On Thursday November 21st, the Centre for Criminology welcomed Dr. Sharon Cowan (University of Edinburgh) and Professor Vanessa Munro (University of Nottingham) to present on their Nuffield Foundation-funded research on the UK’s treatment of women making asylum claims involving disclosure of sexual violence.

Their seminar, ‘Suspension of disbelief? Challenges in Disclosing and Evaluating Women’s Claims of Sexual Violence in the Asylum and the Criminal Justice System’, described research conducted between 2009 and 2012. This included a sample of UKBA Case Owner’s initial decisions involving female claimants, and a small number of asylum interview observations. The research was primarily informed, however, by 104 semi-structured interviews with stakeholders and 48 observations of appeal tribunal hearings. In 12 of the cases observed the researches gained consent of the appellants and legal representatives to use surrounding case files. 1

A significant proportion of women seeking asylum in the UK disclose that they have experienced rape in their home countries; for many this is a primary reason for fleeing their countries of origin. The study itself did not aim to investigate the veracity of these claims but rather explore the experiences of women who disclose rape and how these claims are evaluated by asylum officials.

The first of three main streams of analysis involved disclosure of and responses to allegations of sexual violence. Female asylum-seekers are highly vulnerable – disclosure is difficult because of additional victimisation experiences to the stigma, fear of disbelief and other barriers experienced by rape victims. A lack of trust, cultural differences and difficulties in communication present additional challenges to disclosure.

The UKBA environment itself presents an obstacle to disclosure. Concerns were raised around privacy, time scales, the pressure of long queues and the formalistic nature of the process. Although less formal than the CJS, it had a distinct atmosphere of hostility which created an adversarial environment by ‘treating people like they’re on trial.’

Officials often expected full and early disclosure of sexual violence, under the impression that genuine experiences would be reported without prompting. Late disclosure was accepted if it was for one of four ‘good reasons’:

Culture and shame: Although cultural sensitivity is encouraged, this often led to nation-specific stereotypes, e.g. ‘Women from the DRC aren’t shy about this sort of thing, she must be lying’

Trauma: Many participants acknowledged the effect of trauma on disclosure, but were suspicious of applicants who had not sought counselling

Vocabulary and Narration: Respondents acknowledged that choice of words may obscure the experience being disclosed, for example through interpreters making mistakes, adjusting phrasing or through miscommunication.

Inability or a lack of desire to engage with the asylum process: Many respondents felt the asylum process was confusing for applicants, who may not understand the importance of early disclosure.

Disclosure itself was regularly engaged with in an adversarial manner, through cross examination and a hostile procedural atmosphere. There was evidence of officials trivialising the significance of rape, for example where a legal representative described a woman’s experience of being raped at age 11 as ‘having had a pretty unpleasant time.’

In sum, disclosure was ‘always going to be an interactive process’ and ‘insuring the ability of the listener to hear disclosures and respond appropriately is crucial. Barriers to disclosure pose a real risk of injustice for women seeking asylum.’

Next came how credibility is assessed in relation to disclosures of rape. The presenters divided this into four aspects:

Problems of proof: With the relative absence of objective external evidence in the asylum context, the researchers found that in practice, assessment of credibility was arbitrary and often came down to the characteristics of individual decision-makers.

Markers of incredibility: Late disclosure, inconsistencies (despite evidence that trauma affects memory) and demeanour (many believed that applicants that were visibly upset were more genuine) played huge roles in credibility assessment.

General scepticism around rape: There was evidence of a culture of disbelief within the asylum system, with some officials admitting that there is a initial assumption of dishonesty regarding disclosures of rape. One interpreter told the researchers that ‘you get to a point where everything is refused as being without credibility because, how credible can a rape story be?’

Scepticism about women’s claims of rape: Men’s claims were treated differently in the asylum system. The stigma around male rape meant that officials considered it harder to report and men were perceived as unlikely to lie about it. Officials are more likely to disbelieve female rape narratives as they hear them more often, which is further compounded by a wider social perception that women lie about rape.

Cowan and Munro concluded that ‘structural and practical obstacles faced in establishing credibility, and scepticism around rape claims and asylum claims more generally, means that decision-making is often arbitrary, uninformed and contradictory.’

The third stream of analysis investigated the emotional impact of traumatic narratives on asylum decision-makers and their strategies for coping. Asylum-seekers are often required to engage with disturbing and distressing narratives. Asylum professionals reported a range of responses to hearing such narratives, including stress, burnout, anxiety, flashbacks and a lack of empathy or connection with others. Many reported adopting coping strategies to preserve their personal wellbeing, as the reality of the narratives of persecution and the consequences of decisions in the asylum process was ‘soul destroying.’ Two particularly prominent coping strategies were identified:

Detachment: Many of the professionals, particularly those operating in a legal context, reported feeling their roles required emotional detachment and actively avoiding emotional involvement in cases. Although in theory this facilitates ‘sorting through the facts’, in practice this strategy moved beyond professional distance to disengagement or disbelief.

Asylum professionals are constantly exposed to traumatic narratives, to the extent that they become routine. This ‘case hardening’ means that persecution becomes banal and mundane, making it increasingly difficult to approach each case afresh or avoid creating victim hierarchies of suffering.

Denial: The constant exposure to traumatic narratives takes an emotional toll on asylum professionals, but so too does the responsibility associated with asylum decision-making.  Many manage this pressure by trivialising the significance of their role by shifting responsibility to other actors. For example, many respondents used the applicant’s right of appeal as a security blanket, to reassure them that their decisions were never ultimate.

Working in the asylum system is clearly incredibly difficult – generally professionals are left to negotiate the emotional impact of their work on their own. Cowan and Munro both stressed that Home Office employees are doing their best in a situation with few support measures, and suggested that implementing structural systems of support for decision-makers in the asylum system could lessen the effect the emotional toll their work has on decisions.

A huge thank you for Dr. Cowan and Professor Munro for sharing their research with us!

1. Since conducting the research the UKBA has been disbanded and its work allocated to the Home Office but that thus far this hasn’t significantly changed decision-making processes.