Random thoughts on asylum tribunals

I was at the asylum tribunal in Manchester again yesterday. This time, I was there with an Iraqi Kurd who had to flee his country due to his Christian conversion out of fear of his own family. Once again, I was struck by various things. Here are my thoughts in no particular order.

False claims

The fact is, we all know that people make false claims. Only a fool would think that everybody claiming asylum is genuine. The real question is less to do with whether anybody is bogus and more the scale of those making false claims. I, therefore, don’t resent the Home Office making enquiries and assessments as they do. Unless we live in a perfect world, with perfect systems, the reality is that some people will make false claims and for the system to be of any value at all, there must be some means of not simply allowing them to stand.

Knowledge over-reach

Nonetheless, the Home Office approach remains highly frustrating. Most asylum seekers are deemed to be bogus. But whether that specific statement is true or not, the basis on which they dismiss those we support as genuine is a classic example of knowledge over-reach. They assert, based on an interview of a couple of hours, that they have better insight into the person than a church that has spent 12 months, including meetups of 5 or 6 hours a week. They also question the credibility of somebody’s claim to Christianity with minimal (if any) understanding of the Christian faith. They then dare to infer that they know more about the Christian faith than the church, as they reject the appellant based on their, typically faulty, understanding of Christianity and reject the considered opinion of those whose job it is to know.

Robust processes are vital

I don’t blame the courts for seeking real evidence of faith, it is precisely what we want when we admit people to membership too. Given the propensity of some for bogus claims on the one hand, and the tendency of some churches simply to affirm all and sundry based on scant evidence indeed, the need for robust and evidence-based processes really matters. The courts specifically want to know on what ground we believe this person to be a believer and they (entirely rightly) want to hear something more credible than, ‘well, they said they were and that’s good enough for me!’

In our case, we can show that we do not simply nod people into membership on the word of other churches. Nor do we invite them in solely on the say so of the pastor. Our process requires a member to recommend the person, a substantive interview with the elders, a recommendation from the elders to the church, a period of time for the church members to carry out their own investigations and then a majority of church members voting in favour the the individual. Not only is this a robust process but it also means we are able to go not merely in a personal capacity offering a personal opinion, but representing the considered view of 30 or more individuals who are all on record saying the same thing. It acts as an important check and protection for the church itself, but then lends far greater weight on behalf of those for whom we vouch.

The wait

Unless you are fortunate enough to be the first case of the day, straight in at 10:00am, you are forced to sit around in a windowless, soulless office-style building whiling away the time until you are called. It seems a tad unfair to expect people to journey in from around the region, sweat half the day in anticipation and then expect them to give well considered, thoughtful answers to your questions. Similarly cruel is the random adjournment of these things prolonging the agony further. Unlike criminal trials at which you are pronounced guilty or otherwise at the end of the hearing, asylum tribunals simply send you away with a promise from the judge to consider the matter and issue a judgement in 2-6 weeks. Adjournments can seem cruel under the circumstances.

Good and bad

As in any profession, there are those who are good at their jobs and those less so. I was relatively impressed by the barrister in the case of my friend yesterday and have worked with other similarly diligent folk. But I have also seen my share of less than excellent lawyers barely attempting to defend my friends. Likewise, I have seen terrible Home Office representatives make a hash of things as well as those who seem to make cogent arguments. And, naturally, the same is true of judges too regarding fairness, temperament and such like. Naturally, when we are standing on behalf of a brother or sister, we want a coming together of fair judge, quality barrister and terrible Home Office representative.

The other area of good and bad comes in translation. There are those who translate helpfully and those who don’t. Being stuck with court appointed translators sometimes causes its own problem. There is the issue of Muslim translators who happily undermine the cases of Christian appellants. Whilst I don’t think these things are quite as common as some seem to think, this does definitely happen. But more common is just bad translation. Having given my evidence to the court yesterday, my friend was dispatched home when it became apparent the translator could not be understood by anybody. When my friend’s English proves better than that of the court appointed translator, which they are forced to use, something has gone badly wrong! But we are often in the hands of how well translators work in reality.

Anyway, there are some general thoughts. Do pray for my friend as he has to return to court (hopefully with the better translator) and give his evidence at a later date. Pray also for us as I will be going to court again in a few weeks for an Iranian brother.