4. Evaluating ’inner truth’ in asylum claims

Convenors: Valtteri Vähä-Savo, Tampere University; Johanna Hiitola, University of Oulu

Contact: valtteri.vaha-saho (at) tuni.fi

Session 4.1: Thursday 2.12.2021 at 13.00-15.00

Session 4.2: Friday 3.12.2021 at 12.30-14.30

In liberal societies, people do not typically get interrogated for their inner beliefs, convictions, and emotions, especially by the state. Their personal autonomy is protected by laws and international human rights conventions. However, there are cases where individuals’ “inner truth”, understood here as the underlying qualities and feelings of the human being, is measured by public officials and experts, even if the methods of evaluation are considered to be highly contested. In this workshop we focus on instances where officials and experts aim to translate the beliefs, emotions, and convictions of asylum seekers into measurable objects of knowledge, which are then used in the exercise of power.

According to a recent report (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2017), only few EU member states have guidelines for interviewing LGBTQI+ applicants (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex and other all of the other sexualities, sexes, and genders) and NGOs have pointed to severe deficiencies in asylum hearings. For instance, asylum officers are often found to hold stereotypical views on sexual orientation and gender identity. Persecution based on religion indisputably constitutes grounds for asylum, but the assessment of religious conversion is also a debated issue, as it is extremely difficulty to establish widely acceptable criteria for assessing the religious faith of a person. The matter has become more topical in recent years, as the number of asylum claims based on religious conversion have increased. In many countries, including Finland, civil society observers and religious communities and churches have heavily criticized asylum officers’ lack of knowledge about the character of religious beliefs.

The subtle processes of interpretation, negotiation, and contestation that take place during the asylum interviews do not likely make their way into written records, even though they may be crucial for the outcome. We invite presentations from a variety of disciplines, such as sociology, migration studies, gender studies, queer studies, social policy and social work as well as law, which focus on the evaluation of whether an asylum seeker claiming to have converted from one religion to another has truly changed their beliefs, or on the assessment of an asylum seeker’s sexual orientation/gender identity in claims based on persecution due to these factors.

Back to the workshops

Presentation order and abstracts:

SESSION 4.1 Thursday 13.00-15.00

  1. ‘The ultimate truth’ of Christian conversion. A case study
    Erna Bodström: CEREN, University of Helsinki

Credibility assessment plays a key role in deciding on ‘the ultimate truth’ about an asylum claim. This ultimate truth means determining whether the asylum applicant a) is assessed to be telling the truth about their reasons for seeking asylum and b) whether they assessed to be in danger because of this reason. These two aspects are usually referred to as internal and external credibility assessment respectively. Essentially the assessment determines whether the applicant is granted asylum or not.

The current paper approaches credibility assessment through the concept of intertextuality. This is because the asylum process is inherently intertextual. That is, in practise asylum process materialises in various texts, including the interview record, the first-instance asylum decision, the appeal and the appeal body decisions. Each of these texts carry traces of the previous texts, including, excluding and transforming them to make a new text. Only together do the texts determine whether the applicant is granted asylum or not.

The paper utilises a case study of an asylum applicant who seeked asylum in Finland for the reason of religious conversion, that is giving up Islam and becoming a Christian. He was denied asylum multiple times and therefore also seeked asylum multiple times. Together, the various stages of his process as well as the country of origin information used in his case produced hundreds of pages of material. The current paper therefore uses intertextual analysis to examine these materials and traces the reasons and rationalisations of the first-instance decision-maker (Finnish Immigration Service) and the appeal bodies to answer the following research question: how is ‘the truth’ intertextually constructed throughout the asylum process? I write ‘the truth’ in quotation marks, as the administrative truth formed by the bodies can differ from the lived experience of the asylum seeker.

Through the analysis the paper shows the essential role the intertextual inclusions, exclusions and transformations of information, testimony and evidence play in the asylum process throughout the various decision making bodies. By doing so, the paper shows how ‘the ultimate truth’ is formed in the administrative process, that is, the truth accepted and confirmed unanimously by all the decision making bodies.

  1. Queer asylum determinations: Preliminary findings on interviewing and decision-making patterns in Finland
    Johanna Vanto & Anne Alvesalo-Kuusi: University of Turku; Hedayat Selim, Elvira Eilittä, Mia Helenelund, Pia Lindblad, Jan Antfolk, Julia Korkman & Elina Pirjatanniemi: Åbo Akademi University

Claims for international protection lodged by queer asylum-seekers are often described as being among the most complex cases for asylum officials to assess. As of the late 2010s, after high courts in several asylum countries banned ‘discretion reasoning’ (i.e., the expectation that asylum-seekers could conceal their sexual identity to avoid persecution in their home countries), more focus was turned towards evaluating the credibility of applicants’ sexual identity. This has led to increased evidentiary burdens for asylum-seekers, who must convince officials that their membership in a sexual minority is ‘genuine.’ Moreover, in the absence of expertise in matters related to sexual orientation and gender identity, officials’ assumptions about queer individuals may undermine the accuracy of their credibility assessments. Despite these potential pitfalls, the assessment of queer asylum cases in the Finnish context remains largely overlooked by research in the legal, social and behavioural sciences. Drawing on a subset of a sample of 218 asylum casefiles adjudicated in 2019-2020 and obtained from the Finnish Immigration Service, we present our analysis and preliminary findings regarding asylum officials’ interviewing and decision-making patterns in queer asylum determinations. We focus on asylum officials’ expected narratives as well as their main motivations for rejecting the credibility of individual asylum-seekers’ claims. We discuss the implications of our findings for asylum policy and practice, as well as for interdisciplinary research in this field.

