20 September 2017

Asylum procedure: the art of asking questions

To get a residence permit in the Netherlands, or elsewhere in Europe, asylum seekers need to tell a credible story about their identity, their country of origin and the reason they fled. Yet the way in which asylum officials ask questions does not always make for a good test of reality. This is the conclusion of Tanja van Veldhuizen’s PhD dissertation, which she will defend at Maastricht University on 22 September. One solution may be to ask more open questions.

How did you come up with this topic?
“I’ve been interested in issues like justice, cultural differences and morality for a long time. If I was going to write a dissertation, it had to be on something that really interested me and that was also useful to society. When I saw this PhD project advertised by the House of Legal Psychology, a partnership between the universities of Maastricht, Gothenburg and Portsmouth, I thought straight away: that’s right up my alley.”

What exactly appealed to you?
“The fact that the subject is so topical, but also that legal-psychological research on immigration law is still relatively scarce, especially considering how big an impact it has on individuals and society. After I had formed a picture of the asylum procedure in the Netherlands and the various parties involved, I focused on the credibility assessment of statements made by asylum seekers. I wanted to find out how to improve it, because actually people are very bad at telling when someone’s lying or not.”

How is credibility currently assessed?
“Five indicators are used, not just here in the Netherlands but also internationally. How detailed is the statement? Is the same story told consistently at different times? Are there parallels with statements made by other witnesses in the case? Is the story consistent with other sources, including what we know about a certain country or city? And finally, is it plausible? I focused on two of these indicators: the amount of detail and the consistency with information about the country of origin. I was particularly interested in how questions are asked and how this influences the quality of the information obtained, as this had never been systematically investigated.”

What’s wrong with the way the questions are asked?
“I’m not saying it’s wrong, but asylum seekers are asked quite a lot of closed questions. For example, if someone says they come from Eritrea, the question will be: ‘Were there mountains in the area?’ That doesn’t call for a detailed answer. If you ask someone an open question like ‘Could you describe the landscape of the area you come from’, then they can explain it in their own words. That results in more accurate information. What’s more, people only talk about what they really know. With closed questions that only require a yes or no, people are more inclined to guess if they don’t know the answer. That doesn’t do justice to the validity and reliability of a story. And if you’re telling lies, it’s harder to stick to your story if you have to answer open questions. So closed questions should be kept to a minimum.”

Why don’t asylum officials just ask more open questions?
“I think one thing that plays a role is work pressure, caused by the increase in asylum applications. But the way in which interviews are conducted, with an interpreter present and having to type things up during the interview, also gives the asylum official little time for reflection. Then it’s just easier to ask closed questions rather than open ones.”

How could this be solved?
“The aim of my dissertation is to help make the credibility assessments of asylum-seekers’ stories as accurate as possible. Beginning with an open question is a good start. After the asylum seeker has told their story freely, it’s a good idea to take a short break so the official can think about which aspects of the story need to be expanded on with new open questions. Only when you have a lot of information already can you then check this or that with closed questions.”

You also state that the nature of the questions often doesn’t match what most people know about their home environment. What do you mean by that?
“The immigration services seem to believe that if you ask a lot of questions about the place of origin, you can figure out whether someone really comes from there or is lying. I conducted an experimental study that showed that this needs to be qualified. People who genuinely came from a certain city correctly answered only a few more questions than people who had never been there, but who were given 20 minutes before the interview to look up information online. Sometimes people don’t know things about their own city because they’ve just never paid attention, or have never been to a certain part of the city.”

So testing knowledge doesn’t always lead to the right decision?
“No, although it’s difficult to assess because in many cases we’re not certain what the truth really is. I studied ten files of asylum seekers who claimed to come from Eritrea, but who were rejected on the basis of the knowledge test. In six of the ten cases an identity document later turned up showing that they were from Eritrea after all. Naturally, from this small number you can’t conclude that it goes wrong in 60% of cases, but it certainly indicates that not all is well with the procedures.”

What will you do with your research results?
“I’ve made many contacts at and given a number of presentations for the immigration services in the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. The IND [the Dutch immigration service] has so far been very open to dialogue and is very interested in my findings. And there will be a symposium in Maastricht on 21 September, one day before my PhD defence, bringing together academics and practitioners to discuss this topic. I prefer to talk with the people involved rather than just about them, in the hope that the results will be of value to society.”

By Femke Kools

Tanja van Veldhuizen will defend her PhD dissertation ‘Where I come from and how I got here: Assessing credibility in asylum cases’ at Maastricht University at 10.00 on 22 September. She will receive a joint degree from UM and the University of Gothenburg. Her supervisors are Professor Peter van Koppen (UM) and Professor Pär-Anders Granhag (Gothenburg), assisted by co-supervisors Dr Robert Horselenberg (UM) and Dr Sara Landström (Gothenbug). Van Veldhuizen has been a postdoctoral researcher at the Montaigne Centre for Judicial Administration and Conflict Resolution at Utrecht University since April 2017.