'I Do Not Exist As A Human Being'


Médecins Sans Frontières psychologist, Àngels Mairal, arrived in Yemen in March. A few weeks after her arrival, the Yemeni authorities started releasing migrants who had been detained on illegal farms, some of them victims of torture, slavery and human trafficking.

When I arrived in Yemen, I started working with my colleagues helping migrants in the north of the country, close to the border with Saudi Arabia.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) runs a camp there sheltering migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, who want to be repatriated. These are people who need special protection such as women, children, elderly people and sick people.

Additionally, there are hundreds of migrants in the town waiting to make yet another attempt to enter Saudi Arabia or to return home.

Médecins Sans Frontières runs two clinics outside the camp where we provide mental health support to those in need.

Yemen is located along one of the main migration routes in Africa. Most people leave the Horn of Africa in search of a better life in the Gulf countries.

On the way, many fall prey to smugglers. Those who are lucky enough to have been released told us they were victims of torture.

Traffickers resort to extortion to get money from the migrants’ families. Many were subjected to or witnessed extreme violence, including the murder of other migrants.

They showed signs of torture and verbal, physical and sexual abuse from their captors. Some of them have had their nails pulled off or their tongue partially cut off, others have been severely beaten.

We see symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) — flashbacks, recurrent thoughts, insomnia, isolation, and deep sorrow. We also see psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, tachycardia and difficulty breathing. Many people also find it difficult to concentrate or to follow a conversation.

We also see something that even goes beyond these symptoms. Many of them say to us “I have no rights” and “I do not exist as a human being”. Their wounds to their dignity are deep.

They tell us they do not feel safe and their most basic needs are not being met. They feel uncertain; they don’t know when they will be able to go back home, what their life will be like when they go back or how they will even be able to return.

Life for sexual violence survivors is especially difficult. Women who’ve already endured the trauma of having been humiliated or raped must also contend with unwanted pregnancies, shame, stigma and possibly rejection by their families when they return home.

We have also seen some people suffering from psychotic disorders or severe depression.

We aim to return these people to a feeling of control, as much as possible, over their environment, and also over their own body and emotions.

We try to rebuild their sense of dignity, their capacity for building reliable relationships. As soon as they feel confident, they can start talking about the experiences they endured and start the grieving process for their loss of time, money, health, friends and hope for the future.

But these interventions are very short and many involve just one or two sessions. When they are to be repatriated is uncertain.

Still, we try to alleviate the most acute suffering and provide the resources to help them cope. At least for now, they are given the space to freely voice their suffering without fear of being judged.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.