  1. Authenticity assessment of religious conversion in the asylum process. Theological observations.

Ilona Siivola: Åbo Akademi University

In Finland, a rising number of asylum seekers from Islamic countries are converting to Christianity.

As persecution based on religion is a ground for refugee status, the Finnish Immigration Service

(Migri) must take a stand on whether a change of religion poses a threat to the asylum seeker in

their home country. However, how can it be verified that an asylum seeker has, in fact, converted?

In my proposed presentation, I will adress this question of authenticity of conversion from a theological perspective. What kind of view on Christianity guides Migri's assessment of the authenticity of conversion? How have the converts themselves experiences the process in which their newly acquired religious identity is assessed?

As research material I have a sample of Migri's asylum decision documents. In the proposed presentation, I will present the results of my analysis of some key theological themes in these documents. I am also planning to analyze asylum interview transcripts and conduct qualitative interviews with refugees who have been granted asylum based on their conversion to Christianity. I am interested in refugees' experiences of the credibility assessment process, as well as in their self-understanding of their new religious identity. I hope to be able to present initial observations on these materials. I will be especially concentrating on the question of authority: who has the authority to define an authentic religious identity, and what kind of ethical problems arise when a secular state is in the position of power to define this?

  1. Credibility Assessment of Religion-based Asylum Claims: Looking beyond conversion

Helmi Halonen: University of Helsinki

In Finland, public as well as academic attention on religion-based asylum claims has focused almost exclusively on asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity after submitting their claim. This focus is understandable, as we are dealing with a new religious phenomenon in the Finnish context. However, exclusively studying the asylum cases of predominantly male Christian converts from a small number of Muslim-majority countries risks missing the bigger picture of how religion is handled in the Finnish asylum determination system. Crucially, it also limits the conclusions we are able to draw. Certainly we cannot deduce whether the patterns so discovered have to do with conversion, Christianity, or religion more broadly, and whether they are also influenced by other background factors.

In terms of assessing religion, previous research has shown that there is a strong focus on individual faith or belief as the most important indicator of a genuine religious affiliation. This is not only problematic because of the obvious issues in assessing another person’s faith, but also because, for a considerable number of people, religion isn’t primarily about private, individual beliefs at all. Religiosity that has more to do with community or practice than knowledge or belief is easily dismissed in asylum determination as not religious enough. Again, however, these results are mainly from studies on Christian asylum claimants.

What I propose to do, therefore, is to broaden the discussion on how religion is approached in asylum determination. I argue that in order to understand the credibility assessment of cases based on conversion, we also need to look at how this assessment differs across religion-based claims more broadly. I will also present some preliminary findings from a study that

1) Examines the discursive construction of religion in asylum interview transcripts and decisions from cases of religious persecution between 2014—2019;

2) Looks at the incidence of these discourses of religion in connection with

a. relevant background factors, such as gender, age, nationality, and religious affiliation, and

b. different case outcomes, such as granting or refusing asylum; and

3) Relates these results to their wider socio-political context, including the changes in legislation, political rhetoric, and public opinion before, during and after the so-called refugee crisis of 2015.

SESSION 4.2 Friday 3.12.2021 at 12.30-14.30

  1. Asylum claims based on sexual orientation: A review of psycho-legal issues in credibility assessments

Selim Hedayat, Julia Korkman, Elina Pirjatanniemi & Jan Antfolk: Åbo Akademi University

The number of people seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation is expected to continue increasing. Assessing the credibility of such claims to determine whether asylum-seekers meet the criteria for refugee status is a complex task for asylum officials. These assessments involve several psychological aspects, affecting applicants’ disclosure and asylum officials’ determinations. Here, we present a systematic literature search and review of 47 original manuscripts to analyze credibility assessments in asylum claims based on sexual orientation. We demonstrate that asylum officials often make assumptions regarding human sexuality, sexual identity formation and sexual behavior that are either partially or entirely unsupported by psychological research. These assumptions are problematic as they undermine the validity of the asylum process and put vulnerable individuals at risk of severe harm. The challenges are aggravated in the cross-cultural context of asylum determinations, where applicants from different countries may manifest their sexual orientation in ways that deviate from Western expectations. We discuss the implications of our review’s findings for psychological research and asylum practice.

  1. Modern inquisitions: Technologies of evaluation and testimonial practices in assessing the “inner truth” of individuals

Valtteri Vähä-Savo: Tampere University & Johanna Hiitola: University of Oulu

Our paper introduces a new research project that deals with questions of sexuality, gender and migration in relation to expert authority and power. The project examines how the “inner truth” of individuals is rendered an object of scrutiny by public officials and experts. This presentation focuses on two cases: 1) the evaluation of whether an asylum seeker claiming to have converted from one religion to another has truly changed their beliefs, 2) the assessment of an asylum seeker’s sexual orientation in claims based on persecution due to their sexuality. By focusing on these two cases, the study provides a much-needed critical perspective on the evaluative practices that experts use to assess the inner truth of individuals. The study analyzes expert authority, technologies of evaluation and testimonial practices involved in public officials’ and experts’ decision-making processes. Theoretically the study brings together three emerging strands of sociological scholarship that have not previously been in dialogue with each other: epistemic governance, sociology of valuation and evaluation, and epistemic injustice and vulnerability.

  1. Networking discussion