Credibility and Testimony in Asylum Procedures with Unaccompanied Refugee Minors

In: European Journal of Migration and Law
Marta Guarch-Rubio Department of Psychology, University of Limerick Limerick Ireland

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Antonio L. Manzanero Facultad de Psicologia, Universidad Complutense de Madrid Madrid Spain

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The present article reviews the credibility analysis procedure proposed by the UNHCR through which asylum applications are resolved, especially for unaccompanied minors. The particularities of these refugee minors and the general character of the credibility analysis procedure are described. Credibility indicators are analyzed together with the psychological barriers related to them. This manuscript provides evidence of the presence of trauma and resilience in the studied minors and how both influence their memories during the asylum interviews. As credibility assessment has a special focus on the evaluation of narratives through memory, memory is considered as a criterion responsible for the accuracy and credibility of underage applicants’ testimony. Finally, this paper contributes with scientific psychological evidence towards the existence of multiple testimonies in asylum seekers.

1 Introduction

Europe faces its biggest humanitarian crisis within the framework of the Right to International Protection. The absence of a commitment to a common asylum policy creates differences in the opportunities to access this right and, consequently, quantitatively disparate figures in the asylum concessions granted by each country.1 However, 70.8 million people are in a situation of forced displacement around the world, with 25.9 million of them being refugees and half of them being under 18 years of age.2

The UNHCR defines the unaccompanied minor as a person under 18 years of age, who is separated from both parents and without any adult who either by law or by custom is in charge of him/her and, therefore, is responsible for his/her care. Frequently, the initial journey out of a country is initiated in groups of people or by families. However, in the course of the journey, these children may face the risk of losing their family members or making decisions that will lead them to continue their trip without adult protection. According to UNICEF,3 nine out of ten children who crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2016 were unaccompanied. In 2015, the requests made by these minors, who were usually male and adolescent, exceeded 95,000 but in 2019, only slightly over 5,500 requests were registered, confirming the current decline in these asylum claims.4 Despite many States developing policies to address the needs of unaccompanied refugee minors, not all are effective in practice. It was brought to light when Europol warned about the disappearance of around 10,000 unaccompanied minors in Europe. Some of these children may have fallen into the hands of mafias dedicated to human trafficking with the purpose of sexual exploitation,5 which are very difficult to detect in the countries of destination.6

Minors require specific considerations and protection protocols. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1947) recognizes the right to seek asylum and the Geneva Convention (1951) sets binding international regulations on the Statute of Refugees. Therefore, the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) proposes a set of criteria to determine the credibility of the testimonies and grant the refugee status.78 However, asylum regulations are a national issue and are subject to the interpretation of each State.

In general, undergoing a personal interview initiates the asylum application; the individuals have to narrate the reasons that have forced them to flee from their country of origin. Subsequently, the officials of the State Border Agency determine whether the applicant’s testimony deserves the right of International Protection and issue a decision. If the first decision is negative, the applicant can appeal it and continue with the process. In 2018, more than 309.000 final decisions following an appeal in the EU Member States were made and 116.000 (38%) resulted in positive outcomes on appeal.9 These data indicate that the applicants may have to tell their story to a decision maker multiple times over some years until the migratory bureaucracy process is finished.10

In the case of an unaccompanied minor, the welcoming State must set in place mechanisms for a safe search for close relatives and guarantee the principle of non-refoulement.11 However, this right is often not fulfilled, and the immediate return or ‘pushback’ of children and adolescents takes place. This frequently occurs in border areas, making it impossible to compare the age and the migratory motives of minors.12 Médicins Sans Frontiéres13 and No Name Kitchen,14 on behalf on humanitarian organizations working on the field have condemned the violence perpetrated by EU border forces as well as the illegal and systematic pushback of migrant minors on their route towards the European Union.

The current migratory flows of people seeking asylum highlights the dichotomous European tension of offering humanitarian protection or closing the borders.15 UNHCR16 recognizes the limitations of asylum concessions due to political and social pressures, and warns about the risks suffered by unaccompanied minors.

