An excerpt from my essay, A Time to Lie, which examines why some refugees tell ‘alternative truths’ in their asylum applications. It was published in the anthology, A Country of Refuge (Unbound, 2016)
By NOO SARO-WIWA
SYMPATHY for asylum seekers is running dry in some quarters of Britain. It is a curious paradox that although we live in an age in which every global tragedy and event is recorded, some people are trying to diminish the suffering of others more than ever. Asylum seekers are seen as liars, vectors of disease or religious fanaticism; economic ‘migrants’ who are capitalizing on war to enjoy the benefits of life in the UK.
Their tenacity – a virtue in most other contexts – can only reflect a dangerous furtiveness and dishonesty or malevolence. This culture of disbelief permeates immigration officials’ dealings with asylum applicants. Presumed liars until proven otherwise, they are prodded, tested and quizzed like crime suspects. And sometimes they give false stories and are exposed. Does this make them undeserving of asylum? Roberto Beneduce doesn’t think so.
I met Roberto Beneduce during a trip to Italy. A professor of Medical and Psychological Anthropology in Turin, Beneduce has researched and spent time with Africans who have sought asylum in Italy. In his paper, ‘The moral economy of lying’, Beneduce discusses why some asylum seekers give incorrect information on their applications.
There are deep psycho-cultural fault lines that separate European immigration officials and African asylum seekers. For the immigration official, written bureaucracy is an organized system, the cultural norm. There is an assumption that certain data sources define and prove a person’s identity. But the asylum seeker who is raised in a country with fragile public institutions and civil registry apparatus might not have the required documents. (I can attest to that bureaucratic fragility: my birth certificate, written somewhere in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, in 1976, is a flimsy piece of pink paper, the size of my palm. My details are written by hand, not even typed. As far as I know, this information is not stored on any computer. One day, when I can be bothered, I will scan the certificate and laminate it for preservation).
Other Africans, especially those born in rural areas, may not know their precise date of birth. What are ‘July’ and ‘August’, anyway? A span of thirty days, named after a couple of Roman emperors from way back. What do such dates mean to the rural, fifty-something African? Uncle tells me I was born just after the rains started. The asylum seeker might pluck his or her birth date out of the air as their biro hovers above the blank space on a form. Their sense of identity is not wedded to birth certificates or utility bills. But without these details and supporting documents, the asylum seeker is a non-person in the eyes of the immigration official. They don’t exist. Their suffering is a fiction.
The flimsy relationship between Third World identities and documentation was apparent in Algeria during colonial times. French administrators at prisons and government offices struggled to transcribe the myriad vowels in Arabic names. Consequently, they stopped trying to write down prisoners’ names. Fingerprints were used instead: it’s not easy shoehorning one’s bureaucracy into a different culture.
The asylum seeker born out of shoddy bureaucracy often struggles to prove not just his or her identity but their ill-treatment too. The policemen who dragged them into African jail cells don’t always fill out paper work. Those same police might not maintain records of a gang rape reported to them by a distraught girl.
Gang rape is one thing, but what about the other types of suffering, the kind that may be considered ridiculous in the eyes of immigration officials? Some asylum seekers are fleeing ritual abuse, based on animist beliefs. The occult holds no currency in our empirical world, but the psychological terror imposed on its victims is real. And this terror can manifest itself in physical harm too.
What is the European immigration official to make of this? They are dealing with an asylum applicant who might talk about ‘witchcraft’ and ritual violence in a “dreamlike language that challenges the bureaucratic grammar of human rights”, as Beneduce says.
The Istanbul Protocol guidelines for documenting torture stipulate that applicants must provide details – ‘supplementary truths’ – of horrific events. Can the asylum applicant necessarily retain such specifics? Traumatic flashbