Impossible Testimony

Even the words refugee and asylum connote criminality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a refugee as “one who, owing to religious persecution or political troubles, seeks refuge in a foreign country: a. Originally applied to the French Huguenots who came to England in 1685 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. b. A runaway fugitive from justice” (emphasis added). And asylum is defined first as “a sanctuary or inviolable place of refuge and protection for criminals and debtors from which they cannot be removed without sacrilege” and second as “a benevolent institution affording shelter and support to some class of the afflicted, the unfortunate, the destitute, e.g. ‘a lunatic asylum’” (emphasis added). From the beginning, then, refugees have been seen as criminals, debtors, and mentally ill. Although the words have evolved, their associations have not. The figure of the “refugee” is still considered destitute, criminal, and mentally ill. Insofar as she must leave her home country, she becomes homeless and dependent on others for basic needs; insofar as national and international law requires that she leave her home country and make her request for asylum on foreign soil, and usually do so as an illegal alien, she is made criminal; and the trauma she has suffered at home, the trauma that justifies and legitimates her status as refugee and asylum seeker, creates her as mentally ill. For, to legitimately gain refugee status and be accepted into her host country, she must convincingly testify to the trauma of violence and fear of persecution. She must convince authorities that she is afraid for her life; that she has been traumatized; in effect, that she has suffered mentally as well as physically.

And yet, as the UNHCR guidelines for interviewing asylum seekers make clear, cultural differences and translation problems are significant dangers in the determination of refugee status. The guidelines give a striking example of the danger of mistranslation: “A Turkish asylum-seeker, applying for refugee status in Switzerland, stated that he had escaped arrest by hiding in the mountains near his home town. The application was rejected. Among the reasons given was the fact that the town was situated amid hills. For the Swiss interviewer there were no mountains in the region and thus the applicant was considered to be not credible. However, in Turkish, the term ‘mountain’ also applies to hilly regions.” As the guidelines warn, “notions of time, of truth and falsehood can also vary from culture to culture and give rise to misunderstandings that put the asylum-seekers’ credibility in doubt” (UNHCR 1995b). And yet, despite the monumental risk of misinterpretation and mistranslation, every day, interviews determine the fate of asylum seekers based on this faulty process.

The difficulties of testifying to trauma are compounded when the trauma involves sexual assault, because many women are extremely reluctant to talk about rape. In the United States, where there is marked improvement in “blame the victim” standards and shame over being sexually assaulted, rates of reporting rape continue to be shockingly low; and when women do report, their testimony continues to be dismissed or ignored. Most women report feeling ashamed or being shamed, even further traumatized, by the process of reporting.[1] In cultures where “blame the victim” is the norm, and women face ostracism and retribution for reporting rape, rates of reporting sexual assault are even lower, there are fewer resources for reporting, and the negative consequences of reporting are greater.[2] Refugee women have the added difficulty that they are on the move, away from whatever social or institutional support systems they may have had at home, which makes reporting sexual assault even more difficult in purely logistical terms. To whom do they report? And when they do, the perpetrator is rarely found or prosecuted. In some cases, police, border guards, aid workers, so-called peacekeepers, and community leaders—the very people who are supposed to be helping them—have sexually exploited refugee women (Ferris 2007).

Furthermore, asylum seekers formally testifying to sexual violence and assault at hearings often encounter what some legal scholars call “a tendency amongst some asylum professionals to marginalise, trivialise or ignore accounts of rape; a tendency that, we argue, both occludes the narratives of asylum-seeking women who have suffered sexual violence, and poses substantial obstacles to securing justice” (Baillot, Cowan, and Munro 2013, 1). In an earlier study, these researchers concluded that refugee women face even more difficulties than other women when reporting sexual assault and even poorer treatment by legal professionals in the criminal justice system (Baillot, Cowan, and Munro 2009). Refugee women are not able to “tell the story” in their own words because most interviews are conducted through interpreters, whose very presence adds yet another witness in front of whom refugee women who are victims of sexual assault must testify.

