The Politics of Credibility

May 17, 2022 | Projects, Transformations (Issue 6)

Dr Elisabeth Kirtsoglou (Anthropology) and Dr Olga Demetriou (Government and International Affairs)

Last month (March 2022), Greek media reported on the support of a local school community to a refugee from Guinea who, having arrived as an unaccompanied minor to the country in 2019, was facing deportation, as he was soon to turn 18 and his asylum application had been refused. The story hit the media because the boy had been chosen by his school to carry the Greek flag during the annual parade that takes place around the country on Independence Day (25 March). Traditionally, this is an honour bestowed on graduating students to recognise their moral conduct and exceptional work at school. Flagbearers are held to be ‘model citizens’ in the making. So, when Saidou Kamara’s teachers, schoolmates, and principal, rallied the media against his deportation, they not only questioned the correctness of the decision of the asylum board to reject his application and order his deportation. They put into question the credibility of the criteria being used to make that decision. They offered a different set of credible criteria on which Saidou’s stay in Greece as a ‘model refugee’ should be judged: his conduct, his successful integration, his social capital.

When we set out to explore credibility in asylum decisions, we had in mind a plethora of cases, in Greece and Cyprus mainly, where refugees have been refused protection, forced into irregularity, or returned to countries of origin, and sometimes of transit too. We had in mind an increasingly hostile environment to refugees and migrants at European entry points, which we saw being exemplified through the legal system. Since then, this hostility appears to have extended, indeed shifted, to processes that precede the judicial procedure. They include pushbacks, the outsourcing of asylum process to third countries, refusals to accept applications, prolonged and indiscriminate detention, guards firing live ammunition at borders, and brute force. What we hope to achieve through the project is a critical examination of the ways in which judicial and non-judicial processes and logics interact to undermine credibility in asylum decisions in ways that authorise and reproduce the hostile environment beyond the law.

The Politics of Credibility is a scoping research project of the reported ineffectiveness of legal structures of refugee protection. Our objectives are:

[1] to retrace the process of asylum claim assessments in order to map how pathways of credibility are being constructed and to identify key sites in this process where (in)credibility is being produced;

[2] to investigate how credibility is connected to and affected by (a) existing legal and policy categories, (b) processes of knowledge production that form the basis of the ‘country of origin information’, (c) notions of what constitutes ‘evidence’ and patterns of evidence interpretation.

On a first level, we explore credibility as a result of the politics of knowledge (as for example in ‘country of origin information’) and analyse how knowledge about persecution contexts is produced, the actors involved in its generation, how it travels and what power structures become implicated in the constitution of epistemic legitimacy and authority. What kinds of geopolitical knowledge qualify as ‘country of origin information’ and how are these collected? What kinds of information applicants provide count as evidence and under which circumstances are they dismissed? How and when are situational counter-evidence used to negate applicant claims?

On a second level, we explore credibility as corollary to epistemic injustice. We investigate the possibility of epistemic discrimination, assessing the extent to which asylum seekers’ credibility is compromised because of the deflated significance credited to their narratives vis-à-vis other sources of knowledge. We will evaluate whether the dynamics found in assignments of credibility fit into the existing framework of epistemic injustice or present a distinct but related form of injustice.

On a third level, we see credibility as a result of the politics of interpretation. We ask how adjudicators interpret applicant narratives and the country-of-origin information available, in the context of general immigration policies, and explore the factors that underpin this discretion, and whether or not there are different thresholds of credibility attributed to applicants and the criteria behind them.

Finally, we study credibility as produced through the enactment of legal and policy categories. We investigate the potential existence of systemic biases in assessing the credibility of asylum applicants, and their roots. We will also investigate the extent to which the criminalization of migration in conjunction with the rigid distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ as two separate instituted legal and policy categories, play a role in the production of systemic biases.

The project combines the expertise of a truly multi-disciplinary team of experts across Durham. Our co-Is are Jutta Bakonyi (SGIA-DGSi), Katherine Puddifoot (Philosophy), Jonathan Darling (Geography), Lauren Martin (Geography), Anna Secor (Geography), Geetanjali Gangoli (Sociology), Alison Jobe (Sociology), Patrick Kotzur (Psychology), Maja Kutlaca (Psychology) and Benedict Douglas (Law). We are also joined by external advisor Spyros Kouloheris, Asylum Lawyer and former Head of Legal Research in the Greek Council for Refugees. The project is affiliated with the Durham Global Security Institute, the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society (CHESS), the Durham European Law Institute, the Durham Human Rights’ Centre, and the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CriVA). We are also fortunate to be hosting four exceptional Fellows attached to the project: Catherine Besteman (Colby), Margit Fauser (Bochum), Shahram Khosravi (Stockholm), and Jacqueline Stevens (Northwestern), as well as a Distinguished Visitor, Thomas Spijkerboer (Amsterdam).

At the present time, refugee protection is being reconfigured on the legal, policy, and practical levels. We see this in the production of new and revival of older policies and legal instruments, as for example the Global Compacts, and the implementation of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive in response to the war in Ukraine. We also see the proliferation of practices that were previously denied, such as pushbacks and the criminalisation of NGOs in the eastern Mediterranean. Amidst these challenges, we hope that the project will provide urgently needed analyses on the continuities between the legal and the non-legal that persist in the failure to protect refugees and on how these may be addressed.

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