A guest blog post by Melanie Griffiths.
Melanie Griffiths is a DPhil candidate at Oxford University, with affiliation to the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, and the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. Her research is on the asylum system in the UK, with a particular focus on refused asylum seekers and immigration detainees. Her doctoral thesis is on truth, trust and identification and she has also written on time and uncertainty in relation to migration. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Asylum seekers and refused refugees are some of the most mistrusted persons in British society, widely assumed to be manipulating the immigration system. In 2008-10 I conducted 18 months of anthropological fieldwork with asylum seekers living in Oxford or held in immigration detention, as part of a PhD at the University of Oxford researching the asylum system. The majority of the some 300 asylum applicants I spoke to were at some point accused by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) of providing untrue information about who they were and what had happened to them, or requesting asylum when they had no valid claim under the Refugee Convention. Such accusations are crucial, given that the notoriously difficult decision to grant refugee status is often bond up in assessments of the applicant’s honesty or ‘credibility’.
Rather than focus on the ‘traditional’ discussion about the truthfulness of asylum seekers however, I turn the tables on assessments of confusion and incoherence in order to explore how asylum applicants themselves experience, understand and explain the bureaucracy they are embedded in. I argue that deception, uncertainty and mistrust are as much characteristics of asylum seekers’ perspective of the immigration system as the reverse. But whilst an asylum applicant’s inconsistency is routinely interpreted as evidence of lying, that of UKBA representatives is considered indicative of inconsequential errors or even new versions of the ‘truth’.
A culture of disbelief
Many organisations and advocates have argued that there is a ‘culture of disbelief’ within the UKBA, meaning that asylum seekers are met with chronic suspicion and presented as liars or cheats. This has serious implications, given that being branded a liar tends to not only affect the outcome of asylum claims, but likelihood of being detained and ability to obtain legal representation.
Entrenched suspicion and accusations of deception and trickery are not only directed towards asylum seekers and immigration detainees however. Rather, mistrust is experienced by and of most persons involved in the refugee system, including asylum seekers mistrusting the UKBA. For some, this tipped over into believing that the authorities deliberately lied to them. Scores claimed that the UKBA distorted reality in order to tarnish reputations.
Confusion and inconsistency
Mistrust of the UKBA arises from an immigration system that is deeply confusing and imbued with uncertainty, a high error rate and sometimes apparently arbitrary decision-making. Working in this field, one frequently witnesses mistakes made by the UKBA, from their use of multiple different names or dates of birth for a person within a single letter, to extremes such as confusing which individual has been deported or incorrectly bestowing refugee status.
In addition to mistakes, people spoke of UKBA decision-making as unfair and unfathomable. Release from immigration detention for example often appears arbitrary or inexplicable. People can be released suddenly and unexpectedly, only to be promptly re-detained.
Contradiction and the irrational
At times however, my informants not only expressed the opinion that the immigration system was unpredictable and confusing, but that it was downright irrational. This included instances in which the UKBA held multiple, but incompatible, positions. Twice I knew individuals who were imprisoned for using false identity documents, whilst simultaneously the UKBA insisted that their ‘real’ identities were those on the false document. I spoke to a handful of people who had been refused refugee status because they had not committed identity offences, but had travelled with ‘real’ passports or visas, which was taken to prove that their government was not seeking them. I knew one man accused of absconding from the authorities at a time when he was working as a police informer and another when he was actually in prison.
New truths and unlevel playing fields
‘When immigration lie it is acceptable, but when I speak they call it deception. They have language for it.’ (detainee Roger)
The article suggests that although trust and honesty are issues central to the whole British asylum system, a reductive emphasis on the honesty of asylum applicants overlooks wider systemic uncertainty and mistrust. Asylum applicants feel that the authorities make arbitrary and unfair decisions that they cannot make sense of and that hinder their ability to know what to say and do. For them, the state is not a powerful monolithic entity, but a collection of administrators who are in permanent contradiction. That policymakers and bureaucrats might make errors or unfathomable, inconsistent decisions is not in itself surprising. However, two points make this particularly pertinent in the context of the asylum and immigration detention systems.
Firstly, for asylum seekers and detainees, the immigration system is not simply a bureaucracy that they are sometimes frustratingly forced to engage with. Rather, especially for those incarcerated, it is one that frames their entire lives and in which mistakes have serious repercussions for their immediate lives and potential futures. Secondly, there is an irony in a system that is itself imbued with error and confusion, placing such great primacy on the truthfulness of asylum seekers, that narrative inconsistencies can undermine the chances of a person receiving refugee protection. The British asylum process operates under the assumption that ‘truthful’ applicants present their stories in a ‘coherent and consistent’ manner, attributes that are often missing in the authorities’ own responses. As such, asylum seekers are held to a higher standard of truth-telling than those making decisions about their claims.
I would go even further and suggest that the ‘truth value’ of UKBA representatives is considered far greater than those subject to the asylum and detention systems, allowing the former to insist on particular versions of the ‘truth’, and threaten individuals who resist it with criminal repercussion. This commonly includes disputes over the nationality of failed asylum seekers, with individuals imprisoned for not cooperating with removal to a country they insist is not their own. Furthermore, errors made but denied by the UKBA can become a new version of the ‘truth’, with applicants accused of deception if they do not conform to them.
I do not suggest that asylum seekers do not ‘lie’ (as problematic as that term is), merely that an examination of the context in which they are embedded may help illuminate systemic tensions and individual’s decision-making. In fact, lying cam even be interpreted as a rational response to negotiating a complex and inconsistent immigration system. The reality of my fieldsite was messy and complicated and although I frequently encountered scenarios which I knew involved untruths, my uncertainty as to where the ‘truth’ lay and the nagging sense of irrationality that I often felt, was as much the case in conversations with the UKBA as with asylum seekers.
This is a much shortened version of the full article. The journal, Anthropology Today, however has kindly provided open access to the article for six months. You can read the full article here.
Please forward the article to anyone you think would be interested. And if you would like to share your thoughts, opinions or own experience then please do join the discussion here.
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