Explore More »

The Victim’s Vicious Cycle: The Trauma of Torture and Seeking Asylum in Germany


*BANG*! *BANG*! *BANG*! Fist pounding on door. Short pause. Stillness… 

*BANG*! *BANG*! Glass breaks. Inside. 


no, five pairs of heavy footsteps running… looking…

heavy footsteps looking... running…

FIGURES casting shadows. Behind the door. 

Found. Blind-folded. Tortured.

-Wake up-

He realizes that this time, the torture was only a nightmare.

How did he get here?

“As soon as any refugee enters any state institution, for example a police office, and says the word ‘asylum,’ the application process begins…” Stefan Peim is sitting in a large room on the third floor, second yard of the House for Democracy and Human Rights (Haus der Demokratie und Menschenrechte) in Berlin. Torture victims that make their way to the consultation hour for political refugees provided by Amnesty International (AI) in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg are very seldom the ideal cases. “In theory, the ideal case is the torture victim that somehow managed to fall from the sky on German ground, brought credible proof that they were tortured for political reasons, and were directly referred to Amnesty International before the actual application process for asylum even started,” Peim states sardonically.

In practice, it is difficult to present proof of torture. An increasing number of states are aware of their image in the international arena, and consequently more and more victims have been tortured psychologically to avoid the visible evidence of physical torture. This means that the “typical case” of physical torture is rare, says Peim, and that proof of the atrocities can only be traced in people’s minds. Most of the victims arrive in Germany with nothing except the clothes they have on, and they don’t even know how they have been transported by human smugglers. In Germany, they are sent to the so-called “Erstaufnahmeeinrichtungen” (homes for refugees), and no later than two weeks after they request asylum, they receive a letter written in German inviting them to an interview at the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees. 

“That’s where the vicious cycle starts,” Peim says of the situation that traumatised refugees face. “The interview is the most important part of the whole asylum application process.” Refugees are expected to speak coherently at the interview about everything that could potentially be relevant for the asylum application. In reality, most torture victims do not talk at all, make contradictory statements, or do not even mention the very fact that they have been tortured. Although there is the possibility to postpone the interview in certain cases, most interviewees don’t even know about this option. Coming to the AI office means very often that their stories are heard for the first time in their German refugee lives, so some therefore just talk, talk, talk. This is the only way AI staff can gain their trust and prepare them for the detailed questions at the migration office. “What colour were the seats in the plane you came on, what did the uniforms of the stewardesses look like?” How would a traumatised person answer?


He’s in the supermarket around the corner—“the cheapest one,” someone told him right at the beginning. He already knows the cashiers. Sick of the cans, he thought about buying some fresh fruit today - the kind that reminded him of the market at home. But he hesitates. What if he were to be deported tomorrow? You never know, and then he would need the money. If he needed help, that money would be the only thing he could offer. Half an hour later some chewing gum is scanned at the cash register. He didn’t dare to leave without buying something—and who knows? He might be getting some fresh fruit tomorrow. He can feel how the cashiers whisper behind his back.  He has become a ridiculous part of their everyday work, a strange man that after looking for a while, doesn’t buy anything anyway.

“Please, come in... Pick a seat.” You enter the therapist’s office where you notice that there are two identical chairs around a small table. One chair is closer to an open window that provides a cool breeze; the other is directly opposite to it and faces the window, offering a pleasant view. Which one do you pick? “The torture victims are often unable to make decisions even that small when they come in for their visits,” says Dr. Sybille Rothkegel, a psychologist at the Center for Refugee Assistance and Migration Services. “They lack the self-confidence to show a preference.” Dr. Rothkegel uses this simple psychological technique as a means to call the patient’s attention to their own ability to make decisions. She says the ultimate goal of the therapy is to help patients who have been treated as passive objects by the state and by society, gain autonomy and begin to perceive themselves as active subjects. 

