Jane Herlihy is the Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Emotion and Law (CSEL). She is a Chartered Consultant Clinical Psychologist and has been writing and conducting research into the decision-making process in refugee status claims since 2000.
Lily Parrott works for the British Red Cross in Kent & Sussex and is a former intern at CSEL and the Fahamu Refugee Programme. She is also an editor of the Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter.
The following article introduces a new resource page that will be made available through the Fahamu Refugee Programme as part of its on-going commitment to supporting providers of legal aid to refugees worldwide.
Refugee status determination (RSD), has been called ‘the single most complex adjudication function in contemporary Western societies’ (Hunter et al., 2010:10). It involves potentially life-threatening legal decisions and recognition of the obligation of a state not to refoule asylum seekers, or to send them back to places where their lives may be threatened without first considering their refugee status claim. At the same time, the asylum system is required to play an important role in the maintenance of national borders (Thomas 2006). The RSD process typically involves reliance on incomplete and uncertain evidence (such as identity documents left behind during flight). As a result, the decision whether to grant refugee status often rests almost entirely upon the perceived credibility of the asylum seeker.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) states that asylum seekers should be given the benefit of the doubt if they ‘satisfy general credibility’ (believability) requirements. However, credibility is notoriously difficult to determine. Even professionals trained in lie detection (i.e. detectives, judges) are only slightly better than chance at recognising whether someone is being intentionally deceptive (for a review see Hartwig, Granhag & Strömwall 2007).
In a paper presented to a joint conference of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges and the UK Immigration Law Practitioners Association, Judge Barnes (2004, p. 354) stated that ‘in the case of country evidence, the expert is not the sole source of that evidence before the court. There will almost always be other evidence going into similar issues […] The expert evidence can therefore be evaluated against other material, much of which […] will have been produced by other experts in the field […] In contrast, there will be no similar breadth of evidence to assist in the evaluation of expert medical evidence, and particularly of such evidence as goes to the mental state of the claimant’. This paper will demonstrate that there is indeed a ‘breadth of evidence’ concerning psychological factors relevant to claims for international protection.
To ignore relevant psychological factors that may influence the perceived credibility of the asylum seeker risks denying protection to genuine refugees, as well as granting asylum to those who do not meet the criteria for refugee status based on the convention definition (Herlihy & Turner 2009). Furthermore, it leaves decisions and the whole decision making process vulnerable to criticism (Noll 2005). Immigration Judges report being required to use ‘common sense and experience’ (Independent Asylum Commission 2008). However, a qualitative analysis of refugee status determinations in the UK suggested that decision-makers relied on their own assumptions about people’s behaviour, decisions, motivations and ways of recalling and presenting an account of persecution which may or may not be in line with the best available psychological science (Herlihy, Gleeson & Turner 2010).
This article will introduce some of the psychological research that can be drawn on in representing people seeking international protection and in making legal decisions about them. We first consider memory, outlining the functioning of autobiographical memory, especially memories for potentially traumatic events, and exploring common assumptions that memories must be detailed, structured and consistent to be true. We then examine the psychological processes involved in disclosure, outlining the reasons why translating a lived experience into a narrative fit for legal processes is not a straightforward process. Finally we turn to the psychology of the Interviewer, switching focus from the asylum seeker to the decision-maker and outlining factors influencing decision makers’ interpretation of testimony, including vicarious traumatisation among adjudicators.
‘Memory is a reconstructive process, which is prone to errors. Therefore, we cannot fully rely on its accuracy, completeness, and consistency.’ (van Giezen, Arensman, Spinhoven, and Wolters 2005:20)
The substantive interview of the RSD process relies almost exclusively on autobiographical memory, or the explicit memory of events that occurred at a specific time and place in one’s personal past. The asylum seeker’s testimony is judged to be credible on the basis of its apparent plausibility and consistency (UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), May 2013). Memory is often assumed to be detailed, accurate and consistent (Cohen 2002) like a video recording of the past, but is more accurately represented as a functional reconstruction, subject to distortion, decay and even false memories (Herlihy, Jobson & Turner 2012). If the way memory actually functions is not understood by decision-makers, unfair asylum decisions may be made.
