I’ve met hundreds of asylum seekers in the UK who have all had to undergo a “big interview” which determines their future and can mean the difference between life and death.
A friend agreed to give me a taste of what it is like by interviewing me using questions drawn from her own experience of claiming asylum in the UK. Within minutes I feel intimidated and apprehensive, even though I am sitting comfortably in a café, across the table from a friend and with nothing at stake.
When interviewing people for a job I try to put them at ease. I ask questions that help them explain their experience. I want them to perform at their best so that I can see what they are really capable of.
This interview was nothing like that and should really be called a cross-examination. It felt like my questioner was trying to trap me and trip me up. She would ask several questions and then suddenly repeat exactly the same question she’d asked me one minute ago. I was thinking – hang on didn’t she just ask me that? Maybe I didn’t give her the answer she wanted.
Nothing depended on my interview – my future was secure but even so I was uncomfortable. The questioner would pick up on any inconsistency. She would slightly misunderstand my answers and present things back to me in a subtly different way. When I said that our charity was registered with the Government she started her next question with, “As a Government charity, why…”
The interviewer was typing up my answers. My refugee friend told me that as a journalist she is a much quicker typist than the person who interviewed her. One effect of the typing is to disrupt the flow. I was half way through a sentence when she told me to pause while she typed up my answer. After the pause she told me to continue. By that time I had refined my thoughts and started the sentence again with slightly different wording. “No, you didn’t say that. You said…”
We also took breaks that disrupted the interview. Breaks are obviously essential. My friend’s own interview lasted from 10 am – 5 pm. After the break, I was asked, “What happened next?” I had to think back to what I was saying before the break about my journey to Leeds. My tired mind said Coventry instead of Bradford and immediately I was under suspicion, “Coventry? Not Bradford.” “No, I meant Bradford.” “Bradford – you sure?” “Yes – Coventry was before Bradford, like I said early.”
A common reason for refusal of asylum claims is on the grounds of lack of credibility. Throughout the interviews the Home Office is looking for inconsistencies. The questioner asks questions in different ways and at different times to see if the answers match. (See Amnesty International’s report: A question of credibility.)
half of appeals from some nationalities are successful – that’s how often the Home Office get’s it wrong!
I performed poorly and would certainly have been refused. I could see inconsistencies in what I’d said – mainly because I didn’t feel the questioner had understood what I was saying. Her experience wasn’t the same as mine and she didn’t have the same frame of reference. It was tempting to make things clearer or simpler. When asked for exact dates, I felt inadequate because I couldn’t remember. There were details I didn’t want to give because they were too personal or would affect other people. The questioner wanted hard evidence but I had no paperwork to prove what I said.
Many asylum seekers are frustrated with the interview process. One refugee who worked at a senior level ran into trouble with the military. He was asked why the president wouldn’t intercede on his behalf –the president whose power and position depended on the military. A common misunderstanding is about the relationship between the police, the military and the law with the assumption that trouble with one can be solved by applying to one of the others. Another asylum seeker recalled the interviewer using out of date information to say that the country was safe, when things had changed dramatically over the past ten years.
Preparation for any interview is crucial. Most people attending a job interview would do everything in their power to arrive in a fit state – refreshed, relaxed, and ready. Asylum seekers travelling to Leeds often arrive tired, confused, stressed and harassed which is definitely not the best preparation for an interview that will affect their whole life. (see Journeys of great uncertainty)
With relief the examination came to an end. My limited experience of discomfort gave me a small insight into the difficulties faced by asylum seekers arriving in Leeds exhausted and stressed before they even reach the Home Office.
I’m glad my life didn’t depend on the outcome of the interview – I don’t think I would have made it!