Context, Evidence and Attitude: The Case for Photography in Medical Examinations of Asylum Seekers in the Netherlands
Social science & medicine (1982) 2010 Jul; 71(2): 228-35
Can photographs of scars serve as evidence of torture? Amnesty International's Medical Examination Group in the Netherlands (AI-MEG) has, for more than a decade, been photographing torture scars to supplement the testimonies of asylum seekers who have been denied refuge. AI-MEG only intervenes at this point, when asylum seekers face extradition. Proving allegations of torture is of vital importance, as asylum seekers face rising anti-immigrant sentiment in European countries. All victims examined by AI-MEG present a combination of mental, physical and emotional scars. We summarize five cases where AI-MEG used photography in their medical examinations, and consider the ethical role physicians play in helping asylum seekers obtain refuge. Though photographs cannot capture all forms of trauma, as visual documents, they are a compelling form of concrete evidence of torture. In this way, photographs complement verbal testimonies and help doctors and immigration authorities to see and understand physical scars left by various forms of torture. AI-MEG explains in medical terms the connections between the visible late sequelae of torture and victims' testimonies. They then assess whether or not the physical scars are consistent with the forms of torture recounted by victims, using the terminology of the Istanbul Protocol (1999), the United Nations-adopted manual of guidelines that explains how to document torture. This paper outlines the medical examination process and argues for the use of photography as medical evidence on behalf of asylum seekers.
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