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Rape and asylum claims: credibility and the construction of vulnerability

Women alleging rape in asylum claims are often considered not credible due to cultural and gender-based stereotypes. To be heard, and believed, they must position themselves as ‘appropriately’ vulnerable.

Protestors outside an immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, UK in August 2015. Darren Johnson/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Refugee advocacy and support organisations have long known that a significant proportion of women seeking asylum in the UK have experienced rape in their countries of origin. While a disclosure of rape is not a determining factor in all applications, it may be relevant to a range of crucial considerations, including the seriousness of the harm suffered and the prospects for safe return ‘home’. Due to a lack of statistics or empirical research, however, there are still gaps in our understanding regarding the ways in which asylum-seeking women’s claims of sexual violence are disclosed, responded to, and evaluated by decision-makers.

We interviewed stakeholders and observed over 40 appeal tribunals between 2009 and 2012 in order to fill these gaps. We examined three main issues: (1) the ways in which rape narratives are, or are not, engaged with by decision-makers; (2) the ways in which the credibility of both women and their claims are assessed; and (3) the ways in which engaging with such narratives can provoke emotional responses in asylum professionals that require careful management. Our main findings under each of these themes are outlined below.

Engaging with rape

Some of those charged with responding to disclosures of rape in the asylum system are not well attuned to ‘hearing the right gaps’ in a woman’s narrative. There is a lack of understanding of the ways in which gender, culture, language, race, nationality, and other factors, particularly the structures of the asylum system itself, operate to make disclosure difficult. When rape is disclosed, some of the ‘myths’ within the criminal justice system about rape—for example, that late disclosure or a calm demeanour indicate a fabricated claim—spill over into the asylum context.

‘Good reasons’ (most commonly those associated with the woman’s culture, mental health, language difficulties, or lack of understanding of the asylum process) might excuse a late disclosure, but the way in which such ‘good reasons’ were constructed by decision-makers was often problematic. Culture, for example, was often understood in monolithic, stereotypical, and patronising terms. And while the impact of trauma was often only accepted when supported by expert mental health assessments, tight Home Office time scales often did not allow for such reports to be commissioned. Rape disclosures at tribunals were at times met by rigorous and inappropriate questioning, however more often they were marginalised or ignored. Sometimes this happened out of appropriate and genuine concern for appellants, but in other cases it was a deliberate strategy to remove emotion from the account and ensure that credibility challenges could be focused on peripheral issues.

Establishing credibility

Structural problems within the asylum system itself—time constraints, lack of funding, poor working practices—as well as a lack of objective evidence to support rape claims often ensure that establishing credibility is difficult. Decision-makers see inconsistencies as contra-indicative of a credible claim, despite widely available research demonstrating the negative effect of trauma on memory as well as on coherent and consistent narration. Despite the UK government’s persistent denial that a ‘culture of disbelief’ exists, a number of Home Office personnel reported to us that they believed that the majority of asylum claims were fabricated and that rape claims in particular were often added to bolster an otherwise unbelievable claim. Moreover, there was some indication that those working in the asylum context may be more likely to believe a man’s claim of sexual violence than a woman’s. This was partly because men’s claims are more rare, but also because of a perception that while it is very difficult for a man to disclose such an experience, women’s claims of rape were “easy allegations to make”.

Managing emotions

Decision-makers in the asylum system have a very challenging job. Credibility is extremely difficult to evaluate, and the process of evaluation requires them to listen repeatedly to narratives of trauma and violence. We found that many of them, in an effort to minimise vicarious trauma or burn out, dissociate from their work by one of two methods: detachment, whereby they see asylum narratives as just ‘stories’; and denial, whereby the ‘buck’ for decision-making is passed to another individual or institution.

There is a profound lack of support for professionals in the asylum system—legal and otherwise (e.g. interpreters)—who deal with claims of sexual violence and trauma more generally. Furthermore, a culture exists, particularly amongst immigration judges, that discourages help-seeking or even the acknowledgment that there is a risk of vicarious trauma. Support may therefore be reluctantly received unless and until the ‘(un)emotional culture’ of organisations is challenged.

Conclusions

Our research indicates that the structure of the asylum system, as well as working cultures around decision-making, can negatively impact women whose asylum claims involve rape allegations. Evaluations of credibility are often influenced by dubious assumptions regarding culture, gender, and sexual violence, and draw upon limited experience of, or empathy with, the peculiar challenges faced by ‘others’. The structural and evidential demands of the asylum process, as well as the political controversies that it attracts, do little to facilitate improvements in the handling of disclosures of rape. Ultimately, success in securing refugee status continues, for too many women, to depend upon their ability to position themselves as ‘appropriately’ vulnerable victims.

Whilst our study focussed on asylum decision-making between 2009-2012, the on-going work of Asylum Aid has highlighted the lack of significant improvement in the UK with respect to evaluating credibility in women’s (or indeed men’s) sexual violence claims. While the current ‘refugee crisis’ has prompted critical and competing appraisals of what justice for those who flee and fear persecution might look like, it is clear is that the treatment of those who come to the UK seeking protection from sexual abuse often remains inadequate. This belies the reliance of western states on narratives of gender oppression, and sexual abuse specifically, to justify military intervention on distant shores.

About the authors

Vanessa Munro is Professor of Law and Society at the University of Leicester.

Sharon Cowan is Professor of Law at the University of Edinburgh.

Helen Baillot is a Research Assistant at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

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