With this goal in mind, an important part of the psychotherapy is to avoid creating a situation in which the patients see the therapists as having power over them. Dr. Rothkegel says that she tries to ask her questions in such a way that it won’t remind the victims of the interrogation or other circumstances surrounding their torture. “Torture is the worst violation of a person’s boundaries and talking about it is very difficult for many patients. If you are too careful, you will support their avoidance of the issue; on the other hand, you don’t want to hurt them by going too far,” she says. The therapist’s sensitivity to this balance is the result of the fragile psychological state that the torture victims are in.  

Depending on the type of torture that they’ve experienced, victims can suffer from a range of physical and psychological ailments following such a traumatic event. The most common psychological disorders are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, pain, dissociation, sleep and cognitive disorders, and social withdrawal. Nightmares are one of the most common complaints of torture victims who seek psychotherapy. “The dreams are often about their own experiences of torture, or they are scenarios where the victims are being chased by authorities,” says Dr. Rothkegel, who tries to work with the victims on their dreams. At the BZFO (Behandlungszentrum für Folteropfer), due to the wide range of symptoms that torture victims experience, there is a correspondingly wide range of therapeutic methods that are available to the patients. These include psychotherapy, art therapy, music therapy, and physiotherapy/concentrative movement therapy, among others.

In addition to the effects of torture, the victims that come to Germany as asylum seekers also suffer from the sense of instability that comes with not having a secure legal residency status. Although the torture is the reason why victims seek help initially, with many patients the problems related to seeking asylum in Germany come up in therapy more often than the actual traumatizations. The effective treatment of victims of torture requires that the patient’s current stressors also be addressed in therapy; as Dr. Rothkegel puts it, “the most important therapeutic work is to stabilize them in Germany.”  



On the way back he just hides himself among the masses walking on the sidewalk. Germany is all grey today, but he’d consider himself lucky if this were the only thing that worried him. He can’t get rid of the feeling that someone is following him. He picks up the pace, calmly trying to count the steps without turning around, desperately tries to be an ordinary man walking down the streets. Then the fear rushes over him and he has to turn around, has to reassure himself that they are just ordinary people: the woman with the green shirt and big sunglasses, the neatly dressed man carrying a briefcase, the child on the bike. ‘All just ordinary people?’ He’s sure that someone is listening in on his conversations and that his phone has been tapped. Whom can he trust? 

Blindfolded, a female figure stands motionless in the same room everyday: Justitia. She holds in her hand a scale, the symbol for justice in the courtrooms where she resides, the same courts where cases of others who were once themselves blindfolded are presented. “Victims of torture with PTSD have a difficult time trusting people, particularly if they were blindfolded. They live with the fear that anyone they meet could have been their torturer,” says Antonia von der Behrens, an attorney who represents asylum seekers. One of the major challenges that she faces in representing torture victims is gaining their trust while also explaining to them their legal situation. “In order to represent their views in court and prepare them for the interview, the lawyer has to take the side of the state,” she says. This makes it difficult for the victims to trust her because they associate her with the state’s strict policies on asylum seekers. “For example, I have to ask about what will happen to them if they have to return to their home countries. This is the worst question for them because they begin to think that they really will be sent back.” When she first started working, von der Behrens simply avoided asking certain questions for this reason – which, she says, was to the disadvantage of her clients. 

Appearing in court before a judge or a caseworker in the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees can be especially stressful for victims of torture because when they recount the stories of their flight, their stories inevitably include the telling of the deeply traumatic event. For many victims, their psychological state can directly affect their ability to gain asylum in Germany. Ms. von der Behrens describes cases when the victims with PTSD were completely paralyzed with fear when asked to describe their experiences of torture. Many of them are unable to tell their stories and as a result, are denied asylum. Proof of the circumstances surrounding the torture, such as police detention documents or a therapist’s statement of the patient’s mental condition, can strengthen their cases. Additionally, “two major things that are important in asylum cases," says v.d. Behrens, “are coherence and details.” Both of these factors are a challenge for torture victims who suffer from PTSD or other psychological disorders and may compromise their chances of getting asylum. 

