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    Torture and the UK’s “war on asylum”: medical power and the culture of disbelief

    Bhatia, Monish and Burnett, J. (2019) Torture and the UK’s “war on asylum”: medical power and the culture of disbelief. In: Perocco, F. (ed.) Tortura e migrazioni (Torture and migration). Sapere l’Europa, sapere d’Europa. Venice, Italy: Edizioni Ca' Foscari, pp. 161-180. ISBN 9788869693595.

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    When the now ‘iconic’ images of shackled, humiliated and dehumanised detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison complex in Iraq were broadcast globally, in the mid-2000s, the relationship between medical power and torture in the “war on terror” was also thrust sharply into focus. Graphic images of coalition troops photographing and posing in front of hooded, naked prisoners forced into a “human pyramid”, and of people made to wear animal collars, indicated a regime in which degradation had a defining role. The photograph of a soldier gloating over the corpse of a man who had died as a result of torture was just one picture of a network of interrogation camps in which detention by coalition forces could be fatal. Yet if there were any expectations that the presence of medical personnel may have checked this violence, these were shattered by the fact that clinicians – in some cases at least – were integral to its practice. «It is now beyond doubt that Armed Forces physicians, psychologists, and medics were active and passive partners in the systematic neglect and abuse of war on terror prisoners», wrote Steven Miles in 2009 (Miles 2009, X). And as he continued, this involved providing interrogators «with medical information to use in setting the nature and degree of physical and psychological abuse during interrogations». It involved monitoring «interrogations to devise ways to break prisoners down or to keep them alive». It involved pathologists holding back death certificates and autopsy reports in order to minimise the number of fatalities or cover up torture-related deaths as deaths by natural causes (Ibid). Procedures including «cramped confinement, dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding» were among the practices that were «at times (…) legally sanctioned due to medical supervision» in the context of the “war on terror”, according to Hoffman (2011, 1535). He continued to suggest that doctors are not just important to «modern torture methods», they are «irreplaceable». In this context, the “war on terror” is no aberration. As the revolutionary psychoanalyst and philosopher Frantz Fanon documented in 1959, for example, certain medical practitioners had an integral role in the military occupation of Algeria, and «There are, for instance, psychiatrists … known to numerous prisoners», he suggested, «who have given electric shock treatments to the accused and have questioned them during the waking phase, which is characterized by a certain confusion, a relaxation of resistance, a disappearance of the person's defences.» (Fanon 1959/1965, 138). Indeed, in his analysis of the Algerian revolution, he discussed how resistance to and struggles over the meanings of medical power were integral to the revolution itself. However, while the role of medical power in the practice of torture has been subjected to sustained critique in the context of the “war on terror”, what follows examines the relationship between medical power and torture in the context of what has been depicted – metaphorically – as another (although to some extents related) “war”: the “war” on asylum. According to the UNHCR (2017, 3), between 5 and 35 per cent of those asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status have survived torture. And focusing on the UK as a case study, this chapter examines the institutional and legal structures prohibiting torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, particularly as they apply to those subject to immigration control in this context. But further, it also examines the ideological and political conditions within which claims by those seeking asylum that they have been subjected to torture prior to arrival can be (and have been) ignored, downplayed and denied. It examines how medical expertise has frequently been undermined in the asylum process when this expertise is utilised to add weight to asylum seekers’ claims to have experienced torture. It examines how there have been attempts to narrow the definition of torture in ways which exclude people from the protections to which torture survivors are entitled. But it also explores the ways in which segments of the medical profession have been complicit in riding roughshod over existing safeguards to prevent further harm to those who have experienced torture, thus potentially compounding its effects. In particular, it examines claims that in certain contexts clinicians have administered dangerous “care” in order to ensure the removal of people from the UK, despite them claiming that they – or their family members – face serious harm and persecution on arrival as a result of this. In a historical discussion of medical involvement in torture, Giovanni Maio (2001, 1609) has noted that from its earliest incarnations one of the features of torture has been its use as an «oppressive instrument used in the preservation of power». Furthermore, whilst methods of torture have certainly «developed», and continue to do so, he argues, this «function» of torture is «especially relevant today». This chapter argues that the (mis)treatment of those in the UK who say they have been tortured, preserves and is bound up with a particular manifestation of state power: the aims, rationale and dictates of immigration control. Its claims are perhaps much more mundane than the forms of direct medical complicity in torture alluded to above. But they are nonetheless important. For it is argued that the acts of omission and commission documented in this chapter expose the tensions between the rights of certain “categories” of migrants to be afforded adequate clinical care on the one hand, and the goals and aims of immigration control itself on the other. This poses profound questions about the functions of clinical care and the ethical duties, responsibilities and obligations of clinicians, it is suggested. But as this chapter also crucially explores, this is a form of power that many within the medical profession have historically challenged, and continue to do so.


    Item Type: Book Section
    Additional Information: Series ISSN: 2611-0040
    School: School of Law > Criminology
    Depositing User: Monish Bhatia
    Date Deposited: 24 Jul 2020 10:57
    Last Modified: 10 Feb 2022 14:52


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