Working for Freedom From Torture

This week, our lovely JIC Erasmus Deputy, Dr Julia Webster, has kindly given us an account of her work with Freedom From Torture (FFT). For those of you who are new to them, they were formed in 1985 to help survivors of torture, usually asylum seekers, and advocates for human rights at home (such as campaigning for closure of detention centres) and abroad by holding states accountable.

Thanks Julia – it’s really inspiring work that you do!

Working for Freedom from Torture

How I got involved

I had spent some time volunteering abroad in the past but made the decision to return to the UK. I felt limited by always being an outsider. I have complex feelings about aid in general and, although perhaps less exciting-sounding, I realised that there is unmet need at home. I also missed my family and friends. I was hoping to continue my interest in Global Health, while having the UK as my base, and was also looking for a way to continue voluntary work.

A friend of mine, William MacAskill, is a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford, and he wrote a book about effective altruism called “Doing Good Better”. For those of you who like something thought-provoking, I would recommend it.  The book makes the argument that although perhaps the most obvious way to make a difference is to be a doctor, it may not be the best career to make the most difference. It suggests two options – make as much money as possible, and give away as much as you can to an effective charity, or find a way to use your skills uniquely. As an already qualified doctor and a GP with an interest in global health, I am never going to be a multimillionaire so I was left with the second option! With this in mind, I not only wanted to continue voluntary work but also find something that utilised my skills uniquely.

I entered GP training in 2015, the time of the European refugee crisis. My training practice was in an affluent area where I spent a lot of time looking after the worried well. I could not leave training and work at a refugee camp and I felt powerless. I wanted to do something to help. Volunteering with Freedom From Torture (FFT) seemed a good way to do something practical for refugees, to resist the hostile immigration environment created by our current government and to further develop my global health skills with respect to migrant health.

What I do

Freedom From Torture is a charity providing therapy and medical evidence to torture survivors living in the UK. They also aim to protect and promote torture survivors’ rights. Depending on the location, they provide counseling, group therapy and ongoing support. They run groups like football, gardening, music, creative writing and cookery. The part that I am involved with provide expert medical assessments to support survivors’ asylum claims. For more info see https://www.freedomfromtorture.org.

The medico-legal department of FFT write medico-legal reports for people who have had their asylum application rejected and have either physical or psychological evidence of having been tortured. I am a volunteer medico-legal report writer and the reports we write form part of their appeal.

In the process of writing each report, I have the opportunity to spend up to six hours with each refugee. Through the skills of amazing interpreters, I have the privilege to hear their story. It can be very challenging when we need to ask details regarding the specifics of their detention and torture but it also feels very powerful to enable their voice to be heard.

The refugees I meet are mostly from North Africa and the Middle East. Each report requires me to learn a little of the refugee’s home country history which I really enjoy. My understanding of the UK immigration system is ever increasing which helps me to provide better care for migrants I look after as a GP and to more effectively lobby for migrant health rights. I regularly email my MP about my ongoing concerns, particularly recently with the initiation of up front charging and the sharing of data between NHS Digital and the Home Office, further increasing the barriers to health.

The first question people always ask me when I tell them I do this work, and you may even be thinking it right now, is “are they making it up?” I can honestly say I have never doubted the honesty of the refugees I have worked with. The second question is “do you find it hard to empathise with the worried well on a normal GP day after hearing from the refugees?”. Surprisingly I don’t – human suffering can take many forms – but I do find it helps to give me perspective during those crazy busy days that we all know too well.

Why do I do it?

Why do I do it – because I want to make a difference. Whatever we wrote in our personal statements all those years ago – this is why most of us applied to be doctors and why we continue to come to work every day. FFT enables me to make a difference to a handful of individuals, but the organisation has a wider role. The information written in our reports is collated to provide up-to-date evidence of the political situation within a specific country. A country report detailing ongoing torture somewhere the Home Office now deem to be at peace can change how asylum applications from that country are processed. I find that aspect of the work, when I have spent over thirty hours on one report, very motivating.

I love volunteering with FFT. I have learned a lot about the physical and psychological consequences of torture, particularly PTSD. I have met so many interesting people, both colleagues and clients. The focus on wellbeing and mentoring within the organisation is inspiring. And most importantly for me I feel it is worthwhile work, and incredibly satisfying when you hear a refugee you have seen has been granted leave to remain. It gives me hope that they may be able to rebuild their life in a place of safety after all the suffering they have experienced.

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