'Hearing the Right Gaps': Rape Narratives and Credibility Assessment at the UK Asylum and Immigration Tribunal

Dr Sharon Cowan travelled to Strasbourg in April 2014 to present the European Court of Human Rights with the findings of a Nuffield Foundation funded project on rape and asylum that she completed with colleagues Ms Helen Baillot (independent researcher) and Professor Vanessa Munro (University of Nottingham).

Judges, lawyers, and others in the Council of Europe who are working towards a Common European Asylum System attended the presentation.

The team’s study, ‘Rape Narratives and Credibility Assessment (of Female Claimants) at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal’, focused on how women seeking asylum whose applications included a claim of rape were treated during the UK asylum process. The three year project, completed in 2012,  was the first of its kind in the world and observed asylum hearings, and conducted interviews and case file analyses ‘to highlight the nature and significance of the obstacles to disclosure that may confront female asylum-seekers in the UK who claim to have experienced rape’. (‘Hearing the Right Gaps’ (2013), p. 1)

Baillot, Cowan, and Munro produced three main research findings:

1. When rape is disclosed, some of the ‘myths’ within the criminal justice system about rape - for example, that late disclosure or a calm demeanour indicates a fabricated claim - spill over into the asylum context, particularly in the views of decision-makers;

2. There is a profound lack of resources for support for those in the asylum system coping with the effects of sexual violence (and trauma more generally). Among immigration judges in particular, there is a culture that discourages help-seeking or even the acknowledgment that there are risks of emotional problems and vicarious trauma in asylum work;

3.   The biggest problem facing asylum-seeking women who allege rape is establishing credibility. This manifests itself in a series of assumptions about what makes a credible claim, but without proper understanding of why a woman’s narrative may be inconsistent, delayed, or relayed without emotion.

This research has policy implications for the structure of the UK asylum system. The working cultures around decision-making have had a negative impact on asylum-seeking women whose claims involved a rape allegation. As a result of this research, the Judicial College invited the research team to present their findings at an annual training event for all immigration judges across the UK. The team have also recently presented their findings to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in London, the European Universities Institute in Florence, and various other universities nationally and internationally.

The team’s work has been cited by the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, Refugee Women’s Strategy Group.

Related links

Visit Sharon Cowan’s page at Edinburgh Research Explorer

European Commission Common European Asylum System

Working paper by Balliot, Cowan, and Munro: 'Hearing the Right Gaps': Enabling and Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence within the UK Asylum Process’

Nuffield Foundation Research Briefing: Rape Narratives and Credibility Assessment at the AIT

Bailliot, Cowan, and Munro, ‘“Just a Story”: Rape Narratives and Credibility Assessments of Women Seeking Asylum’ in Women’s Asylum News (June 2012) 1-5 

Related postgraduate study at Edinburgh Law School

LLM in Human Rights