The function of autobiographical memory
The primary function of autobiographical memory is not to maintain an accurate record of events. Memory researchers have concluded that autobiographical memory instead has three primary functions: in a social role, it helps develop and maintain social bonds. In a directive role, it directs thoughts, feelings and behaviour using the past as a guide and anchors personal values, opinions and attitudes. Past experiences are updated and reinterpreted by new information and experiences (Bluck 2005). Finally, it assists how a person defines and expresses a continuous self and experiences personhood. How a person conceives of and wants to portray himself, what catches his attention, and how he structures a story about himself, will all affect how he remembers. Accuracy, then, is secondary – and may even at times conflict with the primary functions of autobiographical memory (Herlihy et al. 2012).
Elements of memory frequently used in RSD
Cameron’s Refugee Status Determinations and the Limits of Memory (2010) reviews many experimental studies, showing that some information is not encoded in memory or is poorly encoded, and is therefore difficult to access.
It has been found that memory for specific dates, times, duration, frequency and sequence of events is highly variable between individuals and may be prone to errors. For example, in one study in which subjects were asked to record their health histories for three months, when asked to date a specific illness, only 50% were able to guess it to within two and a half weeks (Cohen & Java 1995). In another study by Burt, Kemp, Grady & Conway (2000) when entries of participants’ diaries were written on cards and shuffled, only 36.5% of the participants were able to put them back into the correct order. Estimates of the frequency and recency of events may be based upon an ‘availability heuristic’ – the ease with which this type of event comes to mind (Tversky & Kahneman 1974). Detailed memories are estimated to be more recent than poorly remembered ones (Brown, Shevell & Rips 1986). Further, the occurrence of an event may be confused with the act of recalling it (Cohen & Java 1995). For example, a person may estimate an event to be more recent than it was because she recently recounted a story about the event to a friend. Further evidence indicates that people are not very good at accurately reconstructing when events happened, for how long, and in which order (Burt, Kemp, Grady & Conway 2000; Burt, Kemp, Grady & Conway 2008).
Asylum seekers may also be asked about objects commonly found in their country of origin, such as money or national identity documents, in order to test their truthfulness. However, it has been found that we have ‘unexpectedly poor memory for common objects’ (Cameron 2010:479), because we do not need to know this information to effectively use these objects in everyday life. In one experiment, US participants were asked to pick out the genuine American penny from a group of fake pennies and less than half the participants were able to do so (Nickerson & Adams 1979).
These and many other experimental studies of specific memories are described and reviewed comprehensively in Refugee status determinations and the limits of memory (Cameron, 2010).
Memory for repeated events (schemata)
Researchers have studied how we remember events which have been repeated many times, concluding that we use ‘schemata’. Schemata are ‘generic knowledge structures that guide the comprehender’s interpretations, inferences, expectations and attention’ (Graess`er & Nakamura 1984:60) or generalised composites of typical events (Herlihy et al. 2012), such as going to the market or eating at a restaurant. So for repeated events people recall a composite memory based upon what usually happens, rather than specific details. Schemata also work like ‘scripts’ to fill in gaps in memory with expected details. This results in reconstructed memories with details determined by an expectation of what ‘probably happened’ (Herlihy & Turner 2009). In the RSD system these may seem to be vague or inconsistent and hence not credible.
Research with children reporting sexual abuse over a number of years shows that they are good at giving an accurate account of what ‘usually happened’ but very poor at giving details of any particular event (Price & Connolly, 2008), which of course is what is needed for a legal determination. Understanding of this type of memory is likely to be particularly important for people who have been trafficked, or otherwise had many repeated, similar things happen to them, such as instances of detention, or of torture within detention.
Accuracy and consistency of memory
Even though consistency is not a necessary predictor of accuracy (Cameron 2010), or truthfulness, there is an assumption that a lack of consistency in a testimony indicates fabrication (Herlihy, Scragg & Turner 2002; Herlihy, Gleeson & Turner 2010).