2 The Importance of Testimonies in Asylum Procedures and Their Credibility

The vast majority of people seeking asylum in foreign countries lack documentation to support their origin or justify the causes of their forced migration. Thus, in the procedures that are initiated to grant asylum, only the account they recall of their circumstances is available. For this reason, these procedures include performing evaluations on the credibility of testimonies in adults17 and minors.18

The procedures for granting asylum presuppose a consistent account that fits the definition established in the Geneva Convention (Article I, 1951), according to which, a refugee is a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.

Thus, a person’s ability to remember, narrate and persuade others about the veracity of the events that have led to their forced migration becomes their key to enter Europe. The access to memory and the narrative ability of the applicant is a sine qua non condition to qualify for refugee status. The protocol prioritizes the credibility of the facts to that of the person. However, these procedures are not always guaranteed either for adults or for minors.19

Specifically, in order to evaluate testimonies in non-accompanied minors, the UNHCR20 proposes the following credibility indicators: sufficiency of detail and specificity, internal consistency and coherence of the statements, plausibility, consistency with country of origin information, and behaviour, demeanour and the general credibility of the minor.

3 Psychological Barriers for Each Indicator

3.1 Sufficiency and Specificity of Memory Details

In both, adults and children, the amount and precision of details of the memory are the common criteria to obtain a positive result in these proceedings.21 Thus, it is presupposed that memory holds memories in a detailed way, active, accessible and capable of being narrated.22 This belief is not an adequately corroborated account of scientific findings regarding the functioning of human memory and the accuracy of testimonies that is altered by time delay and other factors that distort memory. Due to the nature of the asylum applicant process, a single story may be told by the same protagonist several times over time. Because of the repetition, attention is focused on different elements or sensations, and thus, gives rise to variation in the quantity and specificity of details given for the same experience.23 Memory is a constructive, subjective process, subject to endless distortions.24

3.2 Internal Consistency and Coherence

Internal consistency and coherence of the minor’s statements also depend directly on the memory and the minor’s ability to organize and repeat the available information and offer a convincing statement. UNHCR25 warns that some negative findings related to the consistency are based on discrepancies between the initial and subsequent interviews. This suggests the importance of being flexible with the factors related to the interview process (decision maker and questioning style, presence of trauma, languages barriers, etc.). From a psychological perspective, out of the seven adaptive memory errors described by Schacter,26 two would affect recall and consistency in interviews with asylum seekers: a) the reconsolidation that incorporates new information by adapting the memories, and b) the imagination inflation that transforms the reality of the past into simulated and desired experiences of the future. In addition, the ability to provide global coherence to an autobiographical story emerges in late adolescence and causal coherence appears between 12 and 16 years of age.27 Therefore, the type of events lived and the cognitive development must be considered in the interview, as otherwise a disorganized discourse, with little coherence and a low number of details will result in an unjust denial of asylum.

3.3 Plausibility

A plausible statement means that something may occur in an objective and reasonable manner. However, plausibility may be a subjective indicator without the consideration of the individual and cultural differences between applicants and decision makers, which may lead to wrong assumptions and speculations.28 Intercultural knowledge explains that some facts and customs can take place regularly in a country but can be unimaginable in another. Therefore, together with the absence of information, biased by gender and age in some origin countries and the minors’ ignorance about the importance given in these analyses to the amount and precision of details are obstacles to make a statement plausible.

3.4 Consistency with Country of Origin Information

Through this indicator, the general and specific information provided by the minors about their home country is contrasted with the available information gathered in each host State. However, child-specific information may not be available in destiny countries because it tends to be generic information.29 On the other hand, the lack of ability to understand the consequences of some lived events, caused by the consequent lack of social and political information, could partly explain the limited ability to narrate certain social significant events among asylum-seeking minors. Moreover, this point is considered as a vulnerability for unaccompanied minors compared to minors that travel with their families.30 Children are vulnerable due to the lack of testimonies of close third parties who can corroborate their stories.

