You faked your life? Towards a culture of protection in UK asylum

To ensure those in need of international protection receive it, attention must be given to the impact of the societal, political and institutional context on decision-makers’ ability to assess an applicant’s credibility. 

Sarah-Jane Savage Mohbuba Choudhury
24 February 2015

For governments the world over, the subject of immigration is a double-edged sword. Immigration policies have the potential to rally some voters whilst alienating others.  In the lead-up to the May 2015 UK General Election the political and public rhetoric on immigration is, predictably, growing increasingly firm. While the aim is to paint a picture of a government that is capably and confidently tackling weak spots in the management of migration, what is less evident is the particularly detrimental impact of this rhetoric upon the asylum system, particularly in the area of decision-making known as the ‘credibility assessment’.

The challenge of assessing ‘credibility’ in asylum

In the UK and around the world it is well known amongst those working in refugee protection that assessing the “credibility” of an asylum applicant’s claim is an extremely challenging task.  Decision-makers are expected to gather and consider as much relevant evidence as they can in order to determine which aspects of an asylum applicant’s claims about past and present events (‘past’ being an experience of torture, ‘present’ being gay, for example) they can accept. This is even before they go on to assess, based on what they accept of the claim, whether the individual may be at risk of persecution if returned to their country of origin.  

In the UK, flawed credibility assessments by UK civil servants have been the focus of criticism for almost a decade.  Studies have repeatedly shown they are the primary reason for the high rate of initial asylum decisions being overturned on appeal. The Home Office has itself been commendably transparent about the fact that credibility assessment is a key area of difficulty for their staff as highlighted by its own internal Quality Assurance mechanism. 

One asylum seeker commented on her experience of the credibility assessment process: “I was in shock, weak, but I should have told the man who told me I was lying, that if I would get my mother and sisters back I would happily leave ... I loved my old life, people came to my country [Sierra Leone] in the past you know ... I am a fighter, I am used to fight to live, but to be told ‘you faked your life’ is a little like death.”

Turning to other disciplines

In a recent comparative study entitled Beyond Proof: Credibility Assessment in EU Asylum Systems  UNHCR examined state practice in the area of credibility assessment at first instance (i.e. prior to any appeal) in the UK, Belgium and Netherlands.  A fundamental observation of the study is that a proper and thorough assessment of an individual’s credibility requires input and expertise from a multiplicity of specialised disciplines. The study emphasises, for example, that it is vital for decision-makers to understand that behaviours or statements from an asylum applicant may deviate from what might the decision-maker might consider “normal” and that these are not necessarily indicative of a lack of credibility. Instead, an applicant’s behaviours, statements and actions must be interpreted against an understanding of how, for example, human memory works, particularly in the context of torture or trauma.

Indeed, the full spectrum of an applicant’s individual and contextual circumstances must be taken into account. The study acknowledges the challenge this brings for decisions makers who must navigate geographical, cultural, socio-economic, gender, educational and religious barriers in order to take account of different individual experiences, temperaments and attitudes, all of which impact upon the evidence provided by an asylum applicant.

Importantly, the study goes further by highlighting that whilst individual and contextual circumstances of the applicant are crucial to the credibility assessment, so too are the individual and contextual circumstances of the decision-maker. Factors such as the decision-maker’s emotional and physical state, individual background, value system, beliefs and life experiences all influence the assessment of an applicant’s credibility.

The societal, political and institutional context of asylum decision-making

All decision-makers perform their functions in a particular context.  Long ignored or at least not formally acknowledged as an important variable influencing how credibility is assessed, UNHCR’s report usefully highlights the impact of the societal, political and institutional context in which an asylum decision-maker works upon their ability to assess an applicant’s credibility. 

The context in which asylum decision-makers work in the UK is a very particular one.  Since April 2013 the authority responsible for assessing asylum applications and for hiring and managing the decision-makers who do so is ‘UK Visas and Immigration’ (UVKI), a division of the Home Office. This same body also operates the visa system and considers applications from foreign nationals seeking British citizenship. 