The UK Border Agency emphasises the importance of internal consistency in its guidance notes:
It is reasonable to expect that an applicant who has experienced an event will be able to recount the central elements in a broadly consistent manner. An applicant’s inability to remain consistent throughout his written and oral accounts of past and current events may lead the decision maker not to believe the applicant’s claim. (UK Border Agency 2011:14).
UNHCR advises that ‘it may be necessary for an examiner to clarify and apparent inconsistencies and to resolve any contradictions in a further interview and an explanation for any misrepresentation or concealment of facts…’ (para. 199 of UNCHR Handbook on Criteria for the Determination of Refugee Status in Cohen 2002:294),
However, ‘there is strong evidence that the memories of trustworthy people are not necessarily correct.’ (Kaufmann, Drevland, Wessel, Overskeid & Magnussen 2003:21). For example, in a study of 500 fit, young military personnel interrogated under either ‘high or low-stress’ conditions during training for deployment, twenty-four hours later, only 66% of those under high-stress interrogations could identify their interrogator (Morgan III, Hazlett, Doran, Garrett, Hoyt, Thomas, Baranoski & Southwick 2004).
One explanation for how memories can be influenced by new (mis-)information, is that memory for the source of information fades faster than its content, so that information observed during an event and information learned about it later are difficult to distinguish. This is called a ‘source monitoring error’ (Johnson, Hashtroudi & Lindsay, 1993). For example, I may recount a new story to a friend, but have forgotten that I actually learned the story from that same friend.
Further, if a person is repeatedly asked about a memory of an event, she is likely to recall new information because ‘once a person has initiated a search in memory, the search continues.’ (Herlihy et al. 2002 :327) This is called hypermnesia. In one study, witnesses were interviewed twice about a crime, and in the second interview up to 60% of the information disclosed was new (Yuille & Cutshall 1986). Along with factors affecting disclosure, this is one reason why it is common for new information to be introduced in later accounts.
Consistency of memory for traumatic experiences
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V; APA, 2013) defines a traumatic event as exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, either oneself or as a witness’. Large scale studies have shown high rates of PTSD in refugees, which entails exposure to at least one ‘traumatic event’ (e.g. Fazel, Wheeler & Danesh, 2005; Turner, Bowie, Dunn, Shapo & Yule, 2003)
One prominent theory of memory suggests that ‘trauma memories’ are quite unlike normal autobiographical memories, and are stored in a different structure of the brain. Whereas normal autobiographical memories have a narrative structure (a beginning, a middle and an end), are recalled as located in the past, are updateable in the light of new information and are voluntary, ‘traumatic memories’ are distinguished by being encoded as a series of sensory ‘snapshots’. vividly re-experienced in the present, fixed, and triggered by external or internal cues. External cues might be seeing someone in a uniform, or hearing screams; internal cues include feelings of shame or guilt (Brewin, 2001, 2011).
A study by Southwick, Morgan, Nicolaou, & Charney (1997) supports the conclusion that memory for traumatic experiences is ‘malleable and subject to signiﬁcant distortion and alteration’ (Southwick et al. 1997:173). In this study, 59 National Guard reservists were asked to fill out a checklist of combat experiences 1 month and then 2 years after they returned from the Gulf War. They found that 88% of respondents changed at least one of their answers. Further, it was found that the more severe the PTSD being experienced by a respondent after 2 years, the greater the number of responses switched from ‘no’ (have not experienced) to ‘yes’ (have experienced) on the checklist of combat experiences.
In a study of Bosnian refugees by Mollica, Caridad & Massagli (2007), when reporting traumatic memories, all but four of the 376 refugees interviewed changed what they reported 3 years earlier. While across all refugees, many of whom had co-morbid PTSD and depression, the number of events reported decreased between interviews, for people with only PTSD the number of events reported increased.
Consistency may also be affected by changes in how depressed the person is. A study by Schraedley, Turner & Gotlib (2002) examined the effects of depression on how traumatic events were reported over a year and found that a decrease in symptoms of depression was linked to a decrease in the number of trauma-related events reported in the second interview. These findings again question the assumption that discrepancies produced during RSD relating to traumatic events indicate fabrication. They may be more linked to the person’s mental health over the period of questioning.
