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Emergent Conflict in an NGO for Torture Victims - CS EN


Analysis of the intercultural dynamics and presuppositions that lead to discrimination in the context of an NGO.


The situation takes place in a non-governmental organisation for torture victims established in Bucharest in 1992, three years after the fall of the totalitarian regime in 1989. The institution was created with the aim of offering medical,  psychological and legal  rehabilitation services to former political prisoners who were subjected to torture and other severe abuses during the communist regime in Romania (between 1945 and 1989).

More recently, more precisely, starting with 2001, the need for such services became obvious in the case of torture victims among refugees and asylum seekers coming from different conflictual countries of origin such as Congo-Brazzaville, Somalia, Iraq, Turkey (Kurdish refugees), Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, etc. Thus, the foundation has extended its activity and included refugees and asylum seekers among its beneficiaries.

The core activity in the organisation is medical, different specialities such as general medicine, cardiology, urology, odontology and psychiatry being available for the patients.



With the newly arrived patients in the organisation, a conflictual situation emerged. Although presupposes sharing similar traumatic histories specific to all those who were submitted to inhuman or degrading treatments (they were all subjected to different torture methods or severe abuses), the Romanian patients argued that they do not want to be treated the same as foreign patients. A hostile attitude towards persons belonging to different cultures, namely “black people” or “Muslims”, came into the foreground. This attitude was expressed using both verbal and non-verbal codes by Romanian patients who were always addressing complaints to caregivers, and fortunately never directly to foreign patients. Sometimes they would not enter the surgery rooms or they would not sit on the same consultation bed only because “THE OTHER PERSON was there before”. They would ask the nurse to bring new and “clean” sheets and they would wipe the chair before sitting. The medical staff complained to the organisation management as this conflictual situation affected seriously their activity.


In-depth analysis of the parties and elicitation of real interests

As the situation presented here does not involve for the time being an escalation of the conflict between Romanian former political prisoners and refugees belonging to different African or Middle East countries, we can assume that the communicative practice involved in this case is the arbitration.

The Arbiter, who's named is Sabina has to address to the group of Romanian patients, as the only conflictive party for the moment, taking into account as exhaustive as possible, its members reasons for such a behaviour.

The other party involved is the direction of the organisation, so, to start with, Sabina decides to meet the managers.

Given the expertise in the field of assistance to victims of trauma and the fact that it is currently the only institution providing such services in the country, the organisation decided to extend its support not only to local patients who have been repressed during the communist regime, but also to those who have left their country of origin, due to similar reasons, seeking asylum in Romania.

Out of the manager's description, the organisation’s interests and goals are:

> to assist and support all victims of trauma regardless of their nationality, culture, religion or race
> not to harm the identity and feeling of those belonging to the initial target group, the Romanian former political detainees
> to ensure access to its services to refugees and asylum seekers in need of proper medical, psychological and legal advice
> not to alter the organisation mission
> to create an open environment at its headquarters, fostering communication and sharing of experiences among patients coming from different cultures but sharing similar traumatic histories


After depicting the direction’s intentions and interests the arbiter approached two of the former political prisoners who were reported by the medical staff as having objections when it came to sharing the same surgery and assistance with refugees of different nationality, culture and religion. Their immediate interest appears to be:

> To be treated “properly” after their traumatic experiences

> To be approached with priority and exclusiveness and not to be mixed with other patients, as such was the case when the organisation was created

> As they endured and resist to very harsh conditions in the confrontation with the repressive regime but they have chosen not to try to leave their country, they would not consider the refugees their fellows, as the latters managed to escape and flee their countries of origins in search of a better place

After gathering the initial testimonies and declarations of interests from the parties involved, Sabina has arrived in the presumption that a possible lack of proper communication could underlie the conflictive situation. As a following phase in designing her arbitration strategy, she has decided to check if the former political prisoners were properly informed that refugees and asylum seekers will be offered assistance in the centre starting with a certain date.


Focusing on dynamics: relevant endoxa and stereotypes

Following the phases proposed by the argumentation theory in analysing the former political prisoners (from now on abbreviated as “FPP”) discourse, the negotiator took into account different issues:

1. The reasonableness of the FPP position – an attempt to analyse the FPP’s discourse


> The need for exclusive treatment: When the centre was created, different suspicions of the FPP came into foreground due to their traumatic past. Given the long-term physical and mainly psychological consequences of the atrocities they have been subjected to in communist prisons and during the interrogatories, they were extremely reluctant to the assistance offered by the centre for torture victims created in 1992. Although gradually this problem phased out, the demand for exclusiveness replaced it.

> Emotion and language: The way to express the need for exclusiveness in relation to the described situation was: “We want to be the only ones treated here, we do not want competition, we have endured too much pain and suffering for this”. When trying to understand the meaning of the message, the arbiter could relate this fragment of discourse (without de-contextualising it) to reality and attempt to find the justification of such a position. According to George Lakoff1, “the content of emotion concepts can be best described as scenarios”. Such a scenario was based on the fear (a basic emotion/affect) that the “others” would take their right to exclusiveness.

> Age and medical related factors: Most of the FPP are around 80 years old, and apart from being through very traumatic events they present multiple age-related pathologies and long-term psychological consequences of trauma. The potential of tolerance and acceptance of other realities than theirs could be presumably diminished.