Being granted asylum in Germany is an essential part of gaining a sense of security for torture victims. Establishing legal residence provides them with the ability to seek employment. It also grants them better access to health care and education opportunities, as well as better housing options. These privileges can also be a particularly significant part of the healing process for torture victims, who suffer from the devastating physical and psychological effects of torture as well as having to face the struggles associated with being a refugee. 

Glass breaks. Inside.

The man with the briefcase is on his way to work, he thinks. Everyday, this man goes to work—everyday. He would love to work,  too, but it’s impossible.  The state regulations don’t allow him to. He didn’t expect the state authorities to welcome him warmly when he first came here, but he never thought that he would be humiliated. At the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees, he was bluntly told that only about one percent of the asylum seekers are finally granted asylum. He has no clue what the administrative processes are.  He feels like a ping-pong ball in the hands of the state, helplessly trying to find a way out of their game.

Actually, the state is not as far away as it seems to be: The Ministry of the Interior is located just three corners, five minutes, and two security checkpoints from the centre for torture victims. Franz Mengel, director of the department dealing with asylum law, and his assistant Annette Albrecht are already waiting to outline the governmental view of the problem. Openly smiling, he looks like someone who would enjoy guiding a tour through the highlights of the administrative and legal jungle: § 73 Abs. 1 S. 3 AsylVfG, Art. 16a Abs. 1 GG, § 51 Abs. 1 AuslG.

“Treating traumatised refugees within the legal framework of asylum law is a relatively new subject,” Mengel begins. According to an article he provides, the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become a “fashion-diagnosis.” In the article, a judge from an administrative court describes how PTSD can only appear after a longer period of time, but that many victims use it to excuse contradictions and lack of details in the interview at the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees.

The biggest challenge, according to Mengel, is to recognize traumatization as soon as possible, ideally at the beginning of the application process. “Let’s go through the process step-by-step,” Mengel proposes. “The ordinary asylum seeker has illegally immigrated to Germany, where he is required to leave unless he files an application for asylum. During this process the applicant is allowed to stay while the administration checks to see if the individual has followed the correct protocol for calling upon the right for asylum.” 

There are two ways in which torture can be considered relevant in terms of gaining legal residence. The first is if applicants were tortured for political reasons, in which case they are granted asylum under the Geneva Convention on Refugees, or if they can provide proof that they will be threatened with torture when they return to their home countries. The second is if there is a necessity for medical care. Torture victims suffering from PTSD can be seen as seriously ill and are granted legal residence if they lack the possibility of treatment in their home country. 

“Of course, the asylum seekers themselves have to make their situations believable to the caseworkers at the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees. Since there is often a lack of documentation on these issues, the statements applicants make during the interview are the most important,” says Mengel. Annette Albrecht adds that there have been special seminars aimed at preparing staff of the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees to deal with traumatized refugees and that individual caseworkers have been specially trained to recognize traumatization. Furthermore, an interview can be discontinued at the asylum seeker’s request, and women can request female interrogators. “Nevertheless, the applicant has the duty to actually talk about it, and it’s the applicant who has to demand that the interview be discontinued.”

There are no clear statistics outlining the actual number of refugees who have remained in Germany due to traumatization from torture.  Mengel estimates that in total, only about one to two percent of the applicants are granted the permission to stay because they are seriously ill. Why is this number so small? “It’s necessary to add that not all reports of PTSD as a result of torture are true. We have experienced processes in which this ‘diagnosis’ was suddenly reported after the fourth application had been rejected. In these cases, it’s clear that we have to be careful to double-check the statements.”

If there are any doubts, it is the responsibility of doctors to examine the refugees. This is an area of asylum policy where a lot of reforms are taking place. Mengel attributes this to the poor quality of past reports. “I myself have read reports that were written very superficially. That’s why better standards for the medical reports are being developed.”

