Red Crescent comes to aid of Kurdish refugees in Britain

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The Independent Online
THE Red Crescent has set up a base in Britain to help refugees get access to health-care services it says they are being denied by the NHS.

It is estimated that half of the 120,000 refugees of all nationalities in Britain have psychiatric problems. The total refugee population includes some 40,000 Kurds, many of whom have suffered beatings, electric shocks or bereavements, or have seen their villages destroyed and their families scattered.

But a growing body of lawyers, refugee groups and doctors says that Home Office plans to speed up the immigration and asylum process pays little or no attention to the well-being of refugees. "There seems to be an assumption by the Home Office that refugees do not have health needs," said Jane Coker, a solicitor.

The Kurdish Red Crescent has taken space in a rented office above a parade of shops in Haringey, north London.

Huseyin Cakar, a Red Crescent worker, said: "We want to set up a proper support and information service. In the long term, we would like to bring in doctors and nurses as well."

Mr Cakar himself cannot straighten his arm. He says it was snapped at the elbow by Turkish policemen during his nine years in jail. "My crime was standing up for my language and homeland. They broke my arm and I had 24 stitches in my mouth where I was beaten, so I have false teeth. I was also given electric shocks."

Jane Coker was called in to represent Kenan Sevgi, who came to Britain to escape the violence of the Kurds' battle for independence from Turkey. He arrived at Heathrow airport feeling sick and fatigued, and almost immediately found himself in a hospital intensive care unit.

Kenan, who was in his early 20s, was diagnosed as having liver failure. While in intensive care, he was also told that as an asylum seeker from a non-European Union country he was "not a priority" for an NHS transplant operation.

After three months of solicitors' letters, the Royal Free Hospital in London finally put him on the waiting list. By then it was too late. He died 18 months ago. His family are now pursuing an action for damages.

Ms Coker said the case was typical of health service faced by refugees: "It is just not acceptable for a 10-year-old girl to have to act as a translator when her mother wants contraceptive advice."

On 12 November, a working party of senior doctors and NHS managers will submit a list of recommendations to Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and immigration officials concerning the lack of access to basic care for refugees and asylum seekers. They will urge that refugees get a health check on arrival and a guide book in the relevant language on access to the NHS. They also want GPs told that they have a duty to provide care.

Veysi Aydin, who works at the Halkevi, a Kurdish centre in Hackney, said: "In some cases we have heard of reception staff asking for asylum papers before they allow you to see a doctor - receptionists are not the immigration service.

"Last week, a man came in here with a broken leg. He had jumped three floors because he wanted to kill himself. Mental health problems are a stigma for Kurds; if you can't see something is wrong, like a broken arm, then nothing is wrong."

Many NHS staff are ignorant of the Kurdish conflict.

For many Kurds, their first contact with the NHS is via an advocate - almost always a Turkish speaker, which can cause friction. "I do not mean to say that Turkish advocates are bad or don't want to help. It is just that they are of the very culture that the Kurds came here to escape," said Mr Aydin.

In Hackney and Haringey, where the majority of Kurds live, the local health authority has made a bid for more funds to deal with the problem. Dr Gaby Tobias, a senior GP in Hackney, said it was vital the Government was made aware that the refugee problem needs more money and more advocates.

"Some GPs feel that they just can't cope with someone who can't speak English when there aren't enough advocates, and we already have to cope with more than 50 languages in this area. You can't support that stance but you can understand it."

GP David Keene's health centre in Stoke Newington has 2,000 Kurdish patients and two Kurdish advocates. "Many who have been tortured present psychiatric problems disguised as physical ones," he said.

"There is the language problem, but also the fact that there is no word in Turkish or Kurdish for counselling, so we have to explain that concept from scratch."