Telling stories? Credibility in asylum interviews

http://www.aat.gov.au/migration-and-refugee-division/video-guides-for-applicants/video-guides-for-applicants-english#AboutWhen people arrive in countries of the global north to seek asylum, they often bring with them little more than their stories of persecution. As receiving countries develop increasingly restrictive mechanisms for processing asylum claims, the credibility of these stories and those who tell them has become central to gaining protection.

However, existing research suggests that despite aiming at objectivity, credibility assessments raise a plethora of issues. They are conducted in settings that involve intercultural communication, the use of interpreters, and power inequalities. Limited access to quality legal assistance can also undermine applicants’ ability to put forward a strong case, in the language expected by the institutions tasked with processing their claims. Elsewhere, I have explored how the various participants involved in applications and appeals each play a role in co-constructing the refugee narrative (Smith-Khan 2017a). Yet often, this co-construction is not readily acknowledged in decision-making procedures, placing too much responsibility on the asylum seeker.

In my new article, Telling Stories: Credibility and the representation of social actors in Australian asylum appeals (Smith-Khan, 2017b), I critically analyse the official text guiding credibility assessment in the Australian merit review process, and a corpus of published asylum review decisions. Studies involving critical discourse analysis encourage us to reflect on how the linguistic choices made in texts both reflect and perpetuate certain beliefs. Following Van Leeuwen (1996), I adopt a ‘socio-semantic’ approach to explore how these texts present the different social actors. I reflect on the beliefs behind these presentations, as well as considering the effects the resulting discourse may have on asylum decision-making.

The naming conventions in the Migration and Refugee Division Guidelines on the Assessment of Credibility are particularly striking. Calling the decision-makers ‘Members’ and ‘the Tribunal’, the Guidelines reflect legal language conventions. They position the decision-makers as insiders, taking on the identity of the institution itself. These terms represent and reinforce a belief that decision-makers are capable of neutrality and objectivity, each one expected to act and think in a uniform way, capable of setting aside their individual subjectivity. In contrast, the Guidelines present asylum seekers as subjective ‘applicants’, with multiple references to how they are affected by their social and cultural background. Multiple references are made to the ‘applicant’s account’ and the applicant presenting evidence, reinforcing the belief that it is the applicant who tells the refugee narrative, rather than it being co-constructed by all those involved in the process, with the final, official version being written by the decision-maker (I present a more detailed analysis of the way diversity is dealt with in these texts in another article (Smith-Khan, forthcoming)). Further, there are few references to other participants involved in asylum applications and appeals, such as legal advisers and interpreters. This has the effect of downplaying the role these participants play in helping to construct the refugee narrative, and the many ways in which they may affect the applicants’ credibility in the process.

Analysing my corpus of 27 review decisions, I note that the decision-makers vary in their way of presenting these same social actors, although in general, their approaches reflect those adopted in the Guidelines. For example, a majority of the decision-makers refer to themselves as ‘The Tribunal’, with only a few referring to themselves in the first person. Similarly to the Guidelines, many decision-makers make scant reference to the role played by interpreters and legal advisers. In some cases it is not even clear whether the applicant used English, or whether they had any legal assistance or not.

I argue that the corpus reveals some key challenges for credibility assessments. Firstly, the variations amongst different decision-makers indicates that far from being uniform, they are individuals who each have their own approach to reporting their hearings and sharing their decisions. The minimal references to interpreting, language choice and legal assistance create the impression that these factors are not important in how applicants construct their refugee stories and create and defend their credibility. Further, the decision-maker’s position as objective receiver of information suggests that self-reflection is not encouraged. Overall, this means that when applicants attempt to explain credibility issues such as inconsistency or vagueness by referring to the roles other participants play in shaping their narratives, their arguments are largely ineffective.

The discursive roles assigned to each of the actors involved in these processes suggest that there remains a need to scrutinise credibility assessment processes (and the texts that govern them). It is only through acknowledging and seeking to address the structural challenges and power asymmetries hidden by such discourse that we can improve processes to ensure the best possible outcomes for those seeking our protection.

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Author Laura Smith-Khan

Laura is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University. She is admitted as a lawyer in NSW and has conducted fieldwork with refugees across four continents and focused on the inclusion of refugees with disabilities. Her current research focuses on language policy and language ideology in Australian asylum procedures. She loves learning new languages and speaking about anything language or communication related.

More posts by Laura Smith-Khan
  • Katherine Douglas

    The decision-making process in this article certainly seems unfair to me! The decision-makers (“Members” and the “Tribunal”) always being painted as neutral, calm, rational, and the applicants as subjective stands out in this article. Leaving out interpreters and legal advisors from the decision-making process does not seem to me to be telling the entire story either. These individuals are *vital* parts of an applicant’s application to stay in the country – especially if they do not know the language or law of the country they are applying to, especially if they and/or others’ lives are under threat (if they are made to go home). Not allowing applicants to be subjective (even for a small amount) renders their overall application less strong.
    Mmm…some things certainly need to be changed in this process, but changing this system would certainly be a complex, gradual task! I enjoyed this article, though, for an “inside-look”.