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Common cross-cultural pitfalls with young clients seeking asylum

This article reviews some common cross-cultural pitfalls between legal representatives and young people claiming asylum. It also provides some ideas on how to mitigate cultural misunderstandings.

Going into your initial meeting, a basic understanding of your client’s culture is helpful to build trust and a good rapport. It is not possible to know everything about the child’s home country, but a basic overview is key. Your client will inevitably present their story in the context of their own culture. 

Ask active questions to the young person about how things work in their home country. Show interest and a willingness to be advised by your young client. This sets up a foundation of information sharing between client and legal representative.

Practically speaking, make a point of using simple language and avoiding acronyms and idioms. Be warm, open and take time to explain why you are asking questions. Explaining the reasoning behind questions helps build trust and understanding across cultures.

Make it clear you are separate from government bodies. Most young people will likely conflate you with the Home Office and social services. Many will enter the meeting with an entrenched fear and lack of trust towards the authorities. This previous post provides some details about how to reduce distress when working with children, including helping them to understand your specific role as their legal representative.

Look at their facial expressions and body language. If it is clear the client has been politely nodding at you, try paraphrasing, repeating or asking rhetorical questions to check their understanding.

Looking away from a young person for a short period during a meeting can be effective. They also need to feel able to look at you and this may provide a good opportunity for them to do so. In certain cultures, it is disrespectful to hold eye contact with someone older than you, and/or someone from the opposite sex. By looking away you provide a moment for your client to look at you directly.

A common pitfall is that young people avoid correcting their legal representative and interpreter. The reluctance to clarify or add information might be out of respect for someone older than them. It could also be due to a sense of shame or guilt. While this is likely linked to past abuse and trauma, the reluctance can be exacerbated by cultural differences. It is important to actively encourage your client to share information.

Once a witness statement is near completion there is no room for incorrect information. A practical step is to ask the client to take on the role of a teacher correcting a student’s work. This role play often makes a young person smile and is effective in encouraging them to listen carefully and identify errors when the statement is read back to them.

The Refugee Convention demands applicants evidence their personal, rather than collective, risk of persecution. Young clients will likely struggle initially to describe personal persecution. Instead, they tend to relay the risks faced by their family and friends. 

Be attentive to this and allow them to talk about their collective experience of persecution. From this description, you can start to pinpoint what you see as their individual grounds for protection. Try asking open questions such as “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What does that mean to you?”.

Another pitfall in working cross-culturally is different time recording systems. The UK uses the Gregorian calendar which is a solar calendar. Some clients will use a lunar calendar or will have grown up without using calendars to mark time. In some cultures, dates of birth are not recorded, and many young people arrive in the UK not knowing their exact age. Be open and ask your client to teach you about their systems. Objective evidence can inform you on these points.

Be aware that descriptions of close relationships can lead to cultural misunderstandings. You might hear your client talk of an uncle or cousin where they may actually be referring to a close family friend. This cultural difference in talking about a close family friend versus a biological relative is a common source of misunderstanding.

In some instances, a young client might identify with their ethnicity above their nationality. As the legal representative, it is helpful to explain why details about both their nationality and ethnicity need to be included in the asylum claim. As above, by explaining reasoning (that is to put forward the best quality asylum evidence) young people will tend to be receptive and provide information as needed.

In summary, an awareness of cross-cultural issues is integral to eliciting accurate information for a young person’s asylum claim. Hopefully this article helps practitioners working on child asylum claims to be aware of and avoid some common cross-cultural misunderstandings.

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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Sarah Wahby

Sarah Wahby is a IAAS level 2 Caseworker at Turpin Miller assisting unaccompanied children through the asylum process. Previously, Sarah worked internationally with NGOs and academic institutions in Egypt and the UK. Her interest lies in combining advocacy with psychosocial practice to better support people seeking safety.