Having worked with vulnerable people for over ten years, I thought I had heard and witnessed a lot and that not much would surprise me. I could not be more wrong. Over the last few weeks I have accompanied two of our clients to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal to support them with their appeal against the refusal of their Asylum applications. The experiences have been quite challenging for me. I have felt compelled to share them.
Before the Hearing As the appeal hearings approached my clients’ anxiety levels increased. They expressed fears that they would be called a liar and would be subjected to aggressive questioning. Despite assurances from me that this was not the case as there were procedures in place at the Tribunal to account for vulnerable witnesses , my clients continued to experience what I would describe as ‘debilitating fear’. Both of my clients’ mental health leading up to the hearings deteriorated, both were tearful, had lost their appetite, were struggling to sleep and were increasingly relying on heavier doses of medication to help them cope with these symptoms. Both mentioned they would commit suicide.
The Day of the Hearing As a result of serious delays by the Home Office in considering asylum applications my clients had given their asylum interviews a long time ago. They were now being compelled to remember their traumatic experiences and not just remember it, but be able to speak about it in a way that is accepted as credible. The following comment from my client summed up how difficult asylum seekers find it to express themselves,
“I can tell you how I was made to feel, I can talk about my pain and the scars they left on my body and soul but I struggle to remember the other details, like road names, shop names. Why is this important to them?”
Unfortunately, details are important in asylum applications. The Competence Authority guidance  states lack of detail and inconsistency in giving evidence may lead to disbelieving their claim. Often asylum applications are refused because the claimant’s account is deemed not credible due to lack of detail.
The need for a coherent, detailed account must then be mitigated by the fact that those that have been through severe trauma cannot always recall details. A study on the physical and psychological health consequences of women and adolescents trafficked in Europe found 63% of victims of trafficking reported memory problems .
Further, survivors often feel a deep sense of shame which also inhibits full disclosure. I observed both my clients struggle with answering questions on minute details of their accounts. This was made worse by the fact that in one case the court room was dominated by men. During the time I had supported these two clients they had avoided spaces where there were lots of males and yet here they were having to talk about the most intimate details of their personal accounts in a courtroom where a male judge will decide the outcome, a male presenting officer was asking the questions and a male interpreter was explaining the procedure.
My client did not complain.
I have no reasons to believe that anyone acted unprofessionally, however considering my client was deeply ashamed of her past and has spent time avoiding males, I wonder how the gender mix in the courtroom impacted her ability to give evidence. The tribunal procedure rules do allow you to request a female-only tribunal in certain circumstances, however this does not always happen .
During the hearing we took breaks to allow my client to compose herself. The breaks were useful but did not alleviate my clients from distress. I was forced to intervene when my client appeared to be having a flashback. The colour from her face had drained, she had clenched her eyes, her body started to uncontrollably shake. Her reaction was in response to a discussion around how many males she had been forced to sleep with in a day. I felt powerless. Despite my assurances to the client beforehand that she would be okay. She was clearly not okay. Her experience in court left her re-traumatised.
After the Hearing
The day in court left me with mixed feelings. I had observed first-hand what it is like claiming asylum from the client’s perspective. The Asylum process is not tailored to meet the needs of women claimants who have suffered from severe trauma. My clients were fortunate to have good solicitors, had been well prepared for the hearing and yet they both crumbled on the day.
I felt a deep sense of injustice on their behalf and also a sense of guilt for not being able to protect them.
I provided emotional, procedural and practical support to the clients. I accompanied them to the hearing, I know my presence made a huge difference to the experience they had. I had the privilege of working with both clients for a considerable amount of time, I had gained a better understanding of their needs and their cases. I was called as an expert witness in both cases. I was able to shed light on to the client’s needs but also corroborate some of my client’s asylum account. A direct result of my evidence resulted in one of the ladies winning her appeal. This has allowed my client for the first time in years to think about her future, it has made such a difference to her life and her mental health.
I now wait anxiously for the outcome of the second appeal. Why would I be anxious? Because I am very aware that luck plays a big role in the outcome of an Asylum appeal. In both my clients’ cases, the appeals were narrowed down to simply whether my clients were “credible witnesses”. The Immigration Judge is entitled to take lots of factors into account when making this decision, including my supporting evidence but ultimately this is a subjective judgement. It has been reported that Judges do not always approach cases with an open mind .
The stakes are so high, my client is an active suicide risk and so that’s why I am anxiously waiting.
Written by Neelam Banaris, Snowdrop Project Senior Caseworker
 Zimmerman, C. Hossain, M. Yun, K. Roche, B. Morison, L. Watts, C. (2006) “Stolen Smiles: a summary report on the physical and psychological health consequences of women and adolescents trafficked in Europe.” London.