Still, not everyone who has been diagnosed with PTSD is granted asylum, Mengel emphasizes. It is quite common that despite this diagnosis the home country of a refugee is regarded as being able to provide appropriate treatment. After all, he says, “if PTSD symptoms remain with you the rest of your life and you can’t be cured, is there really a reason for people staying here in Germany, or can they also live in the country they came from?”

heavy footsteps Blind-folded.

He finally reaches his room and tries to read an old German magazine he found on the street. He cannot concentrate, and tries to convince himself that maybe it is better not to be able to speak their language, after all. But he knows they won’t be able to get anything out of him without an interpreter. He knows that not being able to speak the language makes him feel even more helpless, but he is just too weak to start learning now. 

Unemployment, restricted access to education, the language barrier, lack of housing options, and the hostility of authorities towards refugees are the “symptoms” of the immigrant status that can make the psychological symptoms of trauma from torture even more difficult to treat. The therapy garden at the Center for Victims of Torture in Berlin is intended as a form of treatment for both sets of symptoms. Frank Merkord, a clinical social worker at the center and one of the coordinators of the program, says that this program is a way for patients to heal as individuals through the development of a supportive community. The program is based on three founding principles: horticultural therapy, social therapy, and integration. The theory behind the horticultural therapy is that it develops an individual’s ability to nurture plant growth, through which the torture victims may be able to recognize the potential for their own development. The social therapy comes with the cooperation of individuals in the creation and maintenance of the garden. The intention is to create a sense of solidarity within the community of caretakers as they regain their ability to trust others. The third aspect of the project is integration, which is developed through their sense of ownership and pride in the garden as well as their interaction with others in the community.

He stays in his room. Too tired to think and too afraid to sleep... Wake up!

Does it help to write about torture victims? “Writing is always instrumentalizing,” says Christian Bommarius, a leading journalist from the Berliner Zeitung. Still, whether this is positive or negative depends on the reasons for the victims’ being instrumentalized: Are they used as icons in scandals, or are they depicted as individuals?  “Even though they wouldn’t want to hear it, I’m sure the Berlin Centre for Torture Victims came into existence only because of the empathy people felt from the media reports on torture.” According to Bommarius, this is the very reason why it is necessary to show the pictures about torture, to make the victims visible to the general public. Bommarius, who never dreamed that the current general debate about the absolute prohibition of torture could take place in Germany again, figures that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about why torture is prohibited. “It’s not because torture hurts, or because a state that tortures doesn’t make a particularly good impression on the rest of the world. It’s that, like Jan Phillip Reemtsma recently said, by looking at torture victims, we begin to recognize ourselves.”





Christian Bommarius, chief editor, Berliner Zeitung, June 24, 2004

Stefan Peim, amnesty international, June 24, 2004

Antonia von der Behrens, AnwältInnen Büro, June 29, 2004

Frank Mengel, Ministerialrat, Head of Referat M 3, and Annette Albrecht, Sachbearbeiterin, Bundesministerium des Innern, June 29, 2004

Frank Merkort, Behandlungszentrum für Folteropfer Berlin, June 30, 2004

Sybille Rothkegel, Zentrum für Flüchtlingshilfe und Migrationsdienste, June 30, 2004


Graessner, Sepp / Gurris, Norbert / Pross, Christian (eds): Folter, Munich: C.H. Beck, 1996.

IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) Arbeitskreis Flüchtlinge / Asyl: Ärzte und Abschiebung: IPPNW, 2003.

Middeke, Andreas: Posttraumatisierte Flüchtlinge im Asyl- und Abschiebungsprozess, in: DVBl (Deutsches Verwaltungsblatt, Carl Heymanns Verlag), February 1, 2004, pp. 150-159.

Thomma, Norbert: Gelöschte Leben, in: Der Tagesspiegel, June 26, 2004.

Internet Sources

Bundesamt für die Anerkennung ausländischer Flüchtlinge (Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees): www.bafl.de

Bundesministerium des Innern (Federal Ministry of the Interior): www.bmi.bund.de


Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2004


Related Media

Browse all content