A welcome shift in emphasis for the UKVI over its predecessor, the UK Border Agency, is its focus on customer service.  However, to date, the only published high-level policy available on the UKVI website is entitled “Securing Borders and Reducing Immigration”.  This is in line with public messaging of the Home Office which focuses on objectives such as ‘reducing and tackling abuse,’ ‘securing the border,’ and ‘reducing costs.’ Indeed, the only mention of ‘asylum’ in the Home Office Business Plan 2012-2015 is found under a priority entitled ‘Secure our border and reduce immigration’ where the Home Office commits to ‘process asylum applications more quickly’.

Meanwhile, beyond the walls of the Home Office, a simple glance at the daily UK newspaper headlines highlights further messaging that fuels an increasingly hostile atmosphere towards immigrants. Headlines such as ‘A multi-cultural hell hole that we never voted for,’ and ‘Immigration is creating shanty towns in Britain’ provide a flavor of the material circulating in the public domain. It takes an astute reader to appreciate the distinction between an economic migrant and one seeking international protection, a distinction the media rarely draws to the reader’s attention.

Asylum decision-makers are public citizens themselves.  They live and work within and amongst both the institutional and societal context described.  As such, the link between messaging, the findings regarding the quality of first-instance decision-making in the area of credibility assessment, and the high overturned appeal rate should not be ignored.  While decision makers may express an intention to examine each individual asylum claim from an open, neutral starting position, it is inevitable that such messaging consciously or unconsciously influences the mind-set of the decision maker who then approaches the assessment of credibility with varying levels of skepticism and disbelief. One asylum decision-maker commented: “Applicants lie and abuse the immigration system, they abuse the benefits system; it is quite apparent to me what is happening here. When you are exposed to this, you become highly cynical.”

Research has demonstrated that the operational guidance provided by the UK government to their asylum decision-makers on the subject of credibility assessment, whilst itself fairly well-rounded and encouraging a neutral, fact-finding methodology, is often not being followed in practice.  We suggest it is here, in this gap between policy and practice that the government’s own public and internal messaging is failing and detrimentally impacting upon its own asylum system. 

Influencing the context: a role for government

To ensure those in need of international protection receive that protection, it is of paramount importance that decision-makers are supported to approach and assess each and every asylum claim from an objective stand-point.  Whilst external factors such as media rhetoric cannot easily be controlled, it is within the power of the government itself to take measures to foster a ‘protection sensitive’ culture. We suggest that asylum decision-makers require and deserve support from the Home Office and from UKVI to acknowledge and appreciate the impact of listening to accounts of human rights abuses upon them.  Further, the impact of the institutional and societal context in which they work and live upon their decision-making should also be acknowledged and explored with them.

There have been some recent encouraging initiatives within UKVI that can serve to encourage a ‘protection-sensitive’ culture. For example, one asylum decision-making hub has named its teams of decision-makers after prominent human rights defenders, reminding staff on a daily basis of the importance and gravity of their work.  At the same time, UKVI is piloting a combined training and peer support mechanism that encourages decision-makers to reflect upon the nature of their work they do and how it affects them.

It is not only in an asylum applicant’s interests to receive a high quality decision in the first instance, it is in the interests of the government assessing the claim.  An asylum system that produces quality decisions the first time around avoids additional costs associated with supporting applicants for longer periods of time as well as with unnecessary appeals proceedings.  Furthermore, where decisions are timely and backlogs are avoided, greater faith in the asylum system from the voting public will follow.

Decision-makers should be consistently reminded that their task is to uphold fundamental human rights whilst aiming to protect those who qualify for international protection.  There is a role here for the asylum authority.  By acknowledging and including in their institutional objectives and business plans reference to the important aim of protecting and upholding human rights, the government can foster an institutional mind-set that is protection-oriented and an institutional culture that is protection-sensitive.  In doing so, the government may find applicants are believed where they should be and overturned appeal rates drop, thereby not only saving the government money but justifying a sense of pride in providing timely protection to those who deserve it.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the position of UNHCR or of the United Nations.

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