Trading torture for poverty

As the Freedom from Torture charity publishes its report on the poverty of torture survivors, its clients have published photographs documenting their living conditions.

For a victim of torture, escaping the torment and fleeing to Britain should promise an end to misery. However, as the charity Freedom from Torture asserts in a report published today, on arrival in Britain survivors often face the dehumanising and oppressive effects of another evil: poverty. While still living with the physical and psychological trauma in cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, torture survivors are forced to live in squalid conditions.

These photographs, which accompany the report, were taken by the survivors themselves.

Many torture survivors fail to obtain social housing, meaning they live in public shelters, often sleeping in rooms with large groups of other people. A male survivor said: “I sleep with many people, who have many difficulties and this is where I have to sleep”. Freedom from Torture's clients often roam the streets aimlessly during the day, waiting for public shelters to open, which, in the winter particularly, is an arduous and dangerous experience. In addition, the lack of privacy can make dealing with the demons of their torture especially complicated.

A coat covers a broken bedroom window. The tenants’ housing manager promised to repair it, but it remains broken after several months. Insecure accommodation is rife. Often living in areas with high crimes rates, torture survivors are often at the mercy of their surroundings. One commented, “I don't go out but I hear fighting at night and I know other asylum seekers who have been attacked and brutally beaten.”

Due to often having little or no income, many torture survivors possess insufficient funds to pay for travel to essential appointments concerning their asylum claim and their mental and physical health. This has negative effects on their likelihood of success. Responding to this photo, one asylum seeker said: “This could be my seat but because I don’t have money I cannot take the train.” Another commented: “In order to save money for my appointments I was forced to feed from market leftover or unwanted goods.”

Short of change: Hunger is a grave and widespread problem negatively affecting many torture survivors' mental and physical health, mood, cognition and concentration. Prolonged periods of hunger often cause severe health problems; a survivor remembered a time he fell ill at the charity, “The doctor says I have to eat a lot of protein but I cannot afford to so I'm always weak. I faint. One time I fainted at Freedom from Torture. An ambulance came. I have dizziness.”

The open draw contains some medicine, a towel, a toothbrush, some documents and a tube of toothpaste. This is everything the photographer owns.

Lack of funds means this torture survivor cannot make his house a home. He is forced to cut the grass with scissors, as his landlord has refused to help him.

A young girl describes the discomfort of her bedroom: “This is the place I sleep - I sleep next to damp on the wall which is wet and smells”.

A torture survivor named his piece of pavement “Poverty place”.

“My bedroom - this is what it looks like and still looks like as I have no money to fix it.” A survivor describes his uncomfortable living conditions.

Filthy living conditions pose health risks and severly impact quality of life.

A lone flannel hangs on a damp and mouldy bathroom wall in torture survivor accommodation.

Freedom from Torture’s report “The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Survivors of Torture in the UK” was published on Wednesday 17 July.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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