Central vs. peripheral details
A large body of research has shown a distinction between two different types of detail in autobiographical memories: central details capture the central ‘gist’ or more emotionally important details of what happened; peripheral details are the less important ‘minor details’.. What is emotionally central to a person’s memory is subjective and only known by the person reporting it.
Under conditions of stress, people tend to focus more on central details associated with the experience at the expense of peripheral ones (see Herlihy et al. 2012 for a review), and this will determine what they can remember when they come to recall the event. Yet, during RSD, credibility determination often relies upon questions concerning peripheral details (Herlihy, Gleeson & Turner 2010). When a memory is of a violent event, specifically one involving a weapon, a ‘weapon effect’ has been noted, whereby attention is so focused on the threatening weapon that people are less able to recall other details from the environment (Loftus, Loftus & Messo 1987). However, this is not widely understood outside of psychology research: in one study comparing psychologists and lay people, 90% of psychologists agreed that the presence of a gun would interfere with memory of the perpetrator’s face, while more lay people believed that victims must have accurate memory for the face and the gun.
In a study which tied this body of research to people seeking asylum, refugees with prima facie recognition of status in the UK were interviewed twice and each time asked to describe the same memories, one traumatic and one normal. Participants rated whether details of the memories were central or peripheral. It was found that approximately 30% of the details given differed between the interviews and the highest rate of discrepancies was found for peripheral details of traumatic events (Herlihy, Scragg & Turner 2002). These peripheral details, however, are often those most scrutinised in the RSD process, implying that those reporting traumatic events may appear less credible and so be put at a disadvantage.
A further finding of this study was that, for the participants with high levels of PTSD, discrepancies were more common where there was a longer interval between interviews.
Both depression and PTSD have been associated with over-general, vague memories, and difficulty recalling specific incidents even when prompted. For example when asked to describe a specific happy memory, an over-general response would be ‘I’m happy when I’m with friends’; a specific response might ‘I was happy when I went to X movie with my friend’ (Williams et al., 2007). One explanation for over general memories is that they avoid the distress associated with specific events. For example, if one time while with friends something terrible happened, reporting general memories may be a means of avoiding thinking of details associated with that event (see Kagan, Herlihy, Turner, Hardi & Udvarhelyi 2013). This avoidance then becomes a habit, and can affect even areas of life where there was no particular distress. Over general memory may affect perceptions of credibility, because it is commonly assumed that real memories are rich in detail (Herlihy et al. 2010). For example, the UKBA guidance states that:
The level of detail with which an applicant sets out his claims about the past and present is a factor which may influence a decision maker when assessing internal credibility. (UK Border Agency 2011)
Dissociation is defined in DSM IV as the ‘disruption of the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory and identity, or a perception of the environment’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Dissociation cuts people off from present awareness and may appear as indifference or day-dreaming. It can happen at the time of a traumatic event, where it serves as a protective strategy. However it can also happen later, when reminded of a traumatic event, or even just in moderately stressful situations. In one study of 27 asylum seekers, it was found that 24 of the participants reported clinically significant dissociation at the time of their immigration interview with the UK Home Office (Bogner, Herlihy & Brewin 2007).
Memory and culture
The culture we are brought up in is intertwined with the way in which we learn to remember and report events in our lives. This is illustrated in a study by Wang, Leichtman & Davies (2010) who, when examining parental reminiscing, found that mothers from individualistic cultures encouraged their children to contribute to discussion, engaged more often in memory talk, and focused on the child’s role and desires. Mothers from collectivistic cultures more often prompted children to confirm information already presented, discouraged children from making their own contributions to discussion, and focused more on social interactions. This suggests that people from collectivistic cultures report memories in a different way, focusing on different details and disclosing emotions differently from people from individualistic cultures.
In a study examining these cultural differences in the reporting of memories in the light of the asylum system, Jobson (2009) asked people of different background cultures to describe in writing an everyday memory and a traumatic memory, which independent raters then rated as ‘specific’ or ‘general’. Significantly more people from Western countries gave specific accounts than people from Asia, Africa and Latin America. This suggests that people from collectivistic cultures may appear less credible to RSD assessors from individualistic cultures, given that ‘sufficiency of detail’ is one of the cornerstones of credibility assessment (UNHCR 2013).
