The majority of today’s nation states have adopted largely restrictive asylum policies whereby not everyone with a ‘well-founded fear of prosecution’ and on sturdy legal grounds are granted asylum. As a result, there is a trend towards privileging asylum seekers with ‘exceptional’ claims, something that scholars see as problematic. This post discusses these problems and the counter-productive nature of an asylum system where ‘exceptionalism’ is privileged.
Within restrictive asylum systems, specific narratives are often required of asylum seekers to ensure a successful claim. To this end, asylum seekers often adapt or embellish their claims to fit the specific criteria. This was revealed in The New Yorker’s story on Caroline, a young African immigrant without papers who was applying for asylum in the United States. Although Caroline did indeed have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ thanks to her father’s affiliation with an opposition party, she felt the need to augment her story with narratives of brutal rapes and torture. It is not enough these days to be only threatened or beaten; they have to tell horror stories of dramatic and dehumanising atrocities. The United States asylum system was looking for a narrative that fit their national vision of refugee and asylum. And she delivered it. In the end, her case was approved.
Caroline’s story and the stories of others in similar situations around the world reflect the problems with fairness in the asylum system. Miriam Ticktin’s research on the French Refugee Appeals Commission found that, female survivors of sexual violence are privileged in the appeal process and that their stories of rape and sexual abuse make them ‘the most worthy of exception’. Her conversations with a French Refugee Appeal Commission judge revealed that the Commission was not there to admit everyone, explaining that France followed an extremely narrow reading of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The judge explained that although the judges may pretend that their decisions are grounded in law, the reality is, most decisions are based on emotion. He states that individual judges have their own special priorities and biases towards cases that they considered to be the ‘ultimate injustice’. This particular judge, for example, prioritised ‘exceptional’ cases involving women and homosexuals.
It is better to be a woman. Female sexual violence survivors are considered innocent, apolitical and unable to fight back, heightening their chances for exceptional status. In essence, women in these situations somehow elicit what Crawly (2000) describes as ‘the chivalrous impulses to save them’ and asylum officials come to their rescue.
However, having an asylum system that privileges certain asylum seekers over others is both problematic and dangerous. Dr. Elena Fiddian argues that by privileging the ‘exceptional’, the legal rights and protection needs of the ‘normal’ asylum seeker are forgotten. Fiddian notes that in Cairo single young males who do not speak Arabic are among the most vulnerable asylum seekers, at a high risk of committing suicide. Yet they have received no special attention from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Fiddian observes that many refugees have tried to make themselves ‘extraordinary’, some even putting their health and life at risk in order to gain special attention and special treatment.
The situations described above point to several faults in today’s asylum systems and highlight the negative consequences of privileging exceptionalism, not just for applicants but within the system as a whole. Although Caroline’s real life situation met the legal grounds for an asylum claim and she had a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’, the current system made it more advantageous for her to fabricate a tale of sexual violence. Indeed, the priorities and bias of certain asylum systems and the restrictive asylum policies of nation states have made it very difficult for those without an embellished claim to be granted asylum. Ticktin outlined the many case hearings that she had sat in on, all with very valid claims on the grounds of political opinion, membership to a particular group and race. All met rejection because they were too ‘normal’. Nor did the judges see any truth in these stories; to them they fit a stereotypical refugee narrative, most likely sold to the refugees by asylum narrative specialists so their claims were not approved. Ironically, it was Caroline’s fictional yet ‘exceptional’ story of sexual violence that was approved over the many true but ‘normal’ claims of others – equally legal and just as deserving.
Yvonne Su is a masters student in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.