The asylum interview

Legal Updates

This week, we ran our signature training session – with René Cassin – on understanding the asylum and immigration system, the barriers that people face when going through it, and practical actions supporters can take to help people through.

The coloured cards in the photo above are problems that we are told about time and again by asylum-seekers, former asylum-seekers, and their supporters.  You’ll notice an awful lot of them clustered around the “substantive interview” stage of this asylum process diagram.

There are things that people can do to prepare for the interview, rights they can assert during the interview, and steps they can take afterwards.  But all too often, people are not made aware of these things in time.  We hope that our Toolkit, and the training we deliver based on the Toolkit, will be part of changing that.

The asylum, or ‘substantive’ interview

The asylum, or substantive, interview is when the Home Office interviewer will ask you in detail about your reasons for claiming asylum. The interview may last several hours and you will be asked lots of questions. You may be asked questions several times in different ways.

It can be a very long, difficult and traumatic interview, and could be the most important part of your asylum application.

You are going to be asked questions about things that may be very difficult to talk about. Be prepared for not being believed. It is common for the Home Office interviewer to explicitly say they do not believe you. Have friends, neighbours and supporters on hand to talk to before and after the interview.

If you have a lawyer, they may ask you to tell them your story before the interview with the Home Office and submit a statement before the interview. If you are going to be explaining very upsetting events, this might be a useful thing to do, so that you do not have to be asked so many detailed questions about events (for example, with incidents of sexual violence). A statement may be written and submitted after the interview, particularly if there are things you weren’t given chance to explain or you think there were problems with the interview.

If you cannot attend the interview, you must provide very good reasons for this, through your lawyer if you have one. If you are ill, get a note from the doctor; if there are transport problems, get evidence of this from the transport company.

Without good reasons and evidence of these good reasons, the Home Office may refuse to re-arrange your interview and will assess your application on paper (which almost always leads to a refusal).

If you are an adult and you have a legal aid lawyer, they will not be able to attend the substantive interview with you (some law firms arrange for their lawyers to attend on a pro-bono basis, but this is very unusual).

Audio recording and written transcript

It is your legal right to have the interview audio-recorded. You or your lawyer must request this in writing, 24 hours or more in advance of the interview.

If you have requested it, make sure the interview is recorded. The interviewer may not mention it, or may try and convince you not to have it done, but it is very important to have your interview recorded.

At the end of the interview, make sure you are given a copy of the audio recording, as well as a written copy (a ‘transcript’) of what was said by you and by the interviewer during the interview. These should be given to you immediately after the interview. Your lawyer will need a copy of these.

These records are important, as it may become clear later on that you have been refused because of something you didn’t say, that was written down wrong, or that has been misinterpreted. If your case goes to appeal, your lawyer can listen to the audio recording and compare this to what has been written down (with the help of an interpreter if necessary).

Male or female interviewer

You have the right to request a male or female interviewer, and the Home Office will usually grant this request. If you want to be interviewed by an interviewer of a particular gender, make sure you request this as soon as possible. If you request it just before the interview, it is very unlikely the Home Office will be able to arrange this.

Interpreters

The Home Office will provide an interpreter for the interview.

You can request a male or female interpreter. As with the request for a male/female interviewer, the earlier you make the request, the more likely it is to be granted. You may not be comfortable giving your testimony to an interpreter from your home country/community. You can request an interpreter who speaks your language but who is from a different country/community, but there is no guarantee this request will be granted.

If there are any problems with the interpreter – you cannot understand them, they cannot understand you, they speak a different dialect, you don’t think they are being professional or you can tell they aren’t interpreting things correctly – it is very important to tell the Home Office interviewer and ask them to write it down.

After the interview, you should also inform your lawyer if there were problems with the interpreter (or any other problems), but it is far better if it has been recorded at the time of interview.

If there are discrepancies in your testimony because of poor interpretation during the interview, and these are used to refuse your asylum claim, it will be much easier to respond to the reasons for refusal if the problems were recorded during the interview.

Big problems with interpretation will be impossible to ignore – for example, you do not understand the interpreter at all, or they do not understand you. But it is important to watch out for small problems too. Little things misinterpreted can have a big impact on your case. This might be something like the wrong date being used.

It may be that there isn’t a direct equivalent in your language for a word in English and therefore the wrong word is used (for example, in some languages there is no separate word for ‘wrist’ and ‘elbow’ and ‘shoulder’, the word ‘arm’ is used for all these. This can cause problems, especially when talking about injuries, and torture).

The wrong grammar may cause a problem – is ‘he’ and ‘she’ being used correctly? Are you talking about one person (the singular) but it is being interpreted into English as two people (plural).

You may speak enough English to notice these errors, in which case you should correct them during the interview. Or it may not be until you, your lawyer, or one of your supporters looks at the transcript of the interview, and in light of what you have told them that the errors become clear.