Although decision-makers may not be able to express or even understand all of their own knowledge, culture, and their influence on decision-making, it is imperative that they recognise that their culture is different from others in ways that they do not, and do not necessarily need to, understand (Jarvis 2003).
Disclosure, or what people tell and how they tell it in their testimonies, is important in RSD as this is often the largest part of how the asylum seeker can describe the basis of their fear of future persecution. Testimonies are the means of conveying the ‘reality’ of the experiences and emotions of the asylum seeker (Bruner 1991). The late or non-disclosure of information may lead to inconsistencies within a testimony, is assumed to indicate fabrication and reflects poorly on the apparent credibility of the testimony (Cohen 2002).
In the same way that memories are reconstructions of past events, articulated testimonies result from the process of constructing a narrative from those lived events. Constructing a testimony is not simple, as it involves translating an individual experience and understanding of an event into a narrative story that articulates the experience in a given context for a particular audience (Bruner 1991). So an experience is never directly represented, but edited at different stages of the process from life to text (Eastmond 2007).
Thus how an interviewer acts, the relation between the interviewer and interviewee, and the setting of the interview will affect an asylum seeker’s disclosure (Bogner et al. 2009).
Researchers have studied ‘interrogative suggestibility’, or the extent to which a person will change his responses to questions after leading questions or negative feedback. For example, in a study by Burt & Poppel (1996) when asked about an observed event, people reported shorter estimates of duration when the verb ‘run’ was used rather than ‘walk’. Even asking a question multiple times may imply the initial answer given was wrong, and so increase the interviewee’s uncertainty and suggestibility (Baxter, Boon & Marley 2006). The more powerful the interviewer is perceived to be, the more likely it is the asylum seeker will give the expected answer (Gudjonsson 1997). Further, it has been found that higher suggestibility, or the extent to which a person will change his response due to leading questions or negative feedback, is associated with low-mood (MacFarland & Morris 1998), low self-esteem (Baxter et al. 2006) and possibly suicidal thoughts (Gudjonsson, Sigurdsson & Sigfusdottir, 2009)
One of the symptoms of PTSD is an inability to recall important aspects of the traumatic event. This can pose a problem during RSD, especially because adjudicators may expect a person to remember certain details – such as the date – associated with a stressful event.
Violence, traumatic experiences & disclosure
‘It was the first time in my life that I had to talk about what happened to me. I only told the interviewer about 10%, I could not talk, it was too difficult. I felt so traumatised and ashamed.’ (P2 in Bogner et al. 2007:78)
It is often assumed that asylum seekers will be able to reveal all personal information relevant to their asylum claim (Herlihy et al. 2010), but asylum seekers often initially under-report sexual violence (Bogner et a. 2009). In acknowledgement of this, UNCHR advises:
‘…concealment of parts of the story does not necessarily detract from the credibility of the applicant. A genuine refugee may not be willing to tell his or her full story for fear of endangering relatives or friends, or for fear of sharing this information with persons in position of authority’ (UNHCR 1995: 34 in Bogner et al. 2009:2).
Sexual violence may be harder again to disclose for several reasons: avoidance may be stronger when there has been sexual trauma than other traumas (van Velsen et al. 1996), sex is often a taboo topic, women and men may fear a stigma due to abuse, concepts such as confidentiality and privacy do not exist in the same way in different cultures, and presence of an opposite gender interpreter may make the person anxious (see Bogner et al. 2009 for a review; Burnett & Peel 2001).
In a study designed to investigate these barriers to disclosure, 27 people were asked about their interviews at the UK Home Office. They filled in standard questionnaires measuring their symptoms of PTSD, levels of shame, dissociation (at the time of the interview) and how difficult they had found it to disclose at interview what had happened to them. Those who had a history of sexual violence had significantly more difficulty disclosing and had higher levels, compared to the non-sexual violence group, of PTSD symptoms, PTSD avoidance symptoms in particular, shame and dissociation (Bogner, Herlihy & Brewin, 2007).
