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Making scars talk

By Sven Schellekens | Issue 23

Jan Canty on Unsplash.

The Dutch immigration services do not always believe asylum seekers when they claim asylum on grounds of being victims of violence and torture. Claiming asylum in the Netherlands is a right by humanitarian law. But what happens when a select group of humanitarian medical experts is suspicious of a victim of torture being a “real” asylum seeker?

When an asylum seeker applies for asylum to the Dutch immigration services, their application is often met with suspicion. Immigration officers rigorously question asylum seekers on the reason for their asylum claim and interview them on their personal and family history. After an initial hearing, the immigration officer drafts a report. This report serves as a point of believability during a future hearing; everything the asylum seeker said during the initial hearing, will be cross-checked and validated during a second hearing.

Many asylum seekers claim asylum because they are victims of violence and torture. However, immigration officers in the Netherlands are instructed not to ask questions about this, or about the scars that asylum seekers carry as a result of the violence they have suffered. In case an asylum claim is rejected by the Dutch immigration services, their supporting lawyer can start a procedure to investigate forensically the scars asylum seekers carry on their bodies.

History of the humanitarian organisation

There is a humanitarian organisation in the Netherlands that conducts forensic investigations on the body of asylum seekers. The files of asylum seekers can be either accepted or rejected, depending on whether they stand a chance of successfully applying for a residence permit. Only the cases warranted of making a case before the judge are processed, as the organisation financially disburses the costs until the asylum request is accepted. The Dutch immigration services then have to pay the sum of costs for the entire forensic investigation and juridical procedure.

Forensic investigation on the bodies of asylum seekers has a long history in the Netherlands. In the early 1990s, a group of physicians who volunteered for Amnesty International started to intervene in the asylum procedure. According to them, Dutch immigration services wrongfully rejected claims to asylum by people who had clearly been the victims of violence and torture. Over the course of several years, more and more psychologists–who had heard of these interventions from colleagues–decided to volunteer for Amnesty International as well. They started to refine the forensic investigation of the body by incorporating psychological tests, through which they could conclude whether the asylum seeker suffered from PTSD or trauma. It was during the late 2000s that, under psychologists’ lead initiative, all medical experts volunteering for Amnesty International agreed that they should split off and continue their efforts in the context of a more professionalised organisation than what was possible under the umbrella of Amnesty International. In 2012, the humanitarian organisation was established.

How does the forensic investigation occur in practice?

A forensic investigation of the body consists of three distinct stages. Once the asylum seeker’s file is received, the first stage of the process consists of a psychological interview. This interview is conducted by either a psychologist or a psychiatrist working for the humanitarian organisation. The asylum seeker tells their story and completes a number of psychological tests to determine whether they are traumatised. They are also asked to talk about the scars on their body, and whether they were a result of violence or torture (and not, for instance, the result of an accident unrelated to their asylum claim). During the next stage of the process, a physician working for the humanitarian organisation takes over and documents the scars. Sometimes, they photograph a scar to gather evidence of torture. Forensics examines wounds and relates the type of wound to an object or weapon with which it has been inflicted. For instance, a cut from a blade should result in a wound in the shape of a sharp line on the skin. When such a wound heals and forms a scar, the edges of the scar should be sharply lined as well. Burns tend to leave scars that are grainy. The physician and psychologist together document all scars and categorise them based on the United Nations Istanbul Protocol (IP).

The IP distinguishes a range of five levels of likelihood that a scar is the result of what a victim of torture talks about during their interview. The higher the level, the more likely it is that a scar is the result of what a victim of torture says has happened. For instance, if an asylum seeker says they have been tortured with cigarettes during captivity, the scars on their body should display, first, a grainy structure which corresponds to burn wounds, and second, be in the form of an almost perfect circular shape. After all, when chained or tied the victim cannot pull away the arm while the cigarette is burning away the skin; an unchained person would pull away their arm which leads to a scar that has an oval shape and has damaged the skin tissue only superficially. During the final stage of the process, the psychologist and physician discuss their findings and write a joint forensic-medical report. They document the asylum seeker’s history, report any use of medication, and–most importantly–link up the narrative with the psychological and physical scars. In about 70 to 80 % of forensic investigations, the asylum seeker in question is granted asylum eventually.

Conclusion: What are the consequences?

Reasonably, someone would think that this is a good practice. After all, asylum seekers are supported by clinical experts to claim asylum. However, what is actually happening is that asylum seekers go through an asylum procedure that treats them as suspicious persons in the first place. The Dutch immigration services do not trust them. Furthermore, they have to prove to clinical experts that they were indeed violently tortured. Asylum seekers are exposed to potential trauma once more as they retell their story.

In its current state, the Dutch asylum procedure treats asylum seekers as suspicious subjects. Forensic examination of their bodies removes their right to advocate for themselves. Their words evaporate and the scars they carry signal that they are “real” refugees. The ancient Greeks distinguished between two forms of life. There was animal life, referred to as zōe, and there was political life, referred to as bios. Only the people whose lives were referred to with bios were considered full citizens. However, all human life should be political in contemporary society (see Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1998). In the Dutch asylum procedure, asylum seekers are stripped from their political rights; the bodies of asylum seekers are dismissed from the political and condemned to the biological. Thus, what is actually happening is that the political rights of human beings are being stripped away from them during the asylum claiming process. Asylum seekers have to “prove” that they are indeed “real” victims of violence and torture, their word alone is not enough. This results in a degenerative asylum procedure in which people’s testimonies are considered unreliable and are instead met with suspicion.

Sven Schellekens holds an MSc in Political Science and an MSc (research) in Social Sciences (cum laude) from the University of Amsterdam. His research centres on the anthropology of migration and its relations with (post)colonialism and bureaucracy. He conducted four months of ethnographic fieldwork with the Dutch immigration services and a medical-humanitarian NGO, resulting in his thesis Making scars talk: Anthropology of a medicalising asylum procedure. During this period, he interviewed immigration officers as well as clinical experts on forensic examination of the bodies of asylum seekers. Sven is currently a Junior Lecturer at the BSc in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam.


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