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Are Christian converts seeking asylum getting a raw deal?


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Interesting from the BBC:

Converts to Christianity are being unfairly treated by the asylum system, according to a report by a parliamentary group. But how do you prove someone is Christian?

The full report by the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief is available here: Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds. It covers all asylum claims based on religion or belief but the press were particularly interested in the Christian conversion angle.

This is something I’ve recently written about on Free Movement. For some background on preparing and arguing such cases see this earlier blog post: Opening a window into the soul: how to prepare asylum claims based on religion. I suggest there that Trivial Pursuit style questions about doctrinal knowledge are a very poor way to assess such cases and that the focus should instead be on the way in which the person understands and manifests their faith.

The Parliamentary group report reinforces this analysis. It highlights several problems that arise in asylum claims based on religion leading to poor quality decisions, both at the initial application to the Home Office and on appeal, the first of which is the use of what the report refers to as “Bible trivia” questions:

Home Office and UNHCR guidelines warn against assessing credibility of the applicant’s religious beliefs or conversion through questions that focus on religious knowledge. However, in all submissions to the APPG and the AAG, there is a clear pattern of decision-makers using knowledge testing at interview, with an absence of cases where decision-makers had pursued a line of questioning to establish the personal narrative of the applicant, including their feelings and experience of their religious faith.

Several examples are given, including one man refused because he could not state all of the Ten Commandments, another refused because he could not explain what is Ash Wednesday and a woman refused because she could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. The examples go on:

questions asked to Christian converts from Islamic background continue to detailed factual questions about the Old Testament and the New Testament such as the story of Adam and Eve, the names of Apostles, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the meaning of Lent, the Holy Communion and whether Easter is celebrated every year on the same date

Not only is this a poor way to test the authenticity of a person’s faith, but the factual basis for such questions is sometimes wrong as well:

Home Office interviewing officers’ knowledge of churches and liturgies is also sometimes based on a quick survey of church websites, which may have limited or incorrect information.

The problems were not restricted to Home Office officials. One example is given of a judge falling into a similar trap:

Paul Nettleship drew attention to the case of ‘C’, a Catholic applicant from India, whose appeal was turned down by an immigration judge. In refusing the appeal, the judge remarked how he “found ‘particularly striking’ C’s ignorance of the Friday abstinence rules in Catholicism in relation to refraining from meat consumption [which] meant that C, in light of his ignorance of such, was clearly not a Christian as this practice was ‘general knowledge.’” A Catholic priest provided a written statement in support of C’s application, stating that “ignorance of this obligation and practice is widespread among Catholics from the Indian sub-continent and I am frequently surprised to be offered meat dishes on Fridays by otherwise deeply committed and pious Catholics.” The case demonstrates how the immigration judge had reached his conclusion on the credibility of the applicant’s Catholicism, based solely upon his own subjective understanding of Catholicism.

As discussed in that blog post, there is actually a leading case which suggests judges should do this, which is surely now wrong, if it was ever right.

The report hints at this at several points, but of course this is not a problem restricted to asylum claims based on religion. Trivial Pursuit type questions are often asked in political activist cases and are of similarly dubious utility.

Interpreting issues are also highlighted as a serious problem in religious asylum cases. The problem is that the religious terminology and concepts that are the subject of questioning are not known to interpreters are cannot readily be translated. One example in the report highlights the problem well:

“Mohammad was an active house church leader in Iran. His case was refused because the Home Office did not believe he was a Christian. He lost his first appeal because of mis-translation of Christian terminology at the hearing. During the tribunal hearing, the judge asked him to state the name of the last book of the Bible. Mohammad responded Mokashefe, which is the Farsi word for Revelation; the Muslim interpreter repeated the same word to the Judge. The judge in his decision stated that the last book of the Bible was not Mokashefe but rather the book of Revelation.

The report goes on to discuss some of the classic reasons for refusal that are generated in asylum claims based on religion. Absence of country information about specific groups, suggesting that the person can be discreet on their return and internal relocation are all wrongly being applied to refuse such claims. Again, though, this is by no means a problem unique to religious asylum claims.

The report concludes that Home Office policies are often good or at least adequate, but that there is a a gap between Home Office policy and Home Office practice. Concern is expressed about the use in religious asylum claims of the Detained Fast Track and its successor the Detained Asylum Cases system.

The report’s findings signal a lack of understanding and misperceptions of religion and belief among decision-makers. This results in problematic investigation of the claim (including questions put to applicants), poor credibility assessment and weak analysis of well-founded fears of persecution and risks of such persecution upon return (including internal relocation analysis). Evidence also points to lack of sensitivity shown to specific needs of applicants and some serious concerns regarding sufficient knowledge and sensitivity towards applicants on the part of interpreters, all of whom are self-employed, that have been hired by the Home Office.

Further specialist training is suggested and the use of a “second pair of eyes” where religious asylum claims are to be refused.

For scarred veterans of asylum law like me, the report reads almost like special pleading for a particular category of asylum claim. As the report recognises, the problems highlighted are in many ways symptomatic across the asylum system. We have previously seen special pleading by other specific groups who have previously been able to attract media or political attention because of vigorous lobbying and because of potential public sympathy. There is a risk once women, children, trafficking, LGBT and religious claims are given special status, those that remain are second class asylum seekers.

It would be wrong to dismiss the recommendations on this basis, though. Firstly, some groups need special attention and care in order to put them on an equal footing with others. Secondly, any improvements to the asylum system and any contributions towards changing the culture at the Home Office are to be welcomed. If officials can learn to see refugees as human beings rather than beans to be counted then we are half way there.


Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.