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Are Asylum Seekers Lying? A Personal Story

2011 August 2

Are Asylum Seekers Lying When Their 
Testimony is Inconsistent? A Personal Story

I’ve just been re-reading Judy Eidelson’s PsySR post, Traumatic Memories, Well-Founded Fears, and Credibility (mentioned in yesterday’s post about the group’s national conference.) The article is based on Judy’s experiences in documenting the psychological impact of torture trauma for clients who are seeking political asylum in the United States. As she points out, torture survivors’ requests for asylum are often turned down because asylum officers and immigration judges “assess the credibility of a refugee’s testimony by scrutinizing it for inconsistencies. Many asylum claims are denied because the case record includes conflicting accounts of details in the asylum seeker’s story, or because aspects of the story deemed important by officials only emerge late in the proceedings. But these kinds of inconsistencies are a hallmark of PTSD.” 
            Judy’s observations have been overwhelmingly borne out in the interviews I’ve done for our film, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture. Folks have repeatedly told us about torture survivors who were turned down for asylum because of slight discrepancies between their affidavits and their verbal testimonies, or their statements on different dates – different recollections of the number of people inflicting the torture, for example, or not remembering the exact dates they were imprisoned. Several people mentioned cases in which the asylum applicant failed to mention some particularly degrading element of their torture on first testifying – rape or other sexual torture, for example – but added it later, and were disbelieved.

Eidelson notes: “Part of the problem is that many of us cling to the idea that no matter what people have been through – including rape, mutilation, and the slaughter of loved ones – they will act in just the way we like to think we would have acted. We would remember exactly what happened. We would know what parts of our long trails of misery are most relevant to immigration authorities. We would report exactly the same details each time we were asked. We would have no trouble talking about it, even in front of strangers who accuse us of lying. We would look appropriately upset while telling the story – crying at the sad parts and making eye contact throughout.”

Would we, indeed?

Not long ago my wife and some friends were participating in a delegation to a Central American country. In the course of the trip, six of them were taking a walk on a quiet country road and were robbed at knife-point by a group of young men. This was less than two months ago. No one was hurt and the whole incident probably took less than ten minutes.
At dinner with some other folks last night, three of those involved in the incident were telling about it – or trying to. These are three mature, highly educated, middle class Americans. The three of them could not agree on a single fact about what happened: How many robbers were there? What did they look like? Were they teenagers or adults? What did they say? How many knives were brandished? Were they machetes or a different type of knife? How exactly did the incident end? In the aftermath, how many times did the victims of the robbery trek down to the local police station to look at suspects? (My wife said they went at least two times; the others insisted it was only once.)
            I don’t want in any way to minimize the trauma experienced by my wife and friends; I was robbed myself, also at knifepoint, long ago and in peaceful Cambridge, Massachusetts. Accurate or not, it’s a memory that doesn’t go away. But compare this to the traumatic experiences many asylum seekers have gone through: multiple incidents of torture; beatings, often to the point of unconsciousness; loss of family members; forms of abuse and humiliation (including rape) that may be considered shameful and difficult to talk about…

Damaging media coverage prejudices
the chances of honest asylum seekers…

Publicity following the revelation that the accuser of Dominique Strauss-Kahn lied on her asylum application has been followed by a spate of articles that, on the whole, have been quite damaging to the cause of legitimate groups working to support and assist asylum seekers. There’s little question that immigration fraud exists, but some recent articles leave the impression that it’s practically universal – case in point: Sam Dolnick’s short piece in the New York Times, Immigrants May be Fed False Stories to Bolster Asylum Pleas (“A shadowy industry dedicated to asylum fraud thrives in New York…Immigrants peddle personal accounts ripped from international headlines, con artists prey on the newly arrived and non-lawyers offer misguided advice.”)
            Illustrated with photos of “Notario” offices, a neighborhood institution where immigrants often receive a wide range of essential assistance in navigating their new environment, the piece, in my opinion, implies that they are almost invariably dishonest. Note that there’s a rather interesting followup discussion on “How Can the Asylum System be Fixed” on the paper’s “Room for Debate” page. 
            Dolnick’s article was closely followed by Suketa Mehta’s New Yorker article documenting the deceptions practiced by a young African woman in obtaining asylum (Annals of Immigration: The Asylum Seeker (“For a Chance at a Better Life, it helps to make your bad story worse.” — Summary available online; full article by subscription or per-issue payment. The full article is – my impression – somewhat more sympathetic than the free summary, if that’s worth six bucks to you.)

INTERESTED IN HELPING ASYLUM SEEKERS? Physicians, Psychologists, other healthcare workers, attorneys, and others interested in working with asylum applicants can contact the Asylum Program at  Physicians for Human Rights.

NOTE: There’s an interestingly different take on the whole issue in a piece from Britain by James Souter on the Open Democracy blog. (“Bogus” Asylum Seekers? The Ethics of Truth-Telling in the Asylum System.Souter attempts to sort out the ethical issues involved in the decision-making process, and concludes that we should be less concerned with the character of the asylum seeker (do they exaggerate or even lie in their statements) than with the degree to which they actually face serious harm if returned to their country of origin. Some applicants, who may have come primarily for economic reasons, may lie to conceal the fact that they are not actually at risk at home. But others may lie, to bolster their case, because they are truly at risk of torture or death if they return. In the latter case, Souter argues, the lie should not necessarily be disqualifying.

FILM NOTE: There’s an excellent POV documentary on the asylum process, Well Founded Fear (2000) by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini. The film takes a realistic and reasonably balanced view of the process, through the cases confronted by asylum officers who – at least for the most part – appear to be trying to do the right thing. The film is available on Netflix as well as for purchase from Amazon. You can download a study guide as well – I remember it as being pretty good, though some facts may be out of date. Some other resources and background materials, designed for students, are on the program’s archived POV site. Be warned: There’s a YouTube video called “A Well Founded Fear of Persecution.” It is NOT the same film. From some of the comments on the site it appears to be an anti-immigrant screed from Australia.


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