As recent news has brought to bear, violence and persecution in countries beyond America’s borders often drives victims to seek refuge within them. Though the relief of asylum status—permanent residency granted to people who experience atrocities like torture or sexual assault in their home countries—has become more challenging to reach, for many the promise of freedom is worth the burden of proof. At the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Asylum Clinic, a team of dedicated physician volunteers works to help these individuals navigate that road to potential asylum.

Along the way, asylum seekers must encounter a challenging immigration system, a new language and the legal complexities of proving past history of physical or mental abuse. MGH physicians at the clinic provide the independent medical assessments needed to gather this evidence. Patients from across New England—most of whom receive their primary care outside of MGH—are referred to the clinic through a network of immigration lawyers and community groups. Team clinicians are trained by Physicians for Human Rights to conduct a medical forensic examination specific to the types of trauma experienced by asylum-seeking immigrants. 

“As physicians, we listen to their stories, perform physical examinations to corroborate those stories, and submit an affidavit to the court with an objective assessment of whether our findings are consistent with the reported abuse,” explains Matthew Gartland, MD, director of the MGH Asylum Clinic.

The team meets twice a month to provide the assessments, and to facilitate connections with local immigration advocacy groups, who in turn help connect patients to legal services as the first step in the asylum process. The stories that clinic members hear in their evaluations can be heartbreaking, though the team members find some comfort in being able to bear witness to the stories and help refugees strengthen their case for asylum.

“These are the stories of our patients and our neighbors. They are difficult for patients to relive and often difficult to hear,” Dr. Gartland says. “If we educate ourselves, create an open environment and support patients to process life after trauma, we can have an incredible impact on people’s lives.”

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Topics: Academic Medical Centers, Access to Care, Global Impact

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