3.5 Behaviour, Demeanour and the General Credibility of the Applicant

With regard to demeanour credibility indicators, the UNHCR proposes that through the behaviour and the overall attitude of the minor, a possible false argumentation of the reason for asylum may be inferred, which implies the minor is lying.31 However, despite this strong popular belief, there is no scientific evidence to validate the discrimination between truth and lies based on behavioral elements or emotional signs.32 Due to the very nature of the test as a process of legal contextualization,33 the minor may manifest nervousness, disorientation, distrust or insecurity that could explain the anxiety generated by participating in an asylum evaluation trial that will condition the future of the minor’s life. Moreover, it is falsely assumed that all people who have experienced traumatic events should show signs of pathologies caused by the psychological damage suffered and the lack of signs of affectation tends to be considered as an indicator of deception. Along with the idiosyncratic differences between applicants and judges, which give rise to different interpretations of the same attitude, all these behaviors can be confused with deception and, therefore, be grounds for denial of asylum.

In summary, through the analysis of the credibility of the testimonies provided, the veracity of the narratives of the experiences suffered by the requesting minors is evaluated, where a consistent argumentation of the causes that have led to the forced displacement is expected. As noted, there is usually an inversion of the innocence principle. The burden of proof requires investigation and a final credibility judgment on the discourse of these minors, prioritizing the probation of the statements over the initial assumption of their veracity. Moreover, UNHCR34 warns about subjective and arbitrary interpretations of each indicator depending on the State. Likewise, questions regarding the minor’s age may cause the dismissal of the minor’s credibility.

Finally, despite these considerations, more applied psychological knowledge is required during the asylum interviews in order to accept wider possibilities of narratives provided by minor refugees. Moreover, it is questionable that none of the indicators of credibility of testimonies is the presence of pathologies associated with the experience of traumatic events and of recovering from them. This is remarkable, as both the pathologies and their recovery affect the characteristics of the minor’s memories and narratives.

4 Trauma and Coping in Minor Refugees

In areas of armed conflict, exposure to traumatic events is very frequent and consequently, so is the presence of psychological disorders in children35 and adults.36 However, the physical and emotional strength of the refugees, who change from being victims to survivors, is rarely highlighted, as not all of them develop psychological disorders.

Most studies have focused on assessing the presence of PTSD and associated disorders, such as anxiety or depression. Regarding to psychological damage in refugee children, a systematic review conducted by Bronstein and Montgomery,37 covering 3003 children from over 40 countries, found levels of post-traumatic stress disorder between 19% and 54%, of depression between 3% and 30%, as well as the presence of behavioral and emotional difficulties. Recently, a group of 271 accompanied Syrian children were assessed in transit to Italy, the results showed a prevalence of 37% of PTSD, with avoidance symptoms in 50%, re-experiencing in 89.1% and hyperarousal in 61.6%, pointing out the current consequences on the mental health of children refugees and the need to reinforce the children protection system.38 Despite the scarce literature regarding unaccompanied refugee minors, higher levels of PTSD symptomatology are reported in comparison to that in accompanied refugee minors and that in children from the host country.39

The diagnostic criteria of the American Psychiatric Association40 regarding PTSD in the DSM-5 rely on four categories: intrusive thoughts, avoidance of memories of the event, negative feelings and thoughts and reactive hyper-activation symptoms.

However, there are many factors that impact the development of this disorder. Some of the most noteworthy are coping strategies or resilience (ability to face negative situations), and the intensity and significance of the event due to the consequences it had for the person that suffered it.41 Resilience has been observed as a protection factor against the development of psychological disorders.42 Thus, it is hard to predict beforehand if a person suffers from PTSD just by looking at the traumatic nature of the event: to the same event, some people might develop PTSD and others not.

