Interview with Morten Ekstrøm, MD, PhD
In the medical group of Amnesty International specialists of all medical disciplines are doing different tasks related to human rights violations and its medical aspects. The Danish Medical Group in Amnesty International was founded in 1974 following an article by Dr. Inge Genefke in Ugeskrift for Læger about the role of doctors in fighting torture. A few doctors responded and together they expressed a hope that Danish doctors would actively get engaged in the fight against torture. The aim was to focus on the role doctors could play in documenting torture with the hope that this could contribute to a reduction in the use hereof. The idea was that doctors should carry out fact-finding missions around the globe aiming to document the presence of torture. This documentary work should then be combined with research related to the findings. In Denmark the intention was that the documentation was based on investigations of asylum seekers as a thorough medical examination of asylum seekers could be an important source in systematic descriptions of the consequences of torture.
Since the start of the AI medical group thorough medical examinations of asylum seekers have been pivotal in the work combined with publishing reports and articles about medical aspects of torture, as well as awareness raising activities and lecturing. Over the years many doctors have been part of Amnesty International all working pro bono and one of them is the psychiatric consultant Morten Ekstrøm who has been part of the group for approx. 25 years.
What made you get into contact with Amnesty International?
Well, when I graduated from medical school, I had been thinking of taking a job in an international humanitarian organization and working abroad, but family reasons made me change my mind – and I so to speak thought that if I could not go to the world, the world could come to me instead.
I still recall my first meetings in the AI group where I encountered colleagues who showed a genuine enthusiasm, and an idealism combined with a high degree of professionalism. I became very fast deeply engaged in the work, and never missed a meeting.
In the group all have this fighting spirit feeling that working together we would achieve something. The objective of the work is to develop a very systematic, comprehensive method to document the torture sequelae as the asylum seekers may use this documentation in their asylum procedure and thus the findings have to be robust when taken to court to be used by their lawyer.
What were your motives for spending so much time doing voluntary work?
I think that it is complex. I grew up in middle class family and had a warm, safe upbringing, got a higher education and in some way I feel that I should pay back. It is my conviction that if you have the means you have an obligation to do something, and I have a surplus that could be used.
I have a sense of justice and when I see all the suffering in the world and the traumatized asylum seekers coming to my country, I feel an obligation to try to alleviate their suffering using my medical knowledge to do so.
Do you see yourself as an idealist?
I do see idealism as part of it but to me there is also a question of finding meaning in life. I have never believed in some predetermined meaning in life, to me you have to create a meaning with your life and doing this kind of work is one way of being part of a greater good.
But of course, there are other dimensions. Curiosity is one, another is getting acquainted with other cultures and the way persons express distress or their explanation of illness which is very stimulating and enrichening. I sincerely believe that by having these experiences you become a better more emphatic doctor also with other patient groups.
How about the animosity among many groups in Denmark towards this population?
I react naturally strongly against the xenophobic attitude and I find it important to show the asylum seekers that we in the medical group work for a more just asylum system. On the other hand that it is our strength in the medical group that we have a systematic, analytic approach in our work and never get carried away in our reports as this would work against our credibility.
Do you have any recommendations?
I would recommend that you as a medical doctor try to use your medical expertise in some kind of voluntary work. You may have new experiences and challenges, you may encounter a different patient-doctor relation,or you may be faced with tasks where your previous experiences are not sufficient. I think that it is worth it. □