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Asylum Determination in Europe


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Nick Gill; Anthony Good

Introducing the volume, the editors characterise the European asylum ‘crisis’ as a specific form of ‘moral panic’. National policies display tensions between securitisation models emphasising control of refugees because of perceived risks they pose; and rights models focusing on asylum seekers as unique individuals. Approaches to asylum decision-making also reflect each country’s legal culture and political circumstances, generating anomalies both in the procedures adopted and in national rates of refugee recognition, while actual practice emerges from the multifaceted interaction of numerous legal and quasi-legal social fields. An ethnographic approach is best suited to disentangle processes of such complexity. Finally, the introduction explains the organisation of the book into sections focusing on ‘actors’, ‘communication’, and ‘decision-making’, and summarises how each chapter contributes to those themes.

Pp. 1-26

Legal Overview

Sarah Craig; Karin Zwaan

Common rules on most aspects of the asylum process are in force in the European Union (EU), building on the international refugee protection regime. This so-called EU asylum acquis has resulted in a “Common European Asylum System (CEAS)”. The CEAS consists of rules to determine which Member State is responsible for determining an asylum claim; to define asylum seekers’ entitlements and obligations as regards their reception in Member States; to regulate the asylum procedure itself; and to determine who qualifies for international protection. The primary purpose of this chapter is to offer insight into the functioning of the CEAS (including asylum determination), with a view to creating a legal background and framework for the ethnographic chapters that follow.

Pp. 27-49

The “Inner Belief” of French Asylum Judges

Carolina Kobelinsky

The judges of the French Court of Asylum, in charge of examining the cases of asylum seekers rejected by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, affirm that there are very few technical legal aspects involved in asylum proceedings. They argue that the case law is not consistent and that the domestic law provides a vague definition of who is a refugee. Aside from these legal points, judges examine the “sincerity” of the applicant’s narrative as well as his or her attitude during the hearing. Judges agree to say that the rulings ultimately rely on their (inner belief). Drawing on ethnographic data, the chapter explores the emotions and moral values involved in the construction of this inner belief.

Part I - Actors | Pp. 53-68

“It’s All About Naming Things Right”: The Paradox of Web Truths in the Belgian Asylum-Seeking Procedure

Massimiliano Spotti

The chapter deals with the process of identity (mis)recognition that has led to the rejection of an asylum seeking application. Spotti addresses discrepancies between the story narrated by the asylum seeking applicant and the type of factual knowledge sought by the officials judging the truthfulness of his identity claim, as well as between official naming practices and the locally based naming of things used by the applicant. The case documented here, demonstrative of a politics of suspicion, also serves the metonymic function of laying bare some of the torn ligaments around the bones of globalization. It encapsulates how migratory experiences are registered into administrative prescriptive accounts of how one should prove his own identity.

Part I - Actors | Pp. 69-90

The World of Home Office Presenting Officers

John R. Campbell

In the adversarial context of litigation conducted in the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, HOPO’s are elusive: they are only seen when they enter a Tribunal hearing room to defend a decision taken by the Home Office official to refuse asylum, bail or a criminal deportation. While HOPOs limit their interaction with barristers/advocates to avoid being put into a position to set out their case in advance of the hearing, their actions reflect their structural position in adversarial proceedings. This chapter draws on extended fieldwork in the British asylum system, and on observations and interviews with HOPOs to understand how they see their work; their views on other parties in the Tribunal; and how they argue different types of appeal.

Part I - Actors | Pp. 91-108

Asylum Procedures in Greece: The Case of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Minors

Chrisa Giannopoulou; Nick Gill

This chapter demonstrates how ‘nonlegal forms of normative ordering’ (Merry 1988: 870) such as those that inhere in national discourses and perceptions, and that are held by legal subjects themselves, can interrupt and recast formal legal structures. The chapter focuses on unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Greece and their experiences of residing both in shelters and refugee camps. The ethnographic material presented includes narratives of the minors about their life in Greece while waiting for the examination of their asylum application. The chapter highlights the shortcomings of reception for unaccompanied minors in Greece, the ways in which care is often experienced as constraint by unaccompanied minors, and the ways in which they are able to exert agency and defy their categorization as vulnerable victims.

Part I - Actors | Pp. 109-130

Why Handling Power Responsibly Matters: The Active Interpreter Through the Sociological Lens

Julia Dahlvik

This contribution is based on empirical findings from an ethnographic case study on the administration of asylum applications in a branch of the former Austrian Federal Asylum Office. I adopt a sociological perspective to explore the relationship between public official and interpreter in asylum interviews and thereby hint at the complexity and contours of the power imbalance in these institutional(ised) interactions. As existing literature suggests, the relation is more complex than a simple contractee-contractor relation and, as a part of that, interpreters are often in a more powerful position than officials would want them to be. Against this background, I argue that both researchers and practitioners need to focus more on professionalism and ethics in community interpreting, especially in the context of international protection.

Part II - Communication | Pp. 133-154

Communicative Practices and Contexts of Interaction in the Refugee Status Determination Process in France

Robert Gibb

This chapter draws on material from an anthropological study of the asylum process in France, conducted between 2007 and 2009, to explore the following questions: What can ethnographic research contribute to knowledge and understanding of the kinds of communication that take place at successive stages of the refugee status determination process in France? What light can it throw, more specifically, on the relationship between forms of communicative practice and the different contexts or spaces in which interaction between those involved occurs? Finally, what are some of the difficulties associated with adopting an ethnographic approach to investigate asylum processes and how can researchers attempt to address these?