The UNHCR guidelines on interviewing asylum seekers include several sections on addressing and navigating trauma to determine the truth of the applicant’s testimony and point out that people suffering from trauma may give inconsistent testimony, be unable to testify, or even become aggressive when questioned as a result of trauma. Refugee women traumatized by sexual violence are least likely to be “heard” and believed (Baillot, Cowan, and Munro 2013). The guidelines also insist that interviewers verify the truth of the testimony and resolve inconsistencies through confrontation techniques. While the UNHCR convention clearly states that an asylum seeker must fear returning to her country, and must fear persecution based on belonging to a certain group in particular, in this case, women, the interview guidelines admit that fear may adversely affect the interview process. The guidelines specially address sexual violence, indicating, “In the context of seeking asylum, the female victim of sexual violence may be hesitant or unable to speak about such events. Moreover, a female victim of sexual violence may be shunned by her family and alienated from members of her community. The interviewer will therefore have to use a variety of gender-sensitive techniques to obtain information from women during the interview process” (UNHCR 1995b). These techniques include providing all female interviewers and interpreters and, in extreme cases, allowing written instead of oral testimony. As several studies make clear, however, these guidelines are not necessarily, or even usually, followed (e.g., see Baillot, Cowan, and Munro 2013; Miller 2011).

Even if the guidelines were followed to the letter, testimony to trauma, especially sexual trauma, is vexed, particularly in the context of asylum seekers, and even more so when the legitimacy of their claims to asylum rest on claims of trauma resulting from sexual violence. In general, we might ask, how does she testify to fear in a way that is convincing? The guidelines warn against rehearsed, scripted testimony and against retraumatizing applicants. So how does an interviewer determine the veracity of claims to fear? How can fear be quantified and accessed? Assuming that fear is an emotional or mental state, what formula can interviewers use to assess the legitimacy of fear insofar as it corresponds to actual events? Indeed, within trauma theory and psychoanalytic theory, trauma is often considered an experience that cannot be put into words, an experience that falls outside of linear time and rational comprehension. Furthermore, what does it mean to testify to the trauma of persecution? And what does it mean to prove trauma, especially the mental or psychological trauma of sexual violence? Finally, how much trauma is enough to justify asylum, and how does a person convince administrators and interviewers that his trauma is real?

Although humanitarian aid organizations, including Doctors without Borders, now include mental health professionals and psychologists, there are woefully inadequate resources to treat mental health issues in refugee camps and migrant detention centers, even though many refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and violence suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. One study of refugee camps in Germany “found that half of refugees are experiencing psychological distress and mental illness resulting from trauma” and “one fifth of refugee children are also suffering from PTSD” (Finnerty 2015). As historian Michael Barnett suggests, we have entered an era of trauma where the violence of persecution at home is measured not only in terms of physical scars but also in terms of mental scars and where humanitarian aid includes treatment not only for physical wounds but also for mental wounds.

We could go further and claim that current international policies and practices governing the treatment and status of refugees require testimony to trauma that puts the refugee into an impossible subject position with regard to her own experience.[3] Refugees are required both to prove suffering and trauma in their home countries and also to demonstrate that they did everything in their power to overcome those obstacles before fleeing. This is to say, they must testify to both their helplessness and their own resilience in escape. They must prove both their radical victimization and their own sovereignty. Diana Tietjens Meyers (2016) calls these the two victim paradigms: the pathetic victim and the heroic victim.[4] Implicitly, current policies require both positions at once. Being accepted as a legitimate refugee requires documentable and verifiable fear and trauma. Yet, this position as “shipwrecked” person to be saved or rescued undermines agency and self-sovereignty and creates an aporetic subject position impossible to maintain. Asylum seekers are expected to take matters into their own hands, to actively flee violence, but in doing so, they become helpless, passive victims to be rescued—victims of rescue politics.

Speaking for herself and other refugees from World War II before the United Nations had established the rights of asylum for refugees, Hannah Arendt ([1943] 1994, 114) says, “If we are saved we feel humiliated, and if we are helped we feel degraded.” She points out that because refugees “voluntarily” entered detention centers and camps, their interment is justified (115). Despite UN policy and international law that guarantee the right to asylum, this sentiment is alive and well today, as some callously claim that if refugees don’t like conditions in the camps, they can stay or go back home. Yet, in what sense is the perilous journey of most refugees “voluntary”? The status of the refugee calls into question categories of active and passive, sovereign and victim, voluntary and forced. Arendt argues that refugees are considered both pariahs sucking up resources that could go to rightful citizens and parvenus, social climbers not truly fleeing violence or trauma but rather migrating for a better life abroad. Many of Arendt’s observations are still apt today when reactions to images of refugees fleeing violence in Syria include both fear of them taking jobs or resources from host countries already dealing with high unemployment and poverty (such as Greece and Turkey) and bewilderment as to why they have cell phones and nice clothes if they’re so bad off. And whether seen as charity case or social climber, Arendt says, “history has forced the status of outlaws upon both, upon pariahs and parvenus alike” (119). Today, rescue politics and carceral humanitarianism produce the helpless, homeless refugees as charity cases and criminals to justify detaining, monitoring, controlling, and containing them.