The unfolding Windrush scandal, in which people who were invited to Britain from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971 and given permanent leave to remain but have since found their credibility questioned, has shed light on the wider policies of the UK Home Office and the onus it places on proof and belief.
As Arthur Snell, a former British high commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago, put it, the:
Home Office appears to have a policy that says you, the applicant, must prove in the face of a very, very sceptical and negative institution, that you have this right. And, you can expect the Home Office to effectively answer in the negative wherever they can.
But far from being a one off, this culture of disbelief is routine for those seeking refuge from persecution in the UK, highlighting the extent of the “hostile environment” created by the Home Office.
Official statistics for 2017 reveal that 26,350 people claimed for asylum in the UK, a reduction from previous years. The claimants are drawn from countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Bangladesh and Sudan. Yet only 29% were granted refugee status, a figure the Refugee Council claims is the lowest grant rate in the past five years. Rejection is the norm within the UK, for there is an overly large burden of proof placed on those seeking refuge.
Onus of proof and storytelling
The UN Refugee Agency asserts that to be granted refugee status, the burden of proof lies solely with the asylum seeker. The asylum seeker needs to prove that they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution and that they are unable to seek protection from the authorities within their home country. Yet, due to the nature of persecution, few refugees will have records of their torture, rape or harassment to assist their claim.
Due to the burden of proof, it’s essential that the asylum seeker speaks of their experience of persecution and provides all necessary evidence. Gaining refugee status rests upon the telling of a story and having that story believed. This makes language central to the process of asylum. But it also becomes one of the central barriers to attaining refugee status. For if all you have is a story, then belief, credibility and consistency become central to your application.
Punished for silences and inconsistencies
All asylum seekers go through an asylum interview where they must be as accurate and consistent as possible in telling their story of persecution. The Home Office stresses that inconsistencies will be held against the asylum seeker and they will then be viewed as lacking in credibility.
However, the act of recounting a trauma does not necessarily result in a coherent and consistent narrative. Fragmentation can be part of the memory itself – making it almost impossible to narrate a coherent and chronological account, consistently. From my own recent research into memory, language and the asylum system, one lawyer spoke at length on the fragility of memory and the need for clarity and consistency. She noted that the asylum story might make sense in the client’s mind, but there can be inconsistencies to others.
It really challenges them, for they have formed some kind of narrative and it’s actually inaccurate and you need to unravel it to work out what’s gone wrong where, to make things make sense.
It’s within this struggle to articulate trauma that silence can act as a bridge between what is speakable and unspeakable. Yet the asylum process demands that “unspeakable” events of persecution be articulated. Silence is perceived generally by the Home Office as a sign of evasiveness and unresponsiveness, with failure to answer a question again viewed as “damaging to the claimant’s credibility”.
Silence though, can occur for a variety of factors – struggling to comprehend the trauma that forced you to flee your home, “cultural shock” and the unwillingness to reveal personal information to individuals in authority, or silence as a coping mechanism.
In a squeezed system, with reduced funding and legal aid cuts, it’s a lottery as to whether an applicant gets a lawyer and a case worker from the Home Office who will take the time to understand the asylum claim before them. Each claim is complex, and asylum seekers need time and resources to acquire the necessary evidence, be it medical, psychological or specialist reports. Without them, the asylum seeker has just a story.
For the Windrush generation, the challenges are different. These people are not claiming asylum but are now fighting to have their status recognised. As a result of the hostile environment, introduced by Theresa May as home secretary, employers, NHS and landlords are now required to ask for proof of citizenship or immigration status – something the Windrush generation were never given, nor needed, until now. All they have is their word that they had arrived as part of the Windrush generation.
The scandal has revealed to the public a culture of disbelief within the Home Office. This hostility extends to asylum cases, where the highest levels of consistency, coherency and narrative formation are required of all claimants. While the resignation of Amber Rudd as home secretary may be welcome news for some, the hostile environment is endemic of the Home Office itself. Regardless of who holds the department’s top job, the culture of disbelief will remain until the institution itself changes.