The psychiatrist who fights for refugees

By Jane Elliott – BBC News health reporter

Dr Christina Pourgourides aims to improve the life of refugees. The plight of a young asylum seeker locked up in a maximum security prison without ever committing a crime so horrified a young medic that she decided to dedicate her life to fighting for better conditions for refugees.

A Greek Cypriot refugee herself, Dr Christina Pourgourides has long been interested in the plight of others seeking refuge in the UK.

Now her tireless work has been recognised. The 39-year-old consultant psychiatrist has been named in a book as one of the world’s 65 most caring physicians, along with world medical leaders in the field of Sars, Aids and leprosy.

Modest about the honour bestowed on her by the World Medical Association, Dr Pourgourides said it was a vehicle to draw better attention to her cause.


« These people do not have a voice. There is so much adverse publicity about asylum seekers and a lot of ignorance. Whenever there is a story about asylum seekers it is usually prefaced by the word ‘bogus' ».

« But the idea that people would give up their community and come here just for a few quid. No. »


Dr Pourgourides brings a mixture of compassion and urgency to her work with refugees, and asylum seekers. Compassion for the plight of these people and an urgency that more is done to ensure that this vulnerable section of the population is treated humanely and justly by the authorities and public.

Dr Pourgourides, who works as a consultant psychiatrist for the NHS, also does psychiatric assessments for the charity Medical Victims of Torture in her spare time.

She said she never ceases to be horrified by their treatment in the UK.

« A certain number of asylum seekers and refugees are detained in this country, although they have not committed any crime.

« They are held in detention, often without knowing the reason why or without any time limit.

« These people have often survived torture, abuse or mistreatment in their country of origin.

« They end up in this Kafkaesque situation, deprived of their liberty and they become distressed and break down.

« They are denied a voice and are totally marginalised. I have strongly argued that this is a human rights abuse.

« While it is tempting to assume that abuses happen only in some far-off places, many UK doctors are unaware of abuses such as these happening much closer to home. »


Dr Pourgourides said she is regularly faced with assessing cases who have been mentally scarred both by their experiences in their homeland and their subsequent treatment in the UK.

She told of one Arab male she had examined who had been raped by police and then left for dead.

He fled on a cargo ship and when the boat eventually docked in the UK he sought asylum, but was imprisoned while his case was being heard.

« His prison cell reminded him of the one in Algeria. He could not speak English and could not say in front of other detainees, interpreting for him, that he had been raped.

« He tried to hang himself and he broke down. »

All these physicians are heroes

Dr Yank Coble

Recently, Dr Pourgourides was told about a five-year-old girl and her father who were being held in detention, while their claim was verified, despite their whole family being massacred in front of them.

A Home Office spokesman said detention of asylum seekers often occurred when they were about to be deported.

« Targeted use of detention continues to play a vital role in the maintenance of effective immigration control including the removal of those with no lawful right to be here.

« Nobody is detained for longer than necessary and we aim to keep detention to the shortest possible period which will differ between individual cases.

« Immigration cases would only be held in a category A prison if they had committed a crime that warranted them being there. »

He added : « Any mental health issues that someone had would be a factor in whether or not it was appropriate to detain them. »

Dr Pourgourides feels as a medic that she is a figure of authority and must use her position to try and gain a voice for those less fortunate.

« I was a refugee child myself. I was just eight years old when I came to the UK from Cyprus and it had a profound effect on me.

« I think of myself as a more interesting person because of my experiences.

« I was given the opportunity to study and to have an education and to go to university.

« At that time, Britain welcomed us and gave us a chance to start a new life. »

Dr Pourgourides’ parents were doctors in Cyprus and continued to practise when they came to the UK.

But she said the climate had changed and despite many of the asylum seekers having lots to offer the UK, they were being denied the chance to practise their skills.

« The situation and attitude towards refugees has changed and today I don’t think we welcome refugees in the same way.

« They have a hell of a lot to offer and we deny them that opportunity. »

Aids expert

The book profiling Dr Pourgourides has been published by the World Medical Association.

It includes profiles of Nanshan Zhong, China’s top expert on Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), who played a vital role helping to tackle the 2002 outbreak.

Valentin Pokrovsky, the Soviet Union’s leading expert on Aids and the first person in Russia to describe HIV-infection and Aids, and Jacinto Convit, from Venezuela, who helped to eliminate leprosy, are also profiled.

Dr Yank Coble, President of the World Medical Association, said the physicians demonstrated the highest standards of medical care, medical ethics, and medical science.

« All these physicians are heroes, many are unsung heroes, and all exemplify, despite their enormously disparate environments and circumstances, the three enduring traditions of the medical profession – caring, ethics and science.

« I believe these profiles will help restore pride, passion, enthusiasm and optimism among physicians the world over. »


Aller au contenu principal