> Keywords: unclean, dirty foreigners: The medical staff of the centre has reported that FPP used terms such as “unclean, dirty, smelly refugees” and they even asked for new lines in order to enter the surgery. This metaphor could be considered as expressing the essence of the threat to their identity. According to Lakoff and Johnson “Everyday metaphors are not only linguistic but conceptual in nature and can create social-cultural and psychological realities for us”. The fact that a foreigner is black, smells different, and has another God is a threat to my identity and especially to my condition of ”special patient”.

> Ideologic distortion of culture: - a presupposition for the mixed origin of the “xenophobe discourse”. In the totalitarian manipulative discourse “foreigners” were bad, dangerous, a menace to the “nation” and to individual integrity, the idea that has probably left traces in the collective mentality of those who have lived in that period (1945-1989) in Romania. Another source for this attitude could also be the nationalistic and reductionist discourse of an extreme right wing party whose members were an important percent of political prisoners. These two forms of extremist discourses could probably be counted among others, as underlying the FPP’s attitude towards refugees and asylum seekers. In both cases, the use of keywords such as “bad, dangerous threatening foreigners” occur in policy and ideology motivating texts and are more or less conscientiously imprinted in social representations.


Singling out argumentative strategies

> Implicit and explicit discourse : The latent content of the message could be seen as the result of the infliction of false and powerful convictions through the totalitarian manipulative discourse: “foreigners are bad for the Nation” combined with the extreme right reductionist discourse could have led to the same result: the creation of the stereotype: “foreigners are bad, dirty, not pure”. Here the negotiator will refer to the role of the inference and will base her assumption on the authority argument (as an unconscious mechanism): “ The process through which the receiver reconstructs the sense of a message, stating from a discourse which is usually full of gaps is an inferential process: the message is integrated through the principle of good will, i.e. postulating not manifested discursive structures which allow the reconstruction of a globally acceptable sense and which respects the semantic congruity, the logical coherence, the pragmatic congruity and the dialogical rules”.

> Gaps and incoherences in the discourse: inferential validity and truth – the insufficient relatedness to evidence of the FPP discourse: their truth cannot be based only on reference to an ideological statement

Syllogism: Foreigners are bad, dirty, not pure

X is a foreigner

X is bad, dirty, not pure

The semantic coherence  exists, but  the distorsion  comes from  a stereotype based syllogism.

> Endoxa and keywords: the main “cultural keywords” 3 taken into consideration by the negotiator when trying to imagine the core of the FPP’s point: “ black, dirty foreigners ”. In considering such words as “pointers to culturally shared patterns of interference”, Sabina followed two directions:

   - The FPPs are members of a group that share similar or identical histories, their implicit arguments pointing to unspoken premises connected with cultural beliefs and values shared within the community

   - With regard to the right for exclusiveness, these terms can be related to the intention of removing such foreign elements, in the attempt to preserve one’s own identity. In the specific case of trauma survivors, the need for exclusiveness is crucial for the validation of sufferance that cannot be “shared”: it is MY pain, I demand exclusive attention for it.


Identification of potential for effective resolution

After analysing carefully the argumentative strategies and the hidden messages of the FPP’s discourse, the arbiter has decided to meet again the members of the organisation’s management team. To start with, she has presented them the results of her in-depth analysis of the factors that led to this emerging intercultural conflict. A second step was to confront her presumptions (described above) with those of the manager's team in order to verify their potential validity. We mention here the fact that Sabina has built her strategy by combining techniques of discourse analysis with the participative observation of the medical activity in the centre. Thus, she observed closely the patient’s reactions and conversations in the waiting room. Based on this methods, Sabina will further attempt to draw a possible plan for the resolution of the situation.

Proposed strategy

More precise and clear information and explicit communication of the change occurred in the composition of the patient’s group
The most important step in reducing the risk of conflict escalation is an appropriate information. As observed and analysed by the arbiter, the former political detainees were not properly communicated the fact that the medical centre began to receive also another group of patients formed of refugees and asylum seekers. Communication of particular characteristics of this new group could be crucial in the attempt to avoid misunderstandings. This would presumably clear out also the issue of the need for exclusiveness. As FPPs are no longer addressed exclusively by the organisation, mentioning and explaining clearly the reasons for such an initiative are vital to understand the situation and to bring to light potentially doubtful matters. A specific subject to be brought into discussion in this phase is the fact that asylum seekers and refugees addressing to the medical centre have experienced very traumatic events as citizens belonging to repressive political systems, pointing out thus the similarity of experiences of both categories of patients.

Design of information materials that would present issues concerning refugees and migrants and especially reasons for their fleeing the country
In connection with communicating and informing the initial group of patients about their foreign fellows, displaying posters and pictures, making available articles, stories and other materials written by or with respect to refugees would contribute to the clarification of the problem.

Explanation of the organisation’s policy: providing services for victims of torture regardless of their race, culture or religion
Clearing out the issues concerning beneficiaries, and the non–discriminative policy of the organisation with an accent on the initial dedication to former political prisoners, would presumably contribute to the understanding of the situation and to foster better tolerance.

Given the fact that it the case of a change in mentalities, objective and immediate modifications in the FPP’s discourse is not to be expected, but continuous information and availability of materials regarding foreign patients would probably stimulate respect for them and diminish discriminative attitude.

Intercultural NGO Context