Thursday, 1 July 2010

Trauma and credibility in the asylum process: evidence to help women asylum seekers

E.L. PaintingImage by Mac(3) via Flickr
Source: Women's Asylum News

By Clare Cochrane, Women's Research Dissemination Worker at the Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law (CSEL)

The Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law was founded in 2007 in order to bring the findings of empirical, psychological research into legal decision making. Our research to date has focused on the asylum system, and last year Comic Relief awarded us funding to take our research findings to the voluntary sector, to ensure that more organisations can access our research in their work to help get a fairer asylum process for traumatised women seeking protection in the UK.

In order to be able to use research findings in a legal context (i.e. as part of someone’s asylum application or appeal), it is important that that research is credible. Empirical research conducted by an independent body and published in high quality academic journals is more likely to be understood within the legal system to be reliable. So although some of the findings of CSEL’s research will not come as news to many who have applied for asylum or supported refugees, as empirical research findings, published in peer-reviewed journals, they  are more likely to be taken seriously by the authorities and judiciary.

People who apply for asylum in the UK face a number of serious challenges. One is the question of their personal credibility. Refugees often have little or no documentation to corroborate their stories, so it is inevitable that decision makers will sometimes base their decisions on how believable they find someone’s story to be. Imagine you’re the decision maker. In front of you is a person who says they come from one country, but is carrying false travel documents from another country; they say they’ve experienced torture, but have no physical scars; they say it was bad, but they won’t tell you all the details, and they seem to clam up or drift off part way through telling their story. How would you make a judgement in this situation? 

These decisions about credibility are often based on untested assumptions about behaviour, and on mistaken beliefs about how memory works. Two commonly held beliefs are that a true story does not change when it is re-told, and that a true story leaves nothing out. So when someone seeking asylum presents stories that contain discrepancies, with differences between what they said in their first and second Home Office interviews, they are often automatically disbelieved. 

This is a particular problem for women seeking asylum, for whom telling their stories fully and consistently is fraught with problems. For a start, women who submit independent claims often do so because they are seeking asylum alone, for  gendered reasons, which may well involve sexual violence. It is well known in the criminal justice system that women who are traumatised as a result of experiencing sexual violence find it very difficult to recall and relate events in the way that the legal system expects them to.

CSEL has conducted academically rigorous research into the incidence of discrepancies in refugees’ stories, and the difficulties posed by the symptoms of trauma that prevent refugees from recounting their stories. The results of our research have shown that the assumptions about credibility on which decision makers base their refusal of asylum claims are not reliable.

For example, one common belief is that a true story does not change when it is retold. CSEL investigated this through a piece of research that focused on the discrepancies that occur in refugees’ accounts of their experiences. The researchers interviewed 39 Bosnian and Kosovan refugees about traumatic experiences, on two occasions each, and recorded the discrepancies (differences) between the two accounts. All 39 interviewees had been granted refugee status as a group; none had been through the individual asylum process, and therefore could be assumed to have no reason to deliberately falsify their accounts.

The research found that when people are interviewed more than once, the details they give in their accounts are likely to change between interviews. This is especially true for what interviewees consider to be peripheral (or minor) details (and ‘peripheral’ is a subjective evaluation - what is peripheral to one person is a central detail to another).  They also found that for those with the highest levels of post traumatic stress symptoms, a long delay between interviews was likely to mean more differences between their accounts. These findings strongly suggest that the simple existence of discrepancies in someone’s story cannot be enough on its own to suggest that they are falsifying their account of their experiences. 

One of the things that came up in the discrepancies research was that many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder make it difficult for a person to recall traumatic events clearly. This is all too often the case for women who have experienced sexual violence. To better understand these barriers to disclosure, CSEL interviewed 27 refugees and asylum seekers who had experienced violence, and asked them what had made it easy or difficult to talk about their experiences in their Home Office interview. About half the interviewees had experienced sexual violence. The research found that:
  • Perhaps surprisingly, the majority disclosed their experience for the first time in the Home Office interview – because they found the experience so difficult to talk about, they had not told anyone before finding themselves in an interview situation where they felt their life depended on telling the full story;    
  • Despite the significance of the Home Office interview, 10 of the interviewees found the story so difficult to tell, they did not tell it in full on this occasion;    
  • Whether they were ultimately able to tell their story or not, in full or in part, the study participants reported a number of difficulties disclosing in the Home Office interview - they were not given a chance to tell their stories in full; 
  • they felt traumatised and ashamed; 
  • they experienced dissociation during the interview (temporarily ‘cutting off’ from the situation); 
  • or they were actually cut short by the interviewer.

The study also found that people who had experienced sexual violence were more likely to suffer from post traumatic stress symptoms – regardless of whether they had actually been diagnosed with PTSD – such as mood changes, intrusive memories (flashbacks), and dissociation (cutting out).  These can all get in the way of giving an accurate and full account of an experience.

How can CSEL’s research make a difference to those who work with refugees and asylum seekers? Obviously for legal representatives these research findings can be very helpful in a number of ways, for example, they can aid in commissioning medico-legal reports; in compiling documents for submission to the UK Border Agency or an immigration judge in an appeal case; rebut negative findings of credibility; explain inconsistencies between Home Office interviews and witness statements; and in empowering clients to better understand what they are going through. Those involved in violence against women projects and refugee support groups can use knowledge of this research to better understand what the women they work with are going through, anticipate the challenges they may face, help them to self-advocate and advocate for their rights, help them talk to their legal advisors or if necessary liaise on their behalf; help people prepare for interviews, and more.

All of CSEL’s research is available in the publications section of our website: . But if you are not familiar with academic research, it can be hard to understand at first. Thanks to Comic Relief, we also run free training seminars for the voluntary sector in how to understand the research and make best use of it.  If you work or volunteer in an RCO or violence against women project or work as a legal representative just get in touch with to book a place. We can also speak at your local refugee forum, at your organisation’s AGM, or at conferences – contact us with dates and we will see if we can come along.

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