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The Heart of the Matter: Assessing Credibility when Children Apply for Asylum in the European Union

A positive credibility finding is a prerequisite for being recognized as a refugee, whether the applicant is an adult or a child. Nevertheless, how the credibility of children’s claims is assessed has rarely been studied, and international and domestic legal frameworks provide little guidance on this subject. Research in other areas of law suggests that assessing children’s credibility is especially difficult. This is because their memories are less developed than those of adults, they are more suggestible than adults, and they do not have the same communication skills.

Credibility assessment is of course not an exact science. It involves judging whether an individual is being deliberately deceptive, is simply mistaken about some of the information he or she conveys, or is unable to provide the necessary information.

In the case of asylum-seekers, it is complicated by several factors: most evidence consists of oral statements, independent corroboration of which can rarely be obtained; the applicant and the interviewer (who may or may not also be the decision-maker) usually come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds; communication almost always takes place through an interpreter; and many asylum-seekers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, which can make it hard for them to recall and to convey their past experiences.

In common usage, credibility assessment is understood as “a judgement concerning the quality and veracity of evidence”. In the context of asylum decision-making, however, it has a broader meaning. UNHCR understands ‘credibility assessment’ to encompass the first step in the asylum determination process: the gathering of relevant facts from the asylum-seeker, examining these facts in the light of all information available, and deciding if the individual’s statements (and any other evidence presented) can be relied upon for the purpose of determining whether the applicant qualifies for international protection.

In May 2013, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published a report entitled Beyond Proof: Credibility Assessment in EU Asylum Systems. The impetus for that report was the realization that asylum applications are often denied on the grounds that they are ‘not credible’, yet there is not a common approach to credibility assessment, even within the European Union (EU).

Beyond Proof looked into the practice of credibility assessment in several EU Member States and proposed a set of principles and indicators to underpin the process. It drew particular attention to the importance of a multidisciplinary approach, pointing out that work done in other disciplines, including neurobiology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and gender studies can provide helpful insights. Beyond Proof examined credibility assessment in the context of asylum applications presented by adults. The case of child claimants was left for future research.

This report takes up that challenge. With significant numbers of unaccompanied children applying for asylum in EU Member States – 12,640 in 2013 and rising numbers in 2014, assessing the credibility of their claims correctly and consistently is of vital importance.

Researchers and practitioners have devoted surprisingly little attention to techniques for interviewing asylum-seeking children and for assessing their statements. This contrasts with the vast literature on eliciting evidence from children who are witnesses or victims of crime, in particular those who claim to have suffered sexual abuse. There is also comparatively little jurisprudence at national and regional levels on evidentiary standards to be met by state authorities when assessing the asylum applications of children.

The Heart of the Matter aims to help decision-makers assess the credibility of children’s claims in a fair, objective and consistent manner. It sets out a number of observations that could serve as the foundation for guidance on the subject. It is hoped that this research will contribute towards strengthening practice in the difficult area of child asylum claims, and towards UNHCR’s elaboration of globally applicable Guidelines on Credibility Assessment.