Know your rights

  • Request that your substantive interview is audio recorded. Make the request in writing, and more than 24 hours before the interview. Make sure you are given a copy of the audio recording and the written transcript at the end of the interview.
  • You have the right to request a male or female interviewer, and a male or female interpreter. Make this request as far in advance as possible.
  • If you need a break during the interview, ask for one – this is your right, do not be afraid to ask.
  • If you are not feeling well, are tired, or upset because of having to think about what has happened to you, tell the interviewer this.
  • If there is a problem with interpretation, say so as soon as possible, and ask for this to be noted.
  • If there were things you forgot to say, or said wrong, or felt you were not given time to explain, or if there were any other problems during the interview, make sure this is recorded when you are asked, towards the end of the interview, “Is there anything else you want to add?”

Dates and times, cultural issues

During the interview, you may be asked to fit your story into a chronological timeline of what happened when, in a way you are not used to. For example, ‘x’ happened in 2009, then ‘y’ happened in May 2010, after that ‘z’ happened in June 2010.

Alternatively, during the interview, the interviewer may jump around from event to event which can be very confusing. Take your time answering questions and think about what you want to say before speaking. You might find it easier to draw a timeline of events – ask the interviewer if this possible.

If you cannot remember a date, say you cannot remember. You may not be able to remember an event by a day or month but by the weather, the season or a family occurrence. You can explain these instead if you are sure of them. If there are ways of marking time that make more sense to you than an official calendar, such as an important church service or jobs you do as a farmer at a similar time every year, use these. For example, you may remember that something happened during Ramadan, or after the harvest. Or that it was winter, because the nights were cold.

If you guess a date, and then say a different date at a different point in the interview or a later stage of your application, this will be used to doubt your story.

Be clear about which calendar you are using (always do this, whether speaking to your lawyer, an interpreter or the Home Office or a judge). It is better not to switch between calendars as this can lead to mistakes, so if, for example, you are used to using the Persian calendar or the Ethiopian calendar, use that throughout your testimony and it will be converted to the Gregorian (UK) calendar by the Home Office or your lawyer (if you have one). If you have a lawyer, you can ask them to check that the dates have been converted properly by the Home Office, an interpreter or by themselves.

Be aware that the person interviewing you may know very little about your country and/or culture. This can lead to misunderstandings in the interview, and ultimately to a refusal of your asylum claim. For example, you may use the word ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ to refer to someone you know. In the UK, these words have specific meanings – the brother or sister of your mother/father. If you use the word ‘uncle’ in the broader meaning, for example if you said ‘my uncle in Kabul helped me’, it will cause confusion if you later say you haven’t got any family in Kabul.

Evidence

To be granted refugee status, you must show your fear of persecution is ‘well-founded’, meaning there is real basis for your fear. Read more about this here.

Many people are unable to get documentary evidence to support their case. This can be either because there isn’t a ‘paper trail’ to show your activity or the persecution you experienced, or because evidence exists but you haven’t had time to get it sent to you yet. Because of this, your ‘evidence’ at this stage of the asylum process will often just be your testimony about what has happened to you and/or what you think may happen.

This means that the Home Office will look at the information you gave in your screening interview and then in your substantive interview. They will check if there are any differences, or things they don’t think make sense, or that they don’t think are true.

You may be re-telling difficult experiences, and remembering these events can be upsetting. It is important, however, to try and give enough detail about the events to explain them to someone who wasn’t there, isn’t from your country, and to explain why these events led to you having to leave your country.

Giving details about a physical or sexual assault can be particularly distressing, but your testimony will be used to make a decision on your asylum claim. It is therefore important to include information such as who attacked you; what they were wearing; if they were police or army or secret police (and their rank if you know it); what they did to you; how often it happened, particularly if you were in prison/detention at the time; who was in the room; how you managed to survive.

Documentary evidence

Documentary evidence is often hard to get because of the circumstances in which you had to leave your country. Nonetheless, the Home Office tends to disbelieve what you say (your testimony) and so it is very helpful if there is genuine documentary evidence to support your story. Documentary evidence might include a political party membership card, an arrest warrant, a birth certificate, or newspaper articles about you or persecution of people like you.

If you are going to submit any documentary evidence, make sure you have shown this to your lawyer beforehand and they have agreed it should be submitted. You can either give this evidence to the Home Office at the interview, or you have five days after the interview within which to submit any documentary evidence or any statements.

If you are going to submit documents, make sure you know where they came from. Who sent them to you? How did they get them? If posted to you, keep the envelope they came in and any other proof of postage. Wherever possible, you need to submit original documents, not photocopies or scans. If they are in a language other than English, you (or your lawyer, if you have one) will need to get a formal translation.

Never submit documents if you are not sure they are genuine – this could seriously damage your case. If possible, your lawyer should get an expert on your country/reason for claiming asylum to comment on whether they are genuine. This is because the Home Office position is that documentary evidence is likely to be fake.

In addition to documentary evidence specific to your case, general information about the situation in your country from reliable sources may be useful. This is sometimes called ‘objective evidence’. This may show that what you have experienced fits a pattern of human rights abuses or persecution in your country of origin. This is particularly important if you were persecuted by a state official such as a police officer or army officer. You will need to demonstrate that the state cannot protect you from these people because state officials are routinely involved in these abuses, and that it was not just a one-off attack which would be unlikely to happen again.

For more on where to find objective evidence, see After a Refusal’ section of the toolkit.

Read more about questions you might be asked in the interview
Find out more about preparing for the interview
Find out more about actions you can take after the interview



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