Part II - Communication | Pp. 155-174

Narrating Asylum in Camp and at Court

Matilde Skov Danstrøm; Zachary Whyte

In Denmark, as elsewhere, narratives are central to the asylum determination procedure. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, this chapter investigates the ways in which asylum seekers and asylum lawyers present and re-present asylum narratives across two contrasting narrative contexts: Danish asylum centers (“camp” to asylum seekers) and the Danish Refugee Appeals Board (“court” to asylum seekers). Distinguishing between “asylum motive” and “asylum talk”, or stories and stories asylum, we argue that context strongly shapes the kinds of asylum narratives that are presented and shared, but also that these kinds of narratives influence each other. We show that uncertainty, credibility and authorship are central both in the Danish asylum process and for the ways in which it is understood by the actors invested in it.

Part II - Communication | Pp. 175-194

Interactions and Identities in UK Asylum Appeals: Lawyers and Law in a Quasi-Legal Setting

Jessica Hambly

This chapter explores the complex nature of refugee determination through the experiences and work of lawyers in asylum appeals at the UK First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber). It highlights the dilemma whereby asylum appeals are generally anticipated to be determined within a system of legal norms, whereas what is frequently encountered is the exclusionary politics of immigration control. Key to analysis here is an exploration of the significance of relationships and communication between tribunal actors situated in multiple, intersecting social fields. By looking at professional backgrounds, personal relationships and organisational dynamics, we gain a sense of how legal values of fairness and justice in refugee determination procedures are so often subsumed by political, administrative and economic concerns to control migration.

Part II - Communication | Pp. 195-218

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Credibility? Refugee Appeals in Italy

Barbara Sorgoni

This chapter focuses on the first level of appeal in the Italian refugee status determination procedure. I use the “credibility issue” as a lens through which to observe how this notion is employed at the tribunals of Bologna and Turin, simultaneously as a core issue in the determination procedure, a sensitive category to handle with care, and an almost-empty shell used for purposes stretching out far beyond the tribunals themselves. Such purposes can only be grasped when shifting the gaze from the mechanics of civil law as enacted inside specific local sites, towards national and supra-national migratory policies, rooted in an entangling culture of denial that strongly impacts on local-level decisional procedures of recognition or rejection.

Part III - Decision-Making | Pp. 221-240

Making the Right Decision: Justice in the Asylum Bureaucracy in Norway

Tone Maia Liodden

This chapter examines the meaning of justice in the asylum bureaucracy in Norway. Uncertainty and lack of reliable feedback makes it difficult to determine the accuracy of decisions. By comparing similar claims, decision-makers create local yardsticks of what a genuine refugee looks like. In this context, equal treatment to some extent comes to serve as a proxy for justice, in addition to creating a sense of certainty about the outcome. The uncertainty of asylum decisions is matched by outward certainty, as representatives of the institution have to meet public expectations about justice, whereby refugees are recognized as a clear-cut, objective category. The production of outward certainty contributes to the legitimacy of policies that involve high human costs, such as detention and deportation.

Part III - Decision-Making | Pp. 241-262

Taking the ‘Just’ Decision: Caseworkers and Their Communities of Interpretation in the Swiss Asylum Office

Laura Affolter; Jonathan Miaz; Ephraim Poertner

Decision-making in street-level bureaucracies has often been portrayed as being riddled with a practical dilemma: that of having to juggle between compassion and rigid rule-following. However, drawing on three ethnographic studies of Swiss asylum administration, we argue that often what are from the ‘outside’ perceived as conflicting rationales of decision-making, are not experienced as such by the caseworkers themselves. Rather these different rationales are made to fit. We argue that decision-makers’ ‘volitional allegiance’ with the office plays a crucial role thereby. For the caseworkers we encountered, decision-making is about taking ‘just decisions’, i.e. decisions that they consider ‘correct’ and ‘fair’. We suggest that these notions of correctness and fairness are crucially influenced by their affiliations and allegiances with different ‘communities of interpretation’ within the office.

Part III - Decision-Making | Pp. 263-284

Becoming a Decision-Maker, or: “Don’t Turn Your Heart into a Den of Thieves and Murderers”

Stephanie Schneider

Based on a qualitative study in the German asylum authority, this chapter focuses on how caseworkers are taught to deal with the uncertainties and quandaries of asylum administrative decision-making. The asylum administration is conceptualised as a relatively autonomous field in which ongoing processes of boundary work take place. Amongst others, these revolve around caseworkers’ emotional involvement and their creativity in handling the ‘stuff’ of casework. Focusing on references to emotions and materialities during a training course for decision-makers, the analysis demonstrates how they may be used both to counteract the unintended consequences of rationalisation and to delegate responsibility for dealing with conflicting demands onto the individual caseworker. Even seemingly mundane aspects of casework may thus become an object of struggles around bureaucratic autonomy and accountability.

Part III - Decision-Making | Pp. 285-306


Nick Gill

This chapter identifies the key contributions of the book and reflects on ethnography as an approach to studying legal actors, communication and decision making. In terms of contributions, the book highlights the messy, contingent, discretionary, unreliable, inconsistent and unjust processes through which legal doctrine is translated into bureaucratic practice in the context of large scale, international asylum decision making systems. In particular the book explores two central axes of tension: between fairness and efficiency, and between consistency and variety. In terms of the effectiveness of legal ethnographies, the chapter argues that the ethnographies contained within the volume amply exemplify the standards of excellence that the literature on ethnography suggests that we use to evaluate ethnographic work.

Part III - Decision-Making | Pp. 307-318

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Springer Nature

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Reino Unido

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