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Human contact in asylum systems- what practitioners in the UK can learn from the Greek experience

The opportunity to contrast the UK asylum system with the Greek asylum system made me think again about the importance of human contact between an applicant and a decision maker. While the failings of the Greek system are well known, the rate for successful asylum claims at first instance is higher than the UK (55% compared to 26%)[1] In contrast however, in Greece the chance of success at appeal is very low (4%[2]), while UK courts overturn 38% of decisions on appeal[3].

In both systems, it is the stage during which the decision maker has personal contact with the applicant which has the higher rate of success - in Greece a decision maker interviews an applicant at least once before deciding the case whereas an appeal decision is a paper exercise taken by three people. In the UK the interviewer is not usually the decision maker at first instance whereas at an appeal the judge has the chance to meet the appellant in person.

This led me to think again about the importance of personal contact. Though there are of course many confounding factors, the theory that one of the reasons initial decisions in the UK are of such poor quality is because of a lack of human contact chimes with my experience. It sometimes feels like the whole operation of the UK Home Office is designed to keep the staff as distant as possible from the applicant - staff members usually have responsibility only for discrete tasks. One exception to this is the decision to detain which is allocated to one staff member, however these staff usually do not meet the individual in question and often have not ever been to a removal centre.

One indication of how the Home Office staff view personal contact is the experience of Steven Shaw, who when recommending improvements to the detention estate explained that "[Home Office staff] I met who had seen inside an IRC were clearly affected by the experience. One caseworker said, somewhat ruefully, that her job had been easier before the visit as it had been possible to consider detainees just as case files rather than as people."[4] Therefore creating distance between staff and applicants may make life easier for staff members suffering from the effects of listening to severe trauma on a daily basis:

“4.11 In consideration of other reasons for the suggestion of self infliction by proxy, it is interesting to look at research from Canada. In a study of Refugee Tribunal Board members in Canada, Rousseau and colleagues examined the case files of 40 claims for refugee status. They found that in the majority of cases reviewed there was clear evidence of the decision-makers avoiding hearing distressing material, showing a lack of empathy, expressing prejudice, and demonstrating cynicism. In over a third of the cases they identified ‘signs of emotional distress [in the decision-maker] related to secondary trauma’. Rousseau notes that it has been recognised since at least World War II that indirect transfer of trauma through verbal accounts can result in ‘vicarious traumatization’ and this in turn can manifest in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder type symptoms, or defensive reactions that can ‘lead to trivialization of horror, cynicism and lack of empathy’. Development of projection defences to protect the ‘self’ can result in dismissal or demonization of the ‘other’, in this case the victim of torture. In other words, it is more ‘comfortable’ to believe that someone is lying than that another person has deliberately acted with such cruelty to the victim.”[5]

It seems that personal contact between the decision maker and the applicant places an extra burden on the decision maker and yet rather than increasing the levels of cynicism they are reduced. I see the effects in the UK of a system set up to process our clients as if they were asylum seeking robots impact on legal representatives as well as our clients, which perhaps is why so many lawyers lose hope and admit defeat. This is particularly so in cases where the hostility against your client is strong as they have a criminal record or they haven't behaved as the "reasonable asylum seeker".

I don't know what the answer is to this other than as lawyers we have to preserve as much of our energy as possible and try to change the current Home Office system allowing minimal contact. Which is obvious really, but at least viewing other systems can help us all to see the failings of our own system are contingent and open to change.

Laura Smith is a lawyer at Duncan Lewis Solicitors in London.





[5] Cohen, Pettitt, Wilbourn, Intentional burn injury: Assessment of allegations of self-infliction, Journal of Forensic Medicine, 2017

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