The Power of Interpretation: My Experience Volunteering at the Refugee Law Clinic

Alexandra Thacker, Publications Editor and Contributor of the UCL Student Pro Bono Committee

The University of London’s Refugee Law Clinic provides pro bono legal advice for refugee clients. The clinic’s main legal focus is advising on and preparing fresh claims for asylum. A fresh claim is made when an asylum seeker’s case has already been refused and appealed, but they have now obtained new evidence or there has been a change in circumstances which entitles them to ask for a new decision from the Home Office about their asylum decision. The clinic is made up of law student and commercial lawyer volunteers who work on cases in small groups under the close supervision of one of the Clinic’s two expert immigration lawyers. In September, I began the training course to become one of these volunteers.

I was attracted to the project in particular because I wanted to show my support for the rights and respect of refugees at a time where the Government’s attitude to this vulnerable group is extremely poor. I felt that this was the perfect opportunity to challenge the hateful narrative and contribute to positive change. And yet, when I was assigned my first case, there was a small part of me that feared how I would feel about the client in our first meeting. The picture painted in the client’s previous negative decisions was of a deceptive individual spinning a story of persecution in the hope of concealing their true identity as an economic migrant seeking a better life. This evaluation mirrored exactly the rhetoric we hear constantly from this Government, that many asylum seekers are simply illegal economic migrants with no right to be in the country. Seeing those sentiments written in a lengthy, official document after a real hearing felt far more credible than watching politicians make sweeping statements about refugees in interviews. I would have hoped the immigration judge had made the right decision, detached from political pressure of the Government’s current narrative of refugees.

However, in my first interview with the client, I found myself feeling amazed at how the Home Office could have so heavily doubted this person’s story, it coming across to me as very reasonably believable, the client’s demeanour further suggesting honesty and clear vulnerability. I was shocked at how differently I had interpreted the client’s credibility in comparison to the previous immigration judge. It made me realise just how vulnerable these clients are.

With often little documentary or witness evidence available to support a refugee’s claim, much weight is placed on the consistency of the client’s story. The problem with this is that memory is unreliable. Neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, and so each time we retell the same story, we reconstruct the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. As a result of this reconstruction, we are likely to tell the same story slightly differently each time we describe it. Add to this the element of trauma which can shutdown episodic memory and fragment the sequence of events, and reliance on a person’s recollection of events becomes even more unreliable.

In conversation with lawyers at the Clinic, however, it seems that there is concern that judges do not seem to give this too much consideration, often using minor inconsistencies in a refugee’s testimony from one interview to another as a sign of potential deception rather than a mistaken memory recollection. In some sense it is certainly understandable that judges would do this, with little evidence on which to base these important decisions, the possibility that the person is being deceptive is necessary to consider before a decision is made. My concern is that the suspicion is too great. From meeting with the same client, and asking them to speak on the same issues, I came away with a very different perception of that client than the immigration judge did. Granted I lack experience, but the judge is not necessarily better equipped to detect dishonesty more than the average person, and so perhaps has become too case hardened and suspicious of clients. The fact is that to me the client appeared credible, to the prior judge, they did not. It is that variability of interpretation which is concerning.

The experience has emphasised to me the high level of vulnerability of these clients and as a result how important the work done at the Refugee Law Clinic is, as well as by people generally to welcome refugees to the country. It is fundamental that these vulnerable people have someone fighting in their corner when they are so lacking in support both on a personal and community level and more widely from the current Government. It pains me to learn how poorly refugees are treated in this country, and how poorly the Government represents the views of the many compassionate and kind people it serves. People who, like me, I believe would feel great sympathy for the rather harsh treatment of the refused asylum seekers that the Refugee Law Clinic supports.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors. They are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UCL SPBC. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *