Asylum decision-making in the UK: disbelief or denial?

Having identified a culture of disbelief at the heart of the British Home Office, campaigners for refugee rights must also address its culture of denial.

James Souter
4 April 2011

In recent years, British refugee organisations and human rights campaigners have often claimed that the UK Home Office’s decision-making on asylum claims suffers from a culture of disbelief. They have identified a strong propensity within the Home Office to disbelieve the testimonies of asylum seekers and to refuse them asylum on that basis. Stemming from its acceptance of the widespread assumption that most asylum claims are groundless or fraudulent, the culture of disbelief has led the Home Office to refuse many asylum seekers unjustly, which in turn has often resulted in their detention, destitution and deportation to their highly volatile countries of origin.

This accusation of a culture of disbelief has become refugee campaigners’ principal means of articulating the injustices of this decision-making, to the point that it has become orthodoxy among them. Writing recently in openDemocracy, Clare Sambrook is typical in critiquing the ‘automatic disbelief that too often greets asylum seekers from their first moment of arrival’.

There is substantial evidence to support the accusation. Reports produced in recent years by organisations such as Asylum Aid, Amnesty International UK, the Immigration Advisory Service and others have scrutinised the ‘Reasons for Refusal Letters’ which the Home Office sends to refused asylum seekers, and have identified countless instances of how decision-makers have used highly speculative argument and subjective assertion in order to disbelieve asylum seekers. They show how credibility is all-important, highlighting how decision-makers have often seized on minor or apparent discrepancies within asylum seekers’ accounts as a means of disbelieving and then refusing their claims.

This body of evidence is supplemented not only by extensive anecdotal evidence from those who work with asylum seekers, but also by the testimony of a whistleblower and former employee of the UK Border Agency, Louise Perrett, whose complaints echoed many of those raised by refugee organisations.

The critique has also been expressed in subtly different ways. Amnesty International UK has highlighted a ‘negative culture’ and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified a ‘culture of refusal’, while Colin Firth, writing in openDemocracy, points to a ‘climate of suspicion’. However, these variants appear not to have gained the popularity of the critique of a culture of disbelief.

Despite this popularity, its overall impact appears to have been mixed. While the accusation has largely been smothered by tabloid hostility to asylum seekers, it has engaged the Home Office to the extent that its 2008 code of practice on children warns against the dangers of operating within a culture of disbelief.

But is disbelief the main injustice surrounding the Home Office’s decision-making on asylum claims? To be sure, the evidence presented by refugee organisations makes it hard to deny that disbelief is a powerful force which shapes the asylum process. Yet while these organisations are along the right lines, the evidence they present in their own reports also suggests the presence of another disturbing trend within this decision-making: a culture of denial.

It might seem at first that the difference between a culture of disbelief and a culture of denial is a mere matter of semantics. In order to show how the accusation of a culture of denial can provide a sharper and more accurate indictment of the Home Office’s decision-making, it is worth briefly asking what denial exactly is. In short, denial is fundamentally a refusal to believe, know or act. More specifically, the description of denial by the sociologist, Stanley Cohen, as ‘an advance decision to avoid situations in which…facts might reveal themselves’ serves as an apt working definition.

This definition distinguishes disbelief from denial in two important ways. Firstly, denial can operate independently of, and prior to, disbelief. This is the case when denial involves the prior prevention of information from even being recognised or taken into account during the development of belief or disbelief. Secondly, it is possible to deny an asylum seeker their claim while simultaneously believing their testimony.

If we apply these distinctions to the Home Office’s decision-making, the accusation of a culture of denial may explain two injustices which continue to infect it: its frequent refusal to engage fully with the facts of the case, and the strong possibility that refusals are made despite belief in the merits of each claim.

What refugee organisations take as evidence of a culture of disbelief often also strongly suggests the existence of a culture of denial. For instance, Amnesty International UK has documented instances in which decision-makers have made what it describes as ‘blanket denials’. Refusal letters have frequently contained euphemism – which Cohen identifies as a key tactic of denial – by downplaying torture as mere ‘mistreatment’.

One important aspect of the Home Office’s decision-making which is not fully reflected in the current critique of a culture of disbelief is its prior refusal to engage with the facts of the case. The reports mentioned above document many instances in which decision-makers appear to begin with the presumption that claims are either false or heavily embellished and then reason backwards; a tendency characterised in 2005 by UNHCR as a ‘refusal mindset’.

Moreover, the Home Office’s use of country-of-origin information can provide a vivid example of the culture of denial. Rather than directly disbelieving information produced by reputable human rights or non-governmental organisations, the Home Office frequently resorts to more subtle forms of denial. Indeed, the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture has identified a ‘propensity...to distort or misconstrue’ country-of-origin information, while the Immigration Advisory Service found that ‘particular sources become the only “truth” and anything at odds with them…is disbelieved’. Studies have also shed light on the highly selective use of country information in Home Office policy documents known as Operational Guidance Notes, upon which staff partly base their decisions.

A worrying possibility which is also not reflected in the accusation of the culture of disbelief is that asylum seekers may be denied despite belief in the merits of their claim. Psychologically, this could range from near unconscious belief – where organisational priorities, overwhelming time pressure or ‘compassion fatigue’ causes awareness of an applicant’s deservingness to be repressed – to fully conscious, calculating and cynical denial. In such cases, using the notion of a culture of disbelief to describe the Home Office’s decision-making is inaccurate, for no disbelief is involved.

It is nearly always impossible to determine with certainty whether an asylum seeker has been refused asylum despite belief in the truth of their claim. Nevertheless, what can be said with certainty is that this hypothesis is fully consistent with much of the evidence found within refusal letters. For instance, what the activist, Trevor Trueman, has described as ‘the manufacture of discrepancy’ suggests the workings of deliberate denial, while Amnesty International UK concluded that refusal letters betray ‘a pursuit of the refusal of asylum claims’.

It is not difficult to see how the Home Office’s decision-makers could come to refuse asylum seekers despite, on one level or another, believing their testimony. The political pressure surrounding asylum in the UK, and the very structure of the Home Office, has created the conditions in which this kind of decision-making could flourish. Indeed, the main focus of the Home Office’s work in asylum and immigration appears to be on preventing abuse of the system and strengthening the UK’s borders rather than offering protection to refugees. The adversarial nature of asylum decision-making, and the lack of a clear delineation between refugee status determination and immigration enforcement, has allowed the culture of denial to thrive.

The cultures of disbelief and denial are overlapping and mutually reinforcing, and should be seen by human rights campaigners as operating in tandem. While the culture of disbelief remains an apt description when genuine disbelief is the main motive behind refusals, it is not entirely accurate when this disbelief is the end result of a prior refusal to engage with the facts of the case, and not at all accurate if the refusal is made despite belief in the merits of a claim.

Refugee organisations have picked out one aspect of the Home Office’s decision-making – its propensity for disbelief – but not appreciated its deeper source. In order to articulate the injustices of the current system as forcefully and persuasively as possible, it is crucial to find a critique which best reflects the damning evidence of it collected so far. The notion of the culture of disbelief alone is only partially capable of achieving this. Adding the notion of a culture of denial to the vocabulary of refugee and human rights advocates can fill this gap.





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