World Refugee Day: Finnish Experts Caring For Torture Victims

As the number of refugees fleeing war or persecution grows, health care professionals say they wish they could do more to help those in need who come to make a new life in Finland.

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File picture of Syrian refugees at a camp in Hatay, southern Turkey, October 2012 / Credit: News Now Finland

In the past few years tens of thousands of migrants have arrived in Finland.

The majority were asylum seekers who fled conflicts in the Middle East; while others were quota refugees, brought here through official United Nations or NGO programmes to start a new life in Finland.

For some, arriving in a safe country like Finland is just the start of the healing process.

At Helsinki’s Deaconess Institute, specialist teams care for the mental health and physical well-being of refugees – adults and children – who have been most seriously impacted by conflict and torture.

“Last year we had 188 patients, plus their families. So maybe 220 people in total” explains Jaana Pajunen, the Unit Director at Helsinki Deaconess psychotrauma centre.

The patients come from 24 different countries including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan as well as African states like D.R. Congo.

“There are three main areas where they have suffered traumas. Things that have happened in their home countries like war or explosions, or losing their families. The second area is what happens to them on the trip to Finland, if you think about boat journeys or living in camps. And the third area is when they get to Finland, and everything they have to go through to learn here, and how they are treated” Pajunen explains.

File picture of Syrian refugees at a camp in Hatay, southern Turkey, October 2012 / Credit: News Now Finland

Treating Torture Victims

Some of the most troubling patients that the Deaconess teams see are refugees who have been tortured in their home countries.

The healthcare professionals find the experiences broadly similar for refugees even from different parts of the world who have been kept in prison, often without trial or any legal process at all.

“Mostly it’s beatings and being left without food and water. Or using electricity. And most of them, men and women, they have been raped several times and have broken bones. Often their nervous system is totally messed up and doesn’t work the way it should” says Mari Tikkanen, Project Manager at Deaconess.

As well as providing mental health care with psychiatrists and psychologists, the staff at Deaconess also have to take care of any physical problems associated with torture victims.

“A lot of them have been in handcuffs and hanging from the ceiling, and it does great damage to shoulders, neck and back. And that’s why physiotherapy is a very important part of the treatment” says Tikkanen.

“It’s easy to understand why many people never recover. And it’s impossible to expect that they would” she adds.

Educating Professionals

Deaconess is the largest centre in Finland caring for immigrants with traumatic mental health issues, with 21 staff.

There are smaller centres in Tampere and Oulu, but nothing available in other parts of the country, which is why part of the Deaconess’ mandate is to educate social services, health care workers and even teachers.

“In Finland we have a lot of small cities and communities who have never seen people from Congo or Syria so they are totally wondering what to do, and they don’t really understand the problems that we have here” says Mari Tikkanen.

But with limited funding from the EU and from Finland’s lottery, there’s only so much extra work the Deaconess staff can do.

“We travel around the country and we try to do as much as we can to give the information to local professionals, about trauma, how to recognise the symptoms and how to work with these refugees who have terrible backgrounds” says Tikkanen.

File picture of Syrian refugees at a camp in Hatay, southern Turkey, October 2012 / Credit: News Now Finland

Finland’s Asylum Process Reviewed

In 2015 there were more than 32,000 migrants who arrived in Finland to claim asylum.

They were processed by a system not designed for such an influx and it put strains on civil servants, social and healthcare workers and local authority budgets alike.

A new report commissioned by the Immigration Service Migri finds that there is room for improvement in the asylum process system, but no systematic faults.

The new report looks at areas such as language interpreters, the quality of decisions and how Finland’s system stacks up against Sweden.

One particular aspect of contention is why Finland sends many failed asylum seekers back to Iraq, a country which activists say is not safe, and where returnees may face ongoing problems or death threats.

The report concludes that large parts of southern Iraq are mostly safe, and that the capital city Baghdad might have some dangerous spots, but if someone feels they are at risk, they can safely go to a different part of Baghdad for refuge.

“When it comes to those over 40,000 applications submitted over the past three years, there seems to be no systematic errors which would result in decisions that do not comply with the criteria for international protection laid down in the law” says Interior Minister Kai Mykkänen (NCP) in the report.

Growing International Problem

According to the United Nations, some 68.5 million people had to flee their homes last year facing violence and persecution.

This was the fifth year in a row where the numbers grew, with the worst hit areas in D.R. Congo, South Sudan and the border area between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Many will never return to their homes, because of the fear of persecution.

“I think the important thing is to find the meaning of life again. It’s not easy to lose their health, their whole life, and some of them have lost all their family members, their property and their professions” says Mari Tikkanen.

“When they come to Finland they don’t have their physical or mental health. They don’t have their loved ones here. And they have to try and make a new life. It’s really tough, and it takes years to recover, if they recover at all”.

File picture of Syrian refugees at a camp in Hatay, southern Turkey, October 2012 / Credit: News Now Finland