One illustrative example that depicts the wide and complex individual variability in reaction to trauma in children seeking asylum may be the Pervasive Arousal Withdrawn Syndrome that affects some accompanied refugee minors in Sweden.43 The socio-clinical picture, initially described by the Pervasive Refusal Syndrome (PRS), implies that the child drops to a comma or stupor state as a reaction engaged to his/her family’s asylum instability process and within a hopeless and helpless familiar atmosphere.44

In unaccompanied minors, the lack of social and family support pushes them to individually overcome the obstacles and dangers of displacement. Quantitative studies warn about a higher risk of developing mental disorders in unaccompanied minors after they arrive in the host country. However, longitudinal studies have shown an improvement of the symptoms over time when emotional support is provided.45 Strategies such as searching for support, resilience and post-traumatic growth can lead to a deliberate attempt to forget and to transform the memory through imagination, play or to a tendency towards dissociative states, pretending to feel better than they really are.

5 Why a Narrative without a High Quantity and Specificity of Details Can Be Real in Asylum-Seeking Unaccompanied Minors?

The impact that traumatic events have on unaccompanied minors and how they cope with it depend on different factors but memory plays a fundamental role. Most of the anxiety disorders suffered by victims of traumatic events (wars, forced displacements, aggressions, torture …) present as a main symptom the problems generated by the memories of the event. Recovering from these symptoms means leaving behind and integrating the painful memories.46 However, very little is known about traumatic memories and the factors that could prevent or minimize their impact on the victims, there being a great controversy regarding their characteristics, origin and evolution. In this way, PTSD has been considered a memory disorder.47 Accordingly, it is relevant to consider the phenomenological characteristics of memory in normal and traumatic conditions48 as influential factors in the asylum interviews.

Different reviews show the broad debate about the nature of traumatic memories, a) whether they are different from other autobiographical memories, b) whether they are more or less accurate and c) whether they can be completely forgotten and remembered much later.49 However, despite the controversy, basic principles are presupposed in relation to traumatic memories. Thus, for example, it has been established that memories of traumatic events frequently appear fragmented, probably due to the presence of two factors that would affect the processes of codification and consolidation of memories: the reduction of cognitive resources due to stress, essential for the generation of memory traces, and the lack of quality sleep (very common in war situations) that affects the consolidation of long-term traces and causes a deficit in the functioning of memory.50 For an experience to become a memory, it must be encoded and stored in long term memory. Therefore, the presence of certain cognitive and environmental factors affects these processes and determines the narrative quality of what is recalled.

On the other hand, two possible perspectives have been described to code and recover an experience.51 The first-person or field perspective stands out from the third-person or spectator perspective, as it recovers more detailed and specific memories, with more sensory and emotional information. In this way, the prospect of recovery would affect the characteristics of the memories that are frequently used for the evaluation of their credibility. In the analysis of credibility, it is anticipated that the narratives of the applicants will be told in the first person, as they are emotional and very vivid memories, referring to the reasons for forced displacement. Indeed, these episodes contain great emotional burden, however, due to the characteristics of memory and interpersonal variability, they are not always reported according to the expectations of the judges. To facilitate recovery from a field perspective, not only must it be emotionally intense at the time of coding, but it must be a recent memory where the person is predisposed to re-experience the phenomenological characteristics of the original event through of their narrative. Under Rubin et al.’s nomothetic model,52 the memory of an experience with a high negative emotional impact would trigger the symptoms of PTSD and asylum seekers have referred responses of intense fear, horror and impotence regarding the memory of the event. However, not all memories of the refugees are recent, nor are all refugees willing to relive those autobiographical episodes that caused them to flee.

Manzanero, López, Aróztegui and El-Astal53 analyzed the perspective of memory attributed to positive and negative events among university students from the Gaza Strip (Palestine) and found significant differences. The positive events were referred from a field perspective by 88.1% of people versus 40.9% who referred negative events. Thus, the valence (pleasant or unpleasant) conditioned the prospect of recovery. In addition, a greater attribution of importance and possibility of consequences to positive memories was observed without differences in emotional intensity between positive and negative memories. These results support the ability to recover memories from different perspectives and explains why young refugees tend to distance themselves from their experiences through the observer perspective or by naturalizing them. In this same study, the greater importance attributed to positive memories is understood as another element of protection in a context of prolonged war, such as Gaza.

