CHANNEL drownings and new restrictions on asylum are eroding torture survivors’ sense of safety in the UK, the head of a specialist treatment centre has told The National.

Fiona Crombie leads the only Scottish centre run by the UK-wide charity Freedom From Torture. Her team assesses the physical and psychological harms inflicted on individuals who have run from danger, providing expert reports for use in asylum applications and delivering therapy to help people rebuild their lives.

Demand outstrips resources and only one in three people who seek help can access it. Those who attend are accountants, dentists and HGV drivers; teenagers and parents. They come from countries including Kuwait, Angola, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and, in smaller numbers, South American nations. All have harrowing stories of danger, hardship, suffering and loss.

As well as this, clients are now reporting that the shocking drownings in the English Channel and hardening rhetoric from the UK Government are exacerbating their mental health problems, The National can reveal.

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New rules that can strip citizenship from individuals are baked into Priti Patel’s controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, which is now before the Lords and criminalises asylum seekers who make it to the UK outwith legal routes, crossing into the UK without having secured permission to do so. Christine O’Neill QC of Brodies says its provisions could undermine devolution and Scottish Government measures on trafficking and age verification.

Meanwhile, Patel has said the drownings of 27 people trying to reach England in November is proof of a “global illegal migration crisis” and the “underlying pull factors” that attract people to the UK.

Crombie says the developments are eroding the sense of security and safety for vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees now living in Scotland, triggering post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and creating setbacks in their recoveries.

Some of them are still paying off the debts to the people smugglers who they paid to get them to the UK. Others are struggling from the physical effects of the journeys they made, packed into flimsy boats or crammed underneath the floor of trucks.

One of Crombie’s clients has been in the UK for several years. She still owes the smugglers who brought her £3000. “These people know where she lives,” Crombie says. “This is Glasgow in 2021. People flee because they are at immediate risk. Safe and legal routes are not immediate.

“People smugglers are bad, but they are a necessary part for some people in getting to the UK. When you actually hear the life choices that this woman was faced with to make that journey, when you sit down and listen to what it’s like to be faced with a choice to take your children and put them into an inflatable boat and contemplate a journey across the Channel... It’s not free, there’s a huge cost. There’s a huge cost financially and there’s a huge cost psychologically.

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“I have a Sudanese client who has ear pain to do with water in her ear and an infection that wasn’t treated. She lives with this constant reminder of her trip across the Mediterranean.

“I’m all for safe and legal routes,” Crombie went on, “but if you have not got a choice you will do anything to preserve your life.”

Some of the clients Crombie’s team meets are able to articulate their problems and explain what’s happened to them. Others are “shut down” and can’t put it into words. “There are different anxieties,” Crombie says. “How we help them is the £50 million dollar question. That’s the challenge we are faced with with every client that we meet.

“They feel for their fellow countrymen and the situations they are faced with.”

The renewed tensions follow a catalogue of events linked to the asylum system – the 2020 Park Inn attack, in which Badreddin Abadlla Adam was shot dead after assaulting staff, police and fellow asylum seekers with a knife; the death of Syrian torture survivor Adnan Olbeh at MacLay’s Hotel, also used for asylum seekers; the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in an refrigerated lorry in Essex in 2019.

Incidents of this kind, Crombie says, have a destabilising impact on Freedom from Torture’s clients.

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The UK’s chaotic evacuation programme for selected Afghans is similar. Emergency flights took off from Kabul in August amidst widespread panic as the Taliban took over following the decision by western governments, including Britain, to withdraw their troops.

“There will be people that are hugely impacted by the events at the end of August and that will have completely destabilised their whole world and caused an emotional collapse, and they are able to articulate that,” Crombie says. “There will be others who have shut down and processed nothing and be able to articulate nothing except life is hell and they can’t go out because they might meet someone else from Afghanistan, be asked how they are and have nothing they can say in response because they are in mess.

“Our job is to try and turn some of that mess into something less disorganised.”

With a country like Afghanistan, there’s a clear enemy and a clear story, she says. The situation there is “well-known, well-documented and the general public understands and has much more compassion for that group”.

“Somebody from a different country and cultural setting where there’s not the same public focus, these situations in my mind are no less justified in terms of their right to claim asylum because of persecution and torture, but it’s much harder,” Crombie explains.

At times, she says, she feels like her team is “working blind”, having to use a range of skills to determine the root cause and extent of problems that aren’t readily apparent. This includes in dealing with younger teenagers. She tells the story of a 16-year-old boy who was homeless and had difficulty in working with the agencies who had tried to help him.

“He tried to walk to London,” Crombie says. “It was all impulsive 16-year-old behaviour. He came in to our office and fell asleep sitting upright on a chair. He just needed a mother and a father and a stable environment where he could be supported.”

You can donate to Freedom From Torture here.