There is compelling and widespread evidence that the asylum system has long been warped by a culture of refusal and disbelief. Caseworkers often apply an excessive standard of proof to asylum claims, and either simply prejudge claimants’ credibility – starting from the position that people are lying – or conclude that they are lying without sufficient consideration. Recent research with torture survivors demonstrates that people are often not given the chance to explain apparent inconsistencies. This is routinely reflected in the experiences of refugees supported by JRS, who have explained to us, for example, “Their objective is just to get you out of the country” and “They don’t believe anything at all.” There is a denial of dialogue and encounter, and a corresponding troubling absence of the need to truly understand. Reform of the asylum system needs to centrally involve challenging suspicion within decision-making, and replacing it with a focus on protection, within a culture in which asylum claimants are seen and heard.
Instead, the New Plan for Immigration (NPFI) proposes to formalise and embed a default rhetoric of suspicion within asylum decision-making on multiple, interacting levels.
First, it proposes to raise the standard of proof used for certain aspects of an asylum claim. At the moment, the standard of proof for everything within an asylum claim is theoretically a ‘reasonable degree of likelihood’ – though often a higher standard is in fact applied. The NPFI wants decision-makers to apply a higher standard of proof – balance of probabilities – when trying to determine whether someone is who they say they are, and whether they are actually afraid of returning to their country of origin. This would place an unrealistic burden of proof on people who have had to flee, often in a hurry, without the opportunity to gather documentation. The focus on fear is also bizarre, as this is inherently difficult to prove. Furthermore, a relatively low standard of proof is necessary simply to reflect the stakes involved: if you wrongly refuse someone asylum, you might very well send them back to their death. Meaningful reform of asylum decision-making could usefully start by ensuring that the accepted standard of proof is in fact applied, consistently, by decision-makers. But the government has decided to change the standard of proof instead, to make it very difficult for anyone to meet, irrespective of their need for asylum. This is a highly significant, and very destructive, change to asylum determination.
To test whether someone is afraid, the Home Office will also consider their credibility, and travelling via a third country will be used as evidence that someone is not afraid: The NPFI states, “This includes consideration of opportunities the person had to claim asylum in other countries. If previous opportunities to make a claim have not been taken, or if a claim is contradictory, that could impact on the credibility of a person’s testimony.” This is not a reliable way of determining genuine fear – there are many good reasons people travel to specific countries to claim asylum, as mentioned in a previous blog. Assessing credibility is something decision-makers already do – often very badly, and starting from a position of disbelief. So it is not clear, at the time of writing, quite how substantial the changes made in regard to credibility assessments will be. There is certainly an element of political theatre intended to demonise sanctuary seekers as devils trying to game the system in this noisy, unevidenced obsession with interrogating asylum claimants’ credibility, but there is also a very real drive to instruct decision-makers to disbelieve people wherever possible, and these things are not mutually exclusive. What is clear is that the focus on credibility speaks to the whole tenor of the NPFI, and the context and assumptions from which it comes, and the basis on which the public is asked to accept and affirm it. The problem, we are told, is manipulators abusing the system. The danger, we are told, is openness to people seeking sanctuary. The disturbing implication is that readiness to listen to people and hear their stories without prejudgment is a threat to our society.
I listen to people let down by the system, people afraid and suffering, and I hear a different story: of a system that is too often intent on refusal. We are facing the creation and cementation of a system so inhuman it will, on principle and as a matter of policy, not listen to people claiming asylum, a system whose architects virtually boast that it will not enter into dialogue with those seeking sanctuary, a system of barriers rather than bridges. We don’t need to do this. We can be architects of something better.
Sophie Cartwright is Senior Policy Officer at JRS UK.
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