#LoveIrishResearch marks World Refugee Day

Luke Hamilton is an Irish Research Council Employment Based Postgraduate Scholar based in the School of Law, NUI Galway. His Enterprise Partner is the Irish Refugee Council.

World Refugee Day 2016 represents an unprecedented landmark in the scale of global forced displacement. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s latest figures, released to mark the occasion, there are a total of 65.3 million people displaced around the world today. The figures include those displaced within their own country, asylum seekers and refugees - all of whom require protection from indiscriminate violence of armed conflict, persecution or systematic human rights abuse. To put this in perspective, the figure is the equivalent of the entire population of the United Kingdom.

While Europe’s struggles with the influx of refugees have dominated media headlines since 2015, the vast majority of the world’s refugees are elsewhere, often hosted by developing countries, ill-equipped to provide for their needs. Lebanon, for example, a country roughly the same size as the province of Munster, hosts approximately 1.1 million refugees. Europe, on the other hand, one of the wealthiest regions in the world and arguably best-equipped to provide a humane response to the refugee situation, is struggling to manage just over 1 million asylum applicants. The European Union has instead resorted to stranding refugees in border camps in Greece and forcibly returning asylum seekers to Turkey potentially in violation of international refugee law. There is indeed an ongoing crisis, however this is more than a crisis for those refugees seeking protection in Europe, it is a crisis of EU solidarity. EU member states can and should be doing far more to relieve the burden from states such as Greece and Italy as well as those countries in the neighbouring region.

One way that EU member states can do their part to address the current crisis is to ensure that their own domestic refugee status determination procedures are fair, efficient and protection-oriented.  The most important aspect of this procedure is credibility assessment, whereby the asylum official will determine whether or not the asylum seeker’s personal account of persecution is believable or not. This approach can lead to erroneous negative decisions, which can greatly lead to a drain on state resources as lengthy appeals processes are initiated and the existing backlog of applications grows, as well has having potentially life-threatening consequences for asylum seekers themselves.

This problem is especially salient among groups of asylum seekers whose particular circumstances make it hard for them to articulate their claim, or for whom proof of past persecution and/or future risk is difficult or impossible to obtain. Such people are disproportionately vulnerable to being denied protection on credibility grounds and the methods used to determine credibility are often inappropriate and/or invasive. For example, an asylum seeker fleeing persecution on account of his sexual orientation from a country where homosexuality is punishable by death had been asked to tell the examiner what his favourite gay bar in Dublin was. It was held against the credibility of his claim when he was unable to provide an answer. Such information is irrelevant to the substance of a claim for protection and is reflective of the decision maker imposing their culturally subjective understanding of what it means to identify as gay onto the applicant. Where this ‘culture of disbelief’ exists, vulnerable asylum seekers are more susceptible to being returned to a country where they may face persecution, a violation of international refugee law.

Despite the questions raised and substantial scrutiny of the Irish system, there has been minimal research on vulnerable asylum seekers’ experiences of credibility assessment. My PhD research, funded under the Irish Research Council’s employment-based programme, which situates me between the School of Law at the National University of Ireland Galway and the Irish Refugee Council’s Independent Law Centre, aims to address this significant protection gap. By examining the experiences of legal representatives and decision makers who are involved in the refugee status determination process, my research aims to establish an understanding of the needs of people applying for international protection, as well as potential responses. The project aims to ensure that particularly vulnerable asylum seekers do not fall through the cracks in law and policy, and that Ireland fulfils its obligations under international refugee and EU law at a time when harmony in asylum practice and respect for international refugee and human rights law has never been more crucial. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.