Moreover, experimenting a negative situation of high emotional impact leads to a narrowing of the attentional focus, showing more accurate memories in central aspects than in peripheral ones and mostly from the perspective of the observer. However, the deficiencies in the quality of the traumatic memory do not imply it is false. As observed54 in war contexts, there were differences in terms of confusion, complexity and deterioration, being higher in negative than in positive memories. In this way, events that involve a higher degree of violence are remembered worse.

In this emotion-memory continuum, flashbulb memories or vivid memories appear in relation to events of social and individual transcendence, which stand out due to the high accessibility and confidence that people have about their accuracy. Vallet, Manzanero, Aróztegui, and García-Zurdo55 evaluated the long-term memory of the 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid across a group of adults that at the time of the events were an average of 39.41 years old and another group whose mean age was 9.60 years. The results showed lower scores in the quality of memory, the emotions associated with the event and the accessibility of the information remembered in the younger group. The lack of criteria regarding the importance of the events in the youngest group meant that only the older group developed a flashbulb memory regarding the attacks.

As noted, there is scientific evidence about the study of memory to argue about the existence of discourses with low quantity and specificity of details in the asylum interviews.

On the other hand, the difficulty found in some studies to describe traumatic events verbally should not be confused with memory difficulties.56 The appearance of symptoms generates discomfort and victims of traumatic events tend to reinterpret their story and to try to forget, although they do not always achieve it. The presence of silences and vague information responds to aspects adhering to the processes of mourning and trauma, rather than to a deliberate attempt not to provide information, as times vary in relation to the ability to express these events. Ní Raghallaigh and Gilligan57 identified suppressing emotions and distrusting others as some of the resilience strategies of asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors in Ireland.

Another point to be consider are the pleasant memories whose narrative should not be confused in asylum interviews with the absence of well-founded fears of being protected in their country of origin. In fact, it is understood that the cultural urgency of positive memories promotes their recovery.58 For this reason, and due to survival mechanisms, there is a high accessibility to positive autobiographical stories among asylum-seeking refugees, because, when they arrive to the host country, they cling to their positive experiences in their country of origin. In a recent study59 conducted in the Gaza Strip, it was found that more intrusive memories were produced with respect to positive events than to negative events, similar to positive rumination pointed out by other studies60 and which could play an important role in resilient strategies.

Likewise, the family expectations placed on the progress of older children, the self-demand for improvement and other cultural factors contribute to the selection of their memories as resilient strategies.61 Thus, these protection mechanisms alter the recovery and expression of traumatic events and condition their narrative.62

Finally, forced displacements can go on for several years increasing the suggestibility of the minors to false information.63 The time elapsed since the beginning of their migration and, as noted, multiple factors contribute to the distortion and lack of accessibility of the memories in the unaccompanied minors.

6 Conclusions

This overview of research suggests that a reformulation of the UNHCR’s credibility analysis procedure that resolves asylum applications for refugees is required, especially concerning to unaccompanied refugee children. This article contributes to the scarce scientific research that notes the limitations of considering memory as the cornerstone to the asylum decision-making process from a psychological approach.64 Regardless, the limitations of using or refusing refugee’s personal testimonies as credibility indicators drives to the political starting point concerning the national willingness regarding accepting or rejecting refugees. Currently, the lack of a common European criteria application proposed by the UNHCR, far from taking into account the diversity of discourses, considers it an exclusion criterion. Therefore, a more complex procedure regarding the factors that affect the quality and accuracy of the testimonies is required. Undue importance on sufficiency of detail and specificity of the statements should not be the cutoff criteria for asylum applications to be accepted because memories are not fixed and become deteriorated over time. Moreover, due to high exposition to traumatic events in refugees, and particularly in children, it is recommendable to consider the effects that mental health disabilities and coping strategies have on memory and on the narratives of life experiences. Finally, psychological knowledge should be included in the asylum interviews in order to validate the credibility assessment and consequently, the presence or absence of trauma and its effects over the memory and narrative.


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See note 10, Herlihy, Jobson & Turner 2012.

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