However, in the qualitative findings from the same study, Bogner et al. (2009) found that interviewer empathy, patience, acceptance and non-judgmental listening facilitated a trusting relationship between interviewer and interviewee, laying the ground for fuller disclosure.
The psychology of the interviewer/decision maker
‘Realizing that there are at least three different ways to relate to the facts of this case…is to define and acknowledge your role as…trier of fact; is to acknowledge your own participation in the creation of reality.’ (Williams 1991:107-108)
‘… we need to pay careful attention to what judges know about the world, how they know the things they do, and how the things they know translate into their activities as judges … Judicial notice may resemble a window that judges try to look through but that has reflective glass in it: so it is really a mirror.’ (Graycar 1991:262)
Even though legal decisions are supposed to be ‘point-of-viewless’ (Bruner 1991), the outcome of RSD is also affected by the internalised mindset, assumptions, schemata and emotions of the decision-maker (Herlihy, Gleeson & Turner 2010).
Plausibility refers to the believability and apparent likelihood of a person’s testimony. There are a number of assumptions made by decision-makers relating to plausibility (Herlihy et al. 2010). Sometimes they assume to understand how another’s ideas, emotions, motivations and experiences influence that person’s decision-making and what people do in potentially traumatic situations. Rather than rely on personal (first and second hand) experience, psychological and psycho-legal research can be drawn on for answers to these questions.
One model of how people make decisions is the ‘cognitive story model’ (Hastie 1993), in which mental structures work together to build a plausible story from a selective summary of events referred to in a testimony (see Herlihy & Turner 2009). A study by Palys & Divorski (1984) supports this model. In the study several judges heard fictitious crimes and explained their thinking while recommending sentences for the offenders. The severity of the sentence was in line with the ‘stories’ judges had been told about the offender, such as ‘poor background, struggling to keep out of trouble’ or ‘regular bad behaviour, shows little remorse’. In the Global North, Summerfield (2002) has argued that there are two primary constructions of asylum seekers: as ‘wily, determined and tough’ ‘bogus’ asylum seekers or innocent, vulnerable and suffering victims of circumstance. Those perceived as helpless are then more likely to receive a positive decision, in line with a cognitive story of the latter type of asylum seeker.
Psychologists and economists used to think that decisions were rational analyses of facts, like cost-benefit analyses (Kahneman & Tversky 1974). However, a large body of psychology research now shows that decisions are far more emotionally led, based upon heuristics, or rules of thumb, that serve as guides to decision-making (Kahneman 2013). For example, ‘availability’ heuristics use a person’s remembered experiences to form a model for how to interpret the present. For example, the memory of an experience of being pick-pocketed may inform how a person interprets the unsolicited approach of a stranger. This is of course subject to the shortcomings of our memory. Representativeness heuristics liken complex, new situations to simpler, known situations e.g. a teenager learning how to drive a car may be informed by the memory of playing a car-racing video game (Tversky & Kahneman 1974). An understanding of the use of heuristics can reveal how decisions are based on estimates of the probability of events from decision-makers’ partial knowledge of the world, rather than using more structured, evidence-based methodology.
Demeanour and credibility assessment
Demeanour, or an asylum seeker’s manner and non-verbal behaviour (Coffey 2003), influences the perceived truthfulness of her testimony (Herlihy & Turner 2009) even though ‘examining demeanour for clues to credibility presupposes that we know what truth looks like and that it looks the same on everybody’ (Macklin 1998:138). Typically, frankness, spontaneity, richness in detail, and emotional congruence are taken as indicators of a truthful demeanour (Hunter et al. 2010). However, it has been suggested that decision-makers overestimate their own ability to discern truthfulness in cross-cultural settings (Millbank 2009). In a review of approximately 40 studies, Vrij, Edward, Roberts & Bull (2000) found that people were able to correctly identify truth only 67% of the time and lies 44% of the time.
