In this article Max Spotti discusses how information provided by web resources has become indispensable to immigration officers assessing asylum claims.
How many of you are puzzled by Google Weather telling you it will rain and then it doesn't. Taking the internet as a repository of absolute truth is problematic and it does affect people's lives. The project Asylum 2.0 investigates the role of the internet in asylum seeking practices. I explore how the web affects the lives of those who seek to enter a country. More specifically, I lead you along the paradoxes of web truths, of convinced authorities and of unconvincing proofs of identity, in the process of applicants seeking refugee status in Belgium.
The case of BK: an asylum applicant
This post concerns the case of BK, an asylum applicant claiming to be from Guinea Conakry. In this story, we’re not only confronted with the immigration authorities engaging in ergo-type inferences, along the lines of ‘if you know fact X, ergo, you are (or must be) truly from place Y.’ We also see how heavily the authorities assessing BK’s case relied on information found on the internet, and how they regard the web as an indispensable and undisputed source of factual information. BK’s application was rejected, largely because the claims he made were at odds with (or at least didn’t quite cover) the information found on the web. If BK’s claims weren’t corroborated on the web, how could they be true?
Before addressing this question, let’s first take a closer look at BK. Who is this guy? What does he want from the West? Borrowing from Bauman’s much acclaimed works on liquid modernity we could say that BK is ‘globalization’s garbage.’ He’s one of those individuals coming to Europe from the African continent as a kind of ‘waste product’ of modernity, as the collateral damage of a process otherwise considered largely beneficial by nation-states. If legally recognized, BK will be allowed to stay. Should that happen, perhaps through familiarization and integration courses teaching him about civilization in the West and more specifically about society in Flanders, he might even be upgraded to membership in the low-skilled labor force. If he’s not legally recognized, however, he’ll experience a life in ‘illegality,’ not because BK wants to, nor because BK is a bad person, but because it’s better to be illegal than to go back.
When meeting with the immigration authorities, BK had to prove that he really was who he said he was.
According to BK’s story, he’s the son of a Malinka-speaking father and a Peul-speaking mother. In spite of the fact that he was raised in Peul, the mother tongue attributed to him by the Belgian authorities was Malinka. BK is unschooled; he can barely read and write―as can be seen on the forms he signed when he was taken into a Red Cross asylum-seeking center in Flanders. As a result of inter-ethnic conflict between family members, BK had lost his father, who was beaten by his mother’s brothers and later died of his injuries. BK’s mother put him in the care of a Guinean police officer, a friend of his late father, to protect him from the internal family struggle. Shortly thereafter, this police officer made BK leave for Europe.
Using web truths
On a cold day in February 2012 he found himself in Belgium. Like all asylum seekers claiming a certain identity, When meeting with the immigration authorities, BK had to prove that he really was who he said he was. In other words, he had to prove that he was from the country he claimed to be from, as well as from the specific city he had claimed to be from, a place by the name of Conakry, the capital of Guinee Conakry. How does one do that if there are no identity papers to be shown and if there’s no parent or friend that can confirm identity? For BK, his identity became the question upon which his entire future depended.
In conducting an asylum interview, immigration authorities typically start from the premise that if someone claims to be from a certain country then s/he has to know facts about that country and the exact place where s/he claims to be from. It’s solely by their knowledge of certain facts―whether they are political, social, urban, or relating to popular culture―that asylum seekers stand a chance of being believed. Their knowledge of these facts is seen both as a confirmation of their identity and proof of their moral fiber (i.e., their trustworthiness).
The sequence of inferences goes something like this: ‘You didn’t tell me lies, ergo, you are who you claim to be, ergo, you are morally righteous, ergo, you can be granted permission to stay in our country.’ From the detailed summary of the interview that took place between BK and the institution, and which I used as one of the primary data sources in my research on asylum, identity, and the politics of suspicion, it appears that, in the end, those judging BK’s application came to the conclusion that the questions he couldn’t answer were questions that, taking into account the level of schooling he received in his country of origin, an average young adult of his age should be able to answer correctly.
