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Project description

This is an innovative, interdisciplinary, collaborative research project, whose aim is to cast fresh analytical light on the politics of credibility that underpin asylum determination regimes in the UK and Europe (Greece, Cyprus and Germany).

Primary participants

Principal Investigators: 
Dr Elisabeth Kirtsoglou, Department of Anthropology,
Dr Olga Demetriou, School of Government and International Affairs,

Visiting Fellows:
Professor Catherine Besteman, Colby College 
Professor Shahram Khosravi, Stockholm University
Professor Jacqueline Stevens, Northwestern University 
Professor Margit Fauser,  Ruhr-Universität Bochum 

The project seeks to investigate the intersubjective, structural, epistemic and political dimensions of credibility in asylum determination regimes. The team will collate and examine primary and secondary research data on asylum cases from the UK and three European countries (Cyprus, Germany, Greece). We will combine our expertise in different methodologies to explore collaboratively how credibility pathways are constructed within asylum adjudication processes.

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Statement of the problem: In the context of ‘Fortress Europe’ national and supra-national borders have been proliferating (Green 2013: 355; Fassin 2011; Belcher, Martin & Tazzioli 2015; Demetriou & Dimova 2018). Current research indicates that asylum systems are largely ineffective and fail to serve the victims of human rights’ violations who seek their protection, resulting in significant legal, moral and socio-economic deficits (Cabot 2014; Garelli, 2018 De Genova 2020; Darling 2014, 2016; Demetriou 2019; Kirtsoglou and Tsimouris 2018; World Bank 2017). Asylum-seeking structures routinely create bureaucracies that operate as complex, political technologies of power, intensely productive of destitute, vulnerable and precarious lives (cf. Ticktin 2011; Khosravi 2017; Coddington, Conlon & Martin 2020; Bakonyi 2020). An important function at the core of asylum systems in the UK and Europe is judging the validity of received claims. The validity of asylum claims rests on assessing the credibility of the applicant and her/his case (cf. Thomas 2011: 34; Jobe 2020). This is a process that typically involves weighting and triangulating the applicant’s narrative against a body of knowledge termed ‘country of origin information’, collected and collated from sources of differential legitimacy that span from INGO-issued country reports to public media and the internet. It has been suggested that the manner in which such information is read and juxtaposed to the testimony of the applicant largely depends on the adjudicator’s subjective interpretation (cf Sertler 2018; Jobe 2020).

Aim and Objectives: The aim of the proposed project is to combine the expertise of different disciplines into a scoping research that will cast novel analytical light on the politics of credibility that underpin the reported ineffectiveness of legal structures of refugee protection. Our objectives are: [1] to retrace the process of asylum claim assessments in order to map how pathways of credibility are being constructed and to identify key sites in this process where (in)credibility is being produced; [2] to investigate how credibility is connected to and affected by (a) existing legal and policy categories, (b) processes of knowledge production that form the basis of the ‘country of origin information’, (c) notions of what constitutes ‘evidence’ and patterns of evidence interpretation.
The project will develop a theoretical and empirical basis for future research through specific research questions.

Research Questions and their relation to current research:

1. Credibility as a result of the politics of knowledge: How is the body of knowledge that shapes asylum adjudicators’ decision making (especially the ‘country of origin information’) constituted and what counts as evidence and counter-evidence? Although relevant research has indicated the importance of ‘country of origin information’ in asylum decisions (cf. Good 2007), more systematic research is needed on how this body of knowledge is generated. Our joint expertise will allow us to understand and analyze how knowledge about persecution contexts is produced, the actors involved in its generation, how it travels and what power structures become implicated in the constitution of epistemic legitimacy and authority. What kinds of geopolitical knowledge qualify as ‘country of origin information’ and how are these collected? What kinds of information applicants provide count as evidence and under which circumstances are they dismissed? How and when are situational counter-evidence used to negate applicant claims?

