Content Warning: Torture, Rape
In the UK, asylum seekers wishing to be granted refugee status are interviewed by a Home Office caseworker. In this interview, they provide evidence of their reasons for leaving their home country. According to the Home Office, this account is “usually the most important evidence, often the only substantive evidence” for their asylum claim, as medical reports are limited and official documents often taken by smugglers. Consequently, the interview’s successful execution is crucial for the maintenance of a fair system. Yet Lessons not Learned, a 2019 report conducted by 17 organisations, has shown the system to be outdated and ineffective, with 2 in 5 asylum rejections being corrected upon appeal. Not only do these lengthy appeal processes cost taxpayers money, but they are also incredibly distressing for those seeking safety.
How can this failing system be improved? Among other essential changes, the proceedings of the Home Office desperately need to be brought in line with the last 100 years of psychological research. Refugees leave their home because they are in danger – in many cases they have been tortured, or family members have been killed. More often than not, they experience more traumatic events whilst travelling to a safer country. It is hardly surprising that the refugee population has an incredibly high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – at least four times the rate of host populations. (Fazel et al., 2005 and Priebe et al., 2016).
An abundance of research, summarised in Dr. van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score, has shown that when a person experiences trauma, their brain processes information in a completely different way than in normal experiences. When trauma memories are reactivated, much of the frontal lobe shuts down. This includes areas used for putting feelings into words, and for locating an event in time (Arnsten et al., 2015; Birnbaum et al., 1999). Further, brain areas responsible for integrating and storing incoming information are disconnected (van der Werf et al., 2003). Consequently, most people’s traumatic memories are fragmented and do not form a coherent narrative. Those memories that do exist are often incredibly difficult to report (van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995).
The finding that trauma drastically affects both our ability to remember events and our ability to report what we do remember is hardly a new discovery. Jean-Martin Charcot studied memory loss suffered by a man involved in an accident with a horse and cart in 1889. He noted that the patient did “not preserve any recollection” of the incident, despite its personal significance. Despite a long history of trauma research, the Home Office shows little regard for the effects of trauma on an individual.
In 2020, Freedom from Torture, a charity that provides therapeutic care for torture survivors, released Beyond Belief – a review of 30 case files of survivors of torture interviewed by the Home Office in 2017 or 2018. They reported that:
“survivors of torture can be disadvantaged when making their claim for protection through: poor interview technique and inadequate evidence gathering; prejudgment, and failure to approach the interview with sensitivity; lack of recognition of individual circumstances and needs, and the personal legacy of trauma.” (Page 11)
There is no time limit specified for the asylum interview. They frequently take four hours, whilst some last over six. Breaks are usually limited – one survivor reported beginning at 9:30 and ending at 5, with only a 45-minute break. During this time, asylum seekers are expected to speak about the most traumatic experiences of their lives – experiences so bad that they put their lives at risk to avoid having to repeat them. This procedure is likely to be incredibly distressing for many interviewees. To make things worse, due to the effect of trauma on the brain, asylum seekers may find it difficult to relay their experiences at all.
[Upon receiving a disclosure of torture]
Caseworker: I need to remind you to answer my question. I did not ask what happened in detention, I did not ask what happened when you were released, I asked if the bribe was accepted, why would you still be wanted by them?
Excerpt, asylum interview record, case 21.
Caseworker: Were you interrogated?
Claimant: Yes and beaten and I don’t like to think about it, it was a very bad thing.
Caseworker: Were you raped during the 5 days?
Claimant: Yes beaten and raped and left naked, I don’t like to think about it. [Claimant upset and crying]
Caseworker: How many times were you beaten and raped over the 5 days?
Excerpt, asylum interview record, case 14.
In medical settings, there are procedures in place to facilitate the disclosure of traumatic experiences and to protect the vulnerable person. Any volunteer working with refugees is expected to complete adult safeguarding training to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their beneficiaries. It is not difficult to train people to react to trauma disclosures appropriately, and it is entirely unacceptable that the Home Office has not done so.
How should the system change? The Home Office does provide some guidance for caseworkers on interviewing victims of torture and trauma:
“Victims of torture or other forms of violence may have difficulties in recounting the details because of the sensitive nature of those experiences and/or because of the effect of traumatic events on their memory… they should be asked when, where, how, and by whom the torture was inflicted, taking care not to cause undue distress. This is particularly important since claimants are not required to ‘prove’ that they were tortured, simply to establish it to a reasonable degree of likelihood.”
(Asylum Policy Instruction, Asylum interviews, v.6, p.18)
Yet the interview transcripts reveal that many caseworkers ignore their own policy, and that the Home Office has failed to ensure that even its own low standards are upheld. More needs to be done.
The Beyond Belief report suggests that a new training scheme must be implemented. Caseworkers should be able to identify, acknowledge and respond sensitively to the claimant’s disclosure of vulnerability or indicators of distress; use appropriate questioning techniques; and signpost victims to appropriate support and treatment services. They should also place a limit on interview length in order to avoid unnecessary exhaustion and distress, and be made aware of the effects of trauma on the brain. This sensitive approach is essential. One claimant noted that a polite and encouraging approach made all the difference:
“They asked about torture. They didn’t just say, ‘How did it happen, can you explain to us?’ They didn’t ask like that, they just said, ‘If you feel comfortable, can you give me some details about this?’ in a polite way… You feel better when they ask that way…” (Page 27)
The implementation of this training is crucial, but on its own, it is not enough. The Lessons not Learned report concludes by calling for a systematic overhaul or transformation of the current system. The culture within the Home Office must be one with protection as the guiding principle. As it stands, it is one in which asylum seekers often leave feeling more traumatised than they arrived.
If you want to help:
- Raise awareness on social media using this article or the reports referenced
- Write to your MP and demand change using
- Sign Freedom From Tortures declaration
- Tell torture survivors that you believe their story here
- Donate here
If you have been negatively affected: