Blog

Possible, Probable, Plausible: What is ‘credibility’ in Refugee Status Determination?

Published 1 August 2023 / By Kristian Hollins

Back to Articles

Introduction

Imagine a journalist seeks asylum abroad from a country known for government atrocities. They may provide extensive documentary evidence of threat and persecution to support their legal case for protection. But when it comes to a status-determining interview, inconsistencies in their narrative begin to raise doubts in the mind of the decision-maker, who may begin to suspect exaggeration or even fabrication. Will the decision-maker find the journalist’s claim well-founded?

In the intricate and often convoluted realm of refugee status determination, the concept of ‘credibility’ stands out as one of the most significant factors determining the fate of asylum claims. But what does credibility actually mean? How is it identified? And what happens if the answer to both of these questions depends on where the claim is made and who makes the assessment? 

Credibility in Legal and Policy Frameworks

All protection decisions within both international and domestic legal and policy frameworks are fundamentally influenced by the concept of credibility. This concept is the linchpin that holds together the decision-making process. It serves as both a substantive legal construct (as in “a well-founded fear of persecution”) and as a critical threshold that must be met (as in “a real chance” of persecution). The conceptual slipperiness of credibility has some troubling outcomes. For example, consider what happens when cities implement the Refugee Convention by codifying their international obligations into municipal law. Various legal and policy frameworks define credibility differently, and the process of translating messages between them can lead to ambiguity about what constitutes credibility and what does not. This, in turn, can sometimes lead to misapplication of key legal concepts, such as 'the benefit of the doubt'. When faced with an irreconcilable claim, a decision-maker will often maintain the ‘safe’ status quo. 

Such uncertainty about the meaning of credibility places heavy additional burdens on asylum seekers. The statutory requirements for an asylum claimant to document their identity are high. In theory, identity documents make a case more credible and claimants are more likely to gain protection. In practice, many claimants are undocumented because the required documents must be issued by the very state the claimant is trying to leave.

On one hand, one might ask how a person genuinely forced to flee their country could credibly obtain such documents. On the other hand, a failure to provide them may engage provisions for mandatory refusal and be seen to provoke the system. Asylum seekers often find themselves caught in such paradoxical ironies because the meaning of credibility is so dependent on legal and policy frameworks. 

Eliciting Information and Assessing Credibility

Credibility also means different things to different people. The process of interviewing asylum seekers is a critical component of credibility assessment. However, making sense of this from interview data involves translation and interpretation. Asylum seekers may find it inherently difficult to talk about traumatic experiences – particularly when required to speak in their non-native language, with a government official sitting across from them and an unknown individual providing translation. Desperation and a desire to be believed can make a credible person say unbelievable things. Claimants may not know what verbal cues and gestures the interviewer equates with honesty and integrity. As different decision-makers may reach different conclusions from the same interview transcript: one may infer credibility, another duplicity.

The process of eliciting information from asylum applicants and assessing their credibility through narrative interviews is, therefore, complex and, ultimately, subjective. Interviewers must interpret evidence across varying socio-cultural and socio-linguistic frames of reference. It requires accounting for the specific and individual complexities of people who have fled their homes to seek asylum in a new country, where they often understand little of the local language and culture and face high legal hurdles.

Towards Consistent Administrative Decision-Making

As a result of these complexities, the outcomes of asylum claims are notoriously inconsistent and depend on where the claim is made and who assesses it. This leads to large application backlogs, interminably long wait times for decisions and review, and burdensome costs for the receiving state.

It is difficult to imagine, let alone wish for, the elimination of human error from the essentially human act of granting humanitarian protection. Indeed, it would be unwise to remove the discretionary power which allows decision-makers to find facts in the often-incongruous scenarios of harm experienced by persecuted individuals. But all parties would benefit from clearer and more consistent administrative decision-making when it comes to processing asylum-seeker claims. Consistency in decision-making is both necessary for bureaucratic efficiency and crucial for ensuring fair and just outcomes for asylum seekers.

A Path Forward 

The concept of credibility is a complex but crucial component of refugee status determination. The first step towards a more consistent approach is to seek a better understanding of what currently constitutes credibility when it comes to assessing the claims of asylum seekers. Existing research reveals much about how statutory and policy-based frameworks formally affect how decision-makers assess and decide on credibility. However, much less is known about how the wide range of other, less formal factors lead to inconsistent decisions about the credibility of asylum claims. We need a deeper understanding of how individual decision-makers navigate the complexities of cases, including the role linguistic and cultural differences play and psychological factors such as biases and preconceptions. 

The path forward lies in continued dialogue among government, advocates, practitioners, and refugees and, importantly, in further research into what constitutes a ‘credible’ claim. 

---

Kristian Hollins is an independent law and migration researcher. Kristian's upcoming PhD research will consider how decision-makers explore credibility and make findings in the Australian refugee status determination process, considering legal frameworks, behavioural science, and sociocultural communications. Kristian has previously worked as a protection obligations decision-maker for the Australian Department of Home Affairs and currently manages a team of decision-makers.