1b. Credibility and epistemic injustice: How do migration boards assess the applicants’ epistemic authority vis-a-vis other epistemic resources (expert opinions, country of origin information) available to them? The framework of epistemic injustice, as developed by Fricker (2007), describes phenomena of unfair discrimination of actors in their capacity as knowers based on prejudices linked to people’s social identities, including gender, social background, ethnicity, race, sexuality and class (cf. Puddifoot 2017, 2020). We will investigate the possibility of epistemic discrimination from a multidisciplinary angle, assessing the extent to which asylum seekers’ credibility is compromised because of the deflated significance credited to their narratives vis-à-vis other sources of knowledge. We will evaluate whether the dynamics found in assignments of credibility fit into the existing framework of epistemic injustice or present a distinct but related form of injustice.

2. Credibility as a result of the politics of interpretation: How do adjudicators interpret applicant narratives and the country of origin information available, in the context of general immigration policies? Current research agrees that the majority of asylum outcomes, appear predetermined and rest on hierarchies of eligibility established in relation to nationality, gender, sexual orientation and geopolitical factors (cf. Spijkerboer 2018). Adjudicators are reported to be interpreting information (both country of origin and information provided by applicants) in arbitrary ways in order to reach conclusions that are aligned to wider immigration policies on certain countries and social groups (Sertler 2018; Spijkerboer 2019; Jobe 2020). The proposed project seeks to investigate the role subjective interpretation plays in the process of adjudication, whether indeed adjudicators are afforded increased hermeneutic discretion (cf. Stevens,, 2019) and the factors that underpin this discretion, and whether or not there are different thresholds of credibility attributed to applicants and the criteria behind them.

3. Credibility produced through enactment of legal and policy categories: Does the presumption of innocence apply to asylum seekers and, if not, where is this bias rooted? Current research indicates that displaced persons are routinely criminalized as potential security threats and/or as prospective abusers of welfare systems (Kirtsoglou & Tsimouris 2016; Kotzur et al., 2019; Besteman 2020). Based on the combined strength of our different disciplinary perspectives, the project will investigate the potential existence of systemic biases in assessing the credibility of asylum applicants, and their roots. We will also investigate the extent to which the criminalization of migration in conjunction with the rigid distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ as two separate, instituted legal and policy categories, play a role in the production of systemic biases.

Scope and Methods Overview: We decided to focus on the UK asylum system and key countries in Europe. We will examine: [1] Greece and Cyprus as primary EU entry points, where under the Dublin Treaty persecuted persons are obliged to seek asylum at first instance; [2] UK and Germany, as prime destination countries that many asylum seekers struggle to reach due to existing kinship and cultural networks. The UK is of particular interest since it is currently in the process of revising its policies towards asylum and refugee status following withdrawal from the European Union. With the help of the project’s professional advisor, we will collate forty negative asylum decisions (ten per country of focus) that pertain to major forms of persecution (gender, ethnic, religious, political), and 12 positive ones (three from each country of focus respectively). Failed and successful applications will be analysed comparatively. We will also conduct eight interviews with asylum lawyers and eight interviews with asylum adjudicators (two per country of focus respectively). We will combine the methodological expertise and methodological strengths of our different disciplines engaging in comparative case study research and subjecting our data to narrative and thematic analysis in line with our research questions.

The outputs of this project will be: (a) a workshop that will disseminate to, and discuss our results with the wider community of academics and major INGOs involved in refugee protection; (b) a jointly authored article in a major journal in the field (such as Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, or Journal of Refugee Studies,) (c) a major funding application to ERSC or AHRC that will allow the team to investigate further the politics of credibility in asylum systems; (d) a web-page of the project as a basis of public dissemination of results; (e) two communiques of our findings to major INGOs and the general public respectively; d) a cohesive and visible Durham University network of migration/border/asylum/justice scholars who will forge interdisciplinary research collaborations that will outlast the proposed project.