The pressure cooker
Since July 1, 2010 a new asylum procedure has been in effect, the General Asylum Procedure. This procedure allows refugees one week to rest and to prepare for what is too come; this is called the rest and preparation period (RVT). After the Immigration Service (IND) initiates the hearings with the asylum seeker, the process takes on a blinding pace. Within eight days the case is closed, with each process step taking one day. Two hearings with the IND, two meetings with the lawyer representing the refugee, the preliminary findings of the IND, the lawyer’s reaction to these findings, the final decision of the IND and the concluding talks with the lawyer. Every asylum seeker most go through this procedure, whether they belong to a vulnerable group or not.
Vulnerable asylum seekers: stacked odds
The General Asylum Procedure offers little chance of success for asylum seekers who have experienced violence. These experiences have often regressed in the memory of the victim, and with good reason. In many cultures, talking about experiences such as rape will automatically lead to social excommunication. Speaking openly about such experiences is only possible in an atmosphere of calm and trust, with a discussion partner who can pick up on signals of trauma and use these signals to deepen the discussion. Asylum applications for refugees who have fled for reasons which are surrounded by taboos have little chance of success in the atmosphere of distrust which best characterizes the IND hearings.
Basic attitude: distrust
In the hearings with the IND, its basic attitude towards the asylum seeker is distrust. The First Hearing, in which the identity of the asylum seeker and his or her escape route must be ascertained, is often where it starts to go wrong. Questions such as “point out on this map where you used to live”, “you came by boat, but you don’t know when, this cannot be right”, “what color did the seats on the airplane have” do not make any allowance for the fact that many asylum seekers cannot read a map, may deal with time in a different way from Europeans, and may not have paid attention to their surroundings due to stress during the journey. If the asylum seeker cannot answer such questions, here she quickly becomes a liar in the eyes of the IND.
In the Further Hearing, about the motive for fleeing the home country, things are not much better. The IND interviewers have instructions to only ask open questions; closed questions might be suggestive, is the reasoning. So if a woman says that she does not know who the father is of her child, the interviewer does not follow up on this. If a woman says she was harassed by soldiers, the precise circumstances are not inquired after; rather the interviewer might simply ask for the precise number of soldiers. Examples of questions: “you say that you belong to a Christian minority. Tell me how many apostles were there” or “you say that you were walking on a straight road, and were harassed by soldiers who came from around the bend. So was it a straight road or a road with curves?”.
No second chance
Who would not get confused and clam up if faced with the open distrust evidenced by such questions? And there’s no second chance. If something is not put forward in the further hearing, it is inadmissible at a later stage. “You should’ve said that earlier”.
Medical advice: a travesty
Before the general asylum procedure, asylum seekers are offered a Medical Advice (MA). This is designed to ascertain if the asylum seeker is able to provide consistent and coherent testimony. The advice is given by a social nurse who (as mentioned in parliamentary discussion records) should have “experience in dealing with and recognizing traumas, and is able to judge whether a further assessment by a trained doctor should be conducted”. The Immigration Minister and Secretary have repeatedly assured parliament that the MA is the right tool to signal possible trauma due to sexual or war violence at an early stage. But in practice the medical advice turns out to be a 10 to 15 minute chat in which a checklist of four items is run through. The company Medifirst which carries out the MA does not consider in-depth questions about traumatic experiences to be part of the job description of its employees. They cannot ask clarifying questions about possible motives for fleeing the home country, since the General Asylum Procedure is yet to commence. This is another situation in which trauma which forms the background of many asylum applications remains hidden. These asylum seekers then end up in the short General Asylum Procedure, where they do not belong.
Living in insecurity
During the general asylum procedure, the refugees live in a so called process shelter (POL), where they live in relative isolation. Depending on who else is going through the procedure, they may or may not have a social interaction with those who share their language, home country or fate. For many women, co-ed shower facilities are seen as threatening, and they can also feel insecure in communal kitchens.
Lawyers in a time crunch…
Asylum seekers should have one and the same lawyer representing them during the asylum procedure, allowing them to build up a bond of trust with their counselor. But the procedure is so tightly packed with deadlines that most lawyers find it hard to fit this into their schedules. Apart from the initial meeting in preparation of the General Asylum Procedure, the presence of the lawyer is desired on days 2, 4, 6 and 8 of the procedure. This conflicts with the schedule of lawyers who work part-time, but also with those who work full-time, since the procedure continues during weekends. On many occasions lawyers need to be replaced by colleagues. A time-pressed lawyer who does not have the opportunity to develop a bond of trust; this can spell doom for vulnerable asylum seekers who only stand a chance if they can tell their story in an atmosphere of calm and trust.
… and in a financial crunch
Lawyers are allowed 3 hours of preparation for every discussion with the asylum seeker. But 3 hours is too little in complicated cases where extra documentation work may be required, a counter-expertise must be organized in light of questionable medical advice, or an appeal must be prepared against an errant decision from the IND. Immigration lawyers often allow more time for such a conversation and accept that their hourly fee will be reduced as a consequence. Of course, the lower the hourly fee, the less talent and commitment will be available to the refugee. To make matters worse, the previous immigration secretary Gerd Leers cut the compensation for immigration lawyers in asylum cases.
Actie ‘Geen vluchteling op straat of in de cel’ op 23 maart 2013 georganiseerd door vluchtelingen uit de ‘Vluchtkerk’ in Amsterdam en het ‘Vluchthuis’ in Den Haag samen met ondersteunende organisaties.
The pressure cooker