other human rights bodies in Cyprus and Turkey.

Since gaining help from the URTV, Apo has been making steady progress and now speaks fluent Greek and works as a technician in the capital.

“I’m more relaxed now,” he says but adds: “I haven’t totally gotten over what happened to me, but at least I can think about the future now and not only the past.” Despite his apparent recovery, Apo still pays weekly visits to a psychotherapist assigned to him by the URVT.

Drousiotou says rehabilitation is of vital importance to torture victims who are often plagued with depression, low self esteem and even thoughts of suicide. One of the best things one can do for a victim, she adds, is to find them employment.

“Status is very important, and work gives them higher self esteem,” she says.

The URTV’s funding problems are perhaps indicative of Cyprus’ slowness in coming to terms with the problem of mass migration. The country is also yet to set up a screening mechanism to establish if immigrants applying for asylum suffered torture in the native lands.

“It can take two to three years until the asylum service pick up on the fact that an applicant has been tortured, and that means we lose two to three years of therapy,” Drousoitou says.

Copyright © Cyprus Mail 2009

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