Testimonies are judged to be more credible when the emotions displayed while giving a testimony are congruent with its emotional content. In one experiment by Kaufmann et al. (2003), people were shown a video of the testimony of a ‘rape victim’. The nonverbal behaviour of the ‘victim’ was congruent, neutral or incongruent with the content of the testimony, for example in the congruent condition she was tearful and distressed. They found that the victim was found increasingly credible the more congruent her nonverbal behaviour was with the content of her testimony. This suggests that it is more difficult for people not reacting in the manner expected by decision-makers to be perceived as being truthful, such as those experiencing emotional numbing (a common feature of post-traumatic stress disorder) or of different cultures. Indeed, both expression and perception vary by gender, culture, class, level of education, presence of trauma, anxiety, and on an individual basis (Gergen & Gergen 1988; Sampson 1989; Triandis 1989).
PTSD and credibility
Many of the ways in which people present when they have PTSD overlap with perceived cues to deception. For example, people who fidget are more likely to be perceived as lying (Vrij, 2008), and people with PTSD experiencing flashbacks show an increase in limb movements (Hellawell & Brewin, 2002 ). In a study investigating the impact of this in RSD, the same testimony was presented in four separate video clips to mock adjudicators (Rogers, Fox & Herlihy, in press). The actor in the video was instructed to show 1) behavioural signs of PTSD (increased movement, jumpiness, 2) cues of lying (what people actually do when they’re lying, e.g. increased movement, higher pitched voice), 3) both 1 and 2, and 4) a neutral condition. Participants then rated each account on its apparent credibility. The PTSD account was rated to be the most credible, and participants indicated that this was because the testifier ‘seemed understandably traumatised’, indicating that emotional congruence between the account and demeanour of the testifier was seen as an indicator of credibility. This is in line with previous research showing that people in court are more likely believed where they show ‘appropriate’ distress (e.g. (Kaufmann, Drevland, Wessel, Overskeid & Magnussen, 2003). However, this also raises the possibility that a person experiencing emotional numbing might be considered less credible, as this presentation of PTSD is less well known (Wilson-Shaw, Pistrang & Herlihy, 2012). The other important finding of this study of the overlap between signs of PTSD and signs of lying is that the account that was rated the least credible was the PTSD+lying account. This suggests that people seeking asylum who both have PTSD and are telling lies in their account (e.g. people who have been threatened by traffickers) are most likely to be seen as not credible.
Vicarious traumatisation (VT) is a state brought about through continued exposure to other people’s accounts of atrocities. It may disrupt beliefs that the world is benign, the world is meaningful, the self is worthy, and people are trustworthy (McCann & Pearlman 1990). It can also be expressed through symptoms similar to PTSD. The person may attempt psychological self-protection through cynicism, burnout, avoidance, diminished empathy, anger, and trivialisation of accounts and, whilst this has not yet been systematically studied in the asylum process, it may affect asylum decisions (Rousseau et al. 2002, Bogner et al. 2009).
In one study by Jaffe (2003), evidence of VT was found in 63% of a sample of 105 judges in a Family Court. Avoidance caused by VT may lead decision-makers to tell asylum seekers to ‘keep it short’ (as seen in Bogner et al’s (2007) study) or restrict themselves to yes/no answers, limiting the extent of their disclosure and thereby their credibility (Herlihy & Turner 2009). Indirect avoidance may lead them to ignore traumatic events in favour of neutral ones, later allowing decision-makers to deny the existence of the asylum seeker’s suffering or dismiss its importance. The impact of VT on asylum decision-making is an important issue that needs further research.
In this article we have outlined some of the areas of psychological science which can bring crucial evidence to bear on different processes in the asylum system. Individuals seeking protection have to draw on their memories of events – both of ordinary knowledge of their alleged home country and of the most extraordinary, sometimes traumatic experiences. A significant body of literature has demonstrated that neither of these is straightforward. Further, disclosing what can be recalled has its own difficulties. These have also been studied under controlled conditions and by being aware of these findings, the process of determining refugee status can only become better informed and potentially more reliable. We have also looked at what psychological science has to offer in understanding the process of interviewing and coming to a decision about the credibility of a claim for protection.This necessarily involves understanding the interactions between the people involved at any point, and the psychology of the interviewers and decision makers themselves.
With this article we have shown some examples of the breadth of evidence that can be drawn upon in order to not only evaluate the medical evidence but to have a better understanding of the many complexities of refugee status determination.
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