Earlier this month, following the Irish refugee council’s report ‘Difficult to believe’, a conference was held on Credibility in asylum claims.
Professor Guy S. Goodwin Gill a senior research fellow and professor of International Refugee law at Oxford University was the keynote speaker.
He spoke about the protection of refugees as “a matter of international obligation”, stressing the importance of “a fair and efficient procedure” in the determination of asylum claims. He highlighted that the 1951 Refugee Convention says nothing about procedures or process leaving its implementation up to the states themselves.
He described how a fair process must include certain essential elements such as a full hearing; appropriate evidential standards; evidence-based decisions and the requirement of a review or appeal.
In terms of establishing the risk of persecution he noted the problems with the onus being placed solely on the applicant and said practical considerations impose a duty on the decision maker.
In discussing the decision in Rustamov v Russia 2012, the professor asked “what must asylum seekers show?”
In this case, the Court pointed out that requesting an applicant “to produce "indisputable" evidence of a risk of ill-treatment in the requesting country would be tantamount to asking him to prove the existence of a future event, which is impossible, and would place a clearly disproportionate burden on him.”
The professor asserted that “The Strasbourg court is clearly sending signals about the process of decision-making.”
He also noted that the appreciation of fear of persecution is based on an objective situation and said that the decision-making process requires us to look at a series of variables making it unpredictable.
The professor noted that decision makers can’t ever have absolute confidence in their decisions but insisted that a well established process anchored in International law is needed.
In terms of personal credibility, he noted that although asylum applicants have a duty to tell the truth, there is a duty on decision makers also. He claimed that too little attention is paid to assessment and more attention needed to be paid to form for example early legal assistance, affirming that “this is what experience has taught us”.
The professor said he was pleased to read the IRC report and agreed that the system is not working and is not in compliance with international obligation. He described our system as “a ready-made case-study of what not to do”.
He highlighted how medical evidence is not given any weight in Ireland. In contrast he gave an example of a UK Court of Appeal case in which the applicant was totally lacking in credibility but succeeded on the basis of medical evidence alone.
The professor also discussed decision-makers assumptions, taking for example the claim that you can’t through an airport on a fake passport.
In terms of Appeal and review Professor Goodwin Gill said that it is not enough to say “I do not believe” and described the system as a “world of inferences”. He noted that almost universally a late submission equals a lack of credibility.
He expressed that what we want is a picture of the individual in context, concluding that “The individual needs to be brought back into the picture, back into the realm of international law.”
Justice Catherine McGuiness, who was chairing this discussion added that the “the narrow concept of judicial review opens itself up to a culture of disbelief.”
The following speaker was Professor Rosemary Byrne an associate professor of International and Human rights law and the Director of the centre for post-conflict justice at Trinity. Professor Byrne said that a “serious reconsideration of the system was needed” and that there was reason for significant concern over the low recognition rate here.
She discussed asylum testimony as human rights testimony and noted that “the nature of the asylum seeker as a victim has an impact on the way testimony is presented”.
She expressed the importance of rethinking how we approach credibility.
She mentioned Canadian studies that highlight a “presumptive scepticism” in asylum claims showing that unstated assumptions are driving the process.
She mentioned in particular the problems of the unstated assumption that the motivations of asylum seekers are to deceive the system.
Following this Dr. Jane Herlihy, Executive Director of the centre for the study of Emotion and the Law (CSEL) gave a presentation on psychological evidence in asylum claims. She focused particularly on the diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and emphasised that the absence of a diagnosis does not disprove a history of trauma just as the presence of a diagnosis is not evidence of trauma.
Fadela Novak-Irons, the UNHCR Policy Officer for Europe, described the importance of quality in decision making and expressed how credibility was at the core of this process. She highlighted the various challenges faced by the system such as decisions under conditions of uncertainty; Absence of witnesses; General nature of country of origin; human behaviour; the role of memory as well as trauma and vulnerabilities.
She went on to discuss the CREDO project currently been undertaken by the UNHCR and described it as taking a multidisciplinary approach to these issues.
The aim is for the UNHCR to launch new credibility guidelines by 2014.