“Will I be sent to an internment camp?” “Will the police take my family and me to jail?” These are the kinds of questions the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) are hearing from survivors of torture in our clinics in the U.S. since the presidential election.
For someone who has survived torture, the political rhetoric we are hearing stirs profound fears. Rehabilitation after torture is grueling enough, but in this post-election climate, clients are largely grappling with fears of the unknown, which is crowding into the time essential for healing.
When survivors of the most heinous acts imaginable are more consumed by how the next president will affect their lives than their own healing, we are headed in the wrong direction as a country.
These recent days have been filled with speculation about how the next administration will operate, but a message being repeated over and over is that refugees will be unwelcome. Reports of targeting and hate crimes are adding fuel to the fire. And CVT clients are hearing this message loud and clear.
Nearly every session with our U.S.-based clinicians, at our centers both in St. Paul and Atlanta, begins with clients expressing extreme fear and uncertainty. Some clients refused to leave their homes for days following the election, terrified that they would be grabbed off of the street and sent back to their home countries, which is to say, sent back to their torturers.
Survivors tell us they don’t know what to do if they are confronted or attacked by members of the public. And perfectly understandable fears of persons in uniform, which can trigger memories of officials who brutalized them in their home countries, make it very difficult for clients to reach out to police officers for help.
It is laudable that the St. Paul Police Community Engagement Unit recently released videos in four languages, reassuring refugees and immigrants that the police are on their side and emphasizing that officers are not immigration officials.
We have a duty of care to our clients, and we want to allay their fears. But we do not have the answers when we cannot predict how the next administration will proceed. So much has been said about revoking the rights of refugees, we can only work from what we and the rest of the world have been told: that there will be a swift effort to send some refugees packing; that Muslims will be forced to submit to some kind of “registry”; and that the president-elect will not rule out the possibility that torture in the form of waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse” could be reinstated under a Trump administration.
We have clients who were waterboarded. Let me assure you: It is torture.
CVT clients have lived the endpoint of this journey; they have found healing and safety in the U.S. Now, we as Americans must fight to ensure that America remains a safe haven for all refugees, an estimated 44 percent of whom in this country are torture victims. This is not the time to close our eyes to what’s happening to our refugee neighbors, nor to close our doors to those seeking safety. This election muddied the truth about how refugees enter this country, with the president-elect’s calls for “extreme vetting” ignoring the facts.
Currently, the process for a refugee to be resettled to the United States is extremely rigorous. You could even say it is already extreme.
And we must be vigilant to ensure that the U.S. never returns to the use of torture. Earlier this year, more than 100 senior leaders in foreign policy, national security, military and faith sectors joined us in our “Call to Reject Torture,” and thousands of Americans have added their names to this declaration.
As a new administration prepares to take office, it is absolutely crucial that respect for human rights, basic decency and the rule of law not be casualties of change. That would make our country immeasurably weaker.
Curt Goering is executive director, the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul.