Between May 2019 and July 2020, 32,423 people applied for asylum in the UK, while 11,116 people were granted asylum. Seeking international protection in the UK is a long and unclear process that involves narrating your experiences to multiple professionals. One of the reasons that the Home Office rejects applications is inconsistencies in the asylum seekers’ narratives between interviews. This is unjust as there is a multitude of reasons why inconsistencies might occur.
Research suggests that asylum seekers who have sustained multiple traumas have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression (Fazel, Wheeler & Danesh, 2005). The “core” symptoms of PTSD (hypervigilance, re-experiencing and avoidance) could contribute to inconsistencies between interviews for asylum seekers. This paper explores these reasons with different professionals involved in the asylum process.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted individually or in a focus group. The interview guide was developed in collaboration with expert psychologists and lawyers. In total, 18 professionals were interviewed including doctors, therapists, and lawyers. This sample was gathered through the authors’ contacts. The study was approved by an ethics committee and informed consent was collected from all participants.
Transcripts were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis. The data was coded by one researcher who was familiar with the interviews, one who was not, and a third author who inputted the data into NVivo. The team collaboratively discussed the codes and themes.
Responses are presented in four major themes:
Leaving out details
- Situations were described where asylum seekers had not volunteered information when it was:
- sensitive (e.g. sexual trauma),
- seemingly irrelevant to the interview,
- related to an act of betrayal or violence they had perpetrated, or
- they were not directly questioned about it.
- Professionals reflected that information may be omitted due to a lack of trust and fear of the repercussions.
Details of experiences changed over time
- It was reported that asylum seekers’ narratives changed over time, often by disclosing new information
- Professionals suggested this could be due to:
- an increased level of trust,
- advice from a family member or friend,
- a decrease in stigma in the community, or
- external pressure (e.g. being under oath).
Adding false details
- Some participants described situations where asylum seekers added details to the narrative of their experiences
- Professionals suggested that asylum seekers did this with the view that it would make their narrative more powerful to professionals.
Influence of trauma on disclosure
- Trauma was cited as a reason that asylum seekers often struggle to disclose their experiences due to:
- an inability to develop an identity or narrative,
- feelings of shame,
- fears of stigma, or
- PTSD – in particular: fragmented memories, avoidance of memories, and dissociation were mentioned
- Professionals also noted that asylum seekers often showed physical signs of distress (e.g. hyperventilation) and their importance to provide corroborating evidence for clinical conclusions, but that these were rarely noted in transcripts from Home Office interviews.
The authors’ conclusions reflect the results summarised above. They added other reported reasons behind differences in disclosure, including rapport, the interviewer’s expectations of consistency between a person’s emotional state with interview content and the interview environment (e.g. physical features of the room, interviewer’s gender, interpreters).
This publication, combined with previous research, suggests that it is unrealistic to expect full consistency between asylum seekers’ interviews.
Strengths and limitations
In my opinion, the main limitation of this study is the sample. Interviewing professionals takes away agency from asylum seekers to convey their experiences and reasoning. However, the publication notes that individuals with refugee status were interviewed for a separate paper. Adding to the limitations of the sample, the majority of the participants were White British. Consciously or subconsciously participants’ interpretations of asylum seekers’ narratives, and changes to their narratives, could have been influenced by racial bias. Lastly, the professionals who participated were gathered through the authors’ contacts. Since all of the authors had been associated with the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, it is likely that the professionals recruited were London-centric. Asylum seekers in London, as opposed to elsewhere, may have different experiences that influence the inconsistencies in their narratives. However, the advantage of using professionals in this study is that they were able to draw on the perceived experiences of many asylum seekers. While this potentially makes the data less rich, it gives us a useful overview of the common changes in narratives and reasoning.
With regards to the method, only three 1-1 interviews were conducted (all with therapists), with the rest of the interviews taking place over three focus groups. Therefore, the opinions of therapists might be more strongly conveyed in the results. Another limitation of the methodology is that the authors cite that they used Braun and Clarke’s 2006 reflective thematic analysis method, however, not all of the researchers taking part in the analysis were familiar with the data before coding, which is step one of thematic analysis. It is good to see, however, that the authors reviewed the themes collaboratively.
Implications for practice
Participants in the study highlight the importance of professionals cultivating trust with asylum seekers and conducting the interview in a trauma-informed manner to aid disclosure. Further, participants outlined a need to view asylum seekers as individuals and to place the narratives in the context of the individual’s claim.
Overall, however, I think that research suggests that asylum applications should not be rejected on the basis that there are inconsistencies between interviews. There are a multitude of reasons for these inconsistencies and rejection on this basis is unjust.
In line with my thoughts, while reading the paper, the authors are conducting research with individuals with refugee status on their experiences and perspective on what influenced any changes in their narrative.
Statement of interests
No conflict of interest.
Abbas, P., von Werthern, M., Katona, C., Brady, F., & Woo, Y. (2020). The texture of narrative dilemmas: qualitative study in front-line professionals working with asylum seekers in the UK. BJPsych Bulletin, 1-7.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology, 3(2), 77-101.
Fazel, M., Wheeler, J., & Danesh, J. (2005). Prevalence of serious mental disorder in 7000 refugees resettled in western countries: a systematic review. The Lancet, 365(9467), 1309-1314.
How many people do we grant asylum or protection to? (2020). Retrieved 3 January 2021.