Home Office asylum interviews: “principles and standards”?

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By Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain

The newly updated Home Office guidance on conducting asylum substantive interviews makes for interesting reading.

There’s some practical developments, which we’ve written about on our legal blog here.

The document presents a curious mismatch between good practice on paper, and years of hearing and seeing their behaviour in the past.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the sentence that:

“The interview should be conducted in a constructive spirit of cooperation between you, the claimant and their representative”.

This certainly was not the spirit I felt when I sat in on interviews as a legal representative, but it would be wonderful if this became the common experience.

The “principles and standards” set out for investigating the asylum claim are admirable, but seem to be very different from what people tell us they experience in reality.

The interviewer is told to “not prejudge the claim or approach the interview with scepticism” and “focus on material facts”.

Interviewers are reminded that factors that can affect obtaining information in the interview include “past treatment by authority figures in the country of origin”, “language barriers”, “the ability of the interpreter to present an accurate representation of the claimant’s responses”, and “the working of the human memory – its fallibility and its strengths”. All of this is absolutely true, yet seem to be exactly the things so many Home Office refusal letters ignore.

Interviewers are told to “avoid compound questions”, and that “it is better if you ask questions one at a time”, another practice that the Home Office in the past seemed determined to operate in reverse.

The document includes suggestions of excellent practice in interviewing, such as “listening out for the unspoken”.

Perhaps most astonishing for me was this paragraph:

At the same time, the substance of what happened during a significant event is potentially more important than precise dates, which may not always be consistent throughout an account. It is, for example, more important for you to obtain details of a prison’s organisation and regime whilst in detention, the prison’s whereabouts and so on, than to focus narrowly on the precise dates of detention which are unlikely to be verifiable and may be difficult to recall where someone has been detained and tortured for long periods.

This is, frankly, the exact opposite of what we have found in most Home Office refusals. I have met somebody fairly recently who was refused on the basis they provided an inconsistent length of time that they were detained and tortured – the very example used here.

We know that Home Office practice has markedly improved in some areas – notably, not asking LGBT+ claimants about their sexual activity or relying on offensive or inaccurate stereotypes. There also seems to be some progress made in, for example, moving away from “knowledge testing” people who have claimed on the basis of conversion to Christianity.

Despite that, it feels like we’re an awfully long way off from the standards laid out in the document. What I hope is that the guidance document indicates a direction of travel for the Home Office, which would be very welcome.

If you’re in Edinburgh this month, check out the play The Claim, which we helped the writer and director to develop.

Described as “a bold interrogation of the UK’s Kafka-esque asylum system”, the play presents the bizarre and frustrating experience of the asylum interview and even manages to make you laugh.

It’s on at the Edinburgh Festival (Roundabout/Summerhall) every day except Tuesdays until the end of August. Find out more here.



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