If we look at the summary drawn up by the authorities after the long interview with BK, which normally takes place quite some months after an applicant is registered as seeking asylum, BK is said to have failed to provide the correct answers to a number of pertinent questions. He didn’t know the name of the big mosque where he claimed to have said his prayers every day, a mosque which, as the authorities were able to show through GoogleMaps―proof of which was included in the immigration file―was right in front of the hospital where BK had taken his father after the latter had been beaten. But what exactly is it that BK didn’t know about the mosque? BK knew about the mosque, he also knew about the hospital, but according to the authorities, he simply referred to this mosque as la grande mosquée (‘the great mosque’) rather than using its official name Mosquée du Faycal―another piece of information that the authorities obtained from the web, retrieved from holiday websites (see here and here) aimed at adventurous westerners who want to know all about the sights to see in Conakry.
all interviews with asylum seekers are characterized by a strong power imbalance
The use of web truths for the assessment of BK’s story - 'transposed truths' that they are forms of knowledge that are taken from their original frame of reference and used in a wholly unrelated field - did not end here. The summary further reports that BK wasn’t able to name the quartier (quarter or district) where he lived, and that he didn’t get the names exactly right of the other quartiers in that area of Conakry, a city that’s divided into communes, with each commune consisting of more than one quartier. Rather than using its official name, BK simply referred to his quartier as la ville (the city).
We find ourselves faced with a true dilemma here. Was BK a liar who was correctly identified as such by immigration authorities, or might there have been some other cause that would explain his lack of ‘factual’ knowledge, a lack that eventually caused a negative verdict to emerge from the ergo-sequence in the processing of his application?
The waiting room of globalization
If in our efforts to uncover a viable truth we turn to the ethnography of communication, we may be able to establish why BK’s lack of knowledge―as defined by immigration authorities―doesn’t necessarily indicate that he was lying. The first thing we need to take into account is that the interview, like all interviews with asylum seekers, is characterized by a strong power imbalance. The story was not BK’s to tell. It was a story whose plot had been pre-drafted for him, pre-determined by a fine-tuned set of questions about facts. As we learn from a 1988 paper by Ray McDermott on inarticulateness:
…[S]ituations that organise inarticulateness are legion, and it is easy to name the most obvious occasions. Funerals, police inquiries, job interviews, class and race border encounters, tax interrogations, sex talk with children, group therapy, television interviews, and first dates―all are potential tongue-stoppers. A folk account would have it that whenever our words can be immediately consequential and long remembered, the pressure can get to us, and new heights of eloquence and new lows of inarticulateness are frequent.
Keeping in mind that under pressure, people will confess to crimes they haven’t committed, how can we establish whether this applicant was really inarticulate (either naturally so or because of the pressure he was under) or if he was simply lying? Here, let us call in the expertise gathered in the discipline of linguistic anthropology. In linguistic anthropology, questions emerge as to whether BK was articulate enough in French in the first place, and even more so if he was in the type of French used by the authorities during the interview. Furthermore, even if he was sufficiently proficient in French, it would be more than plausible to wonder also whether BK was ‘at home’ in the official register of French that he was required to produce by the authorities, a register in which you’d be likely to use official names for things―names that people in local communities often dispense with. I’d challenge anyone with BK’s (by western standards) low level of education to produce during an interview the official name of the Coliseum in Rome and to refer to it as Anfiteatro Flavio, as one should, or even in its Latinate variety Anfiteatrum Flavium. I’m almost certain that even well educated people wouldn’t be able to, and hence fail to show that they’re truly from Rome or even from Italy.
Asylum procedures are characterized by (inter-)subjectivity, both on the level of performance and on the level of credibility assessment (see work by Cabot). In many ways, asylum interviews, and the questions asked, reflect the identities, moralities, and legalities prevalent behind the asylum-seeking scene, and they’re very telling in that respect. If we, as a society, accept that these interviews take the form of interrogations, as instruments for vetting, then a cat-and-mouse game is guaranteed. What emerges as a central concern is the problematic nature of credibility assessments. It turns out that asylum adjudication is a thoroughly intersubjective and highly inequitable affair, informed by a politics of suspicion, most conspicuous in the actual asylum interview, as demonstrated by the case of BK. It’s further abundantly clear, I hope, the urgent need for further consideration and dissection of the politics of suspicion and refusal that this article reports. This isn’t simply because we’re once more raging against a machine that rejects lives, but because those who are declared unfit to stay, on the basis of Europe’s own rejection policies, will have no social coverage, nor right to health care or education. Theirs will be lives lived roaming on urban streets, as the unwanted byproducts of globalization.