Post by May-Len Skilbrei, Professor of Criminology at the University of Oslo. She is currently heading a research project funded by the Research Council of Norway on migration management, where her own sub-project is on staff perspectives. Read more about the project here. This is third instalment of Border Criminologies themed week on Immigration Control: Staff Perspectives organised by Thomas Ugelvik.

During the fall of 2015 I spent some time in reception centres for asylum seekers throughout Norway as part of ongoing research. Although the staff are in the midst of the practical mess of trying to house the many newly arrived asylum seekers, in interviews they’re already talking about the tasks that lie ahead when many of the applicants will be made into rejected asylum seekers by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI). The reception centre staff are actively distancing themselves from this decision-making process, which protects them from some of the anger and frustration applicants feel and express. This makes it relevant to consider how the arrival of unprecedented numbers of asylum applicants, together with the hardening of domestic and European debate climate on migration policy, will create challenges for immigration officers in the near future.

In 2013 I headed a study on asylum interviewing and decision making among immigration officers in UDI. There are many involved in immigration policy debates and development, but they are the ones who sit face-to-face with asylum seekers, listen to their stories, survey the documentation, and decide whether what they have heard is credible or not. For the applicants, they are the face of Norwegian immigration policy and on both a personal and political level, and this isn’t always an easy role to play. A central element to their job is to undertake a credibility assessment where they also apply some element of discretion as well as awarding the applicant the benefit of the doubt. We found that respondents had difficulties in explaining to us how these particular principles are applied. Some talked about percentages and setting up pro et contra accounts, whereas others spoke about intuition and gut feeling. Needless to say, these and other factors mean that the bar of a credible account is set differently for different officers.

We also found that while much of the frustration and many of the dilemmas immigration officers experienced were related to the conditions under which they worked, such as lack of resources and the increasing impact of new public management, they also expressed doubts about the meaning of their work. In particular, staff identified two balancing acts related to how they see themselves, their colleagues, and their institution. The first balancing act concerns staff keeping a necessary distance to the applicant in order to see the case clearly while not burning out and becoming a cynic. The other balancing act is being a sympathetic listener without being naïve.

One of the respondents described how she had observed a shift in herself over time, one that enables her to make better decisions. She described how her interviewing technique had become more confrontational over time: ‘In the beginning you believe in a lot. But, when you have had 50 who have said the same, you start thinking “okay, this cannot have happened to all 50 of them.”’ Here the respondent speaks of the danger of naivety, something she links to lack of experience. Others warned about how the job rebalances one’s outlook in a different way: ‘I think many experiences that it [frustration and the trauma of the stories they hear] build up over time, […] and if you are unable to deal with it, I believe you become more cynical than objective, because you cannot take it anymore.’ Several asylum officers spoke of these balancing acts in terms of how they produce two opposites in the way they approach the asylum interview and their decision-making: Going into it looking for a reason to say no or going into it looking for a reason to say yes.

These balancing acts are not only about individual experience and self-protection vis-à-vis the applicants. The political climate, the reputation of UDI, and how colleagues perform their work also impact how it feels being the face of Norwegian immigration policies, and therefore how immigration officers balance objectivity/cynicism and sympathy/nativity. In the current political climate where stricter immigration control is debated and claims are made about systemic naivety in politics and institutions, what it takes to be seen and see yourself as objective instead of a cynic and naïve instead of sympathetic is thus likely to shift and make more asylum officers look for a reason to say no rather than a reason to say yes.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Skilbrei, M-L. (2016) Being Nice, But Not Naive. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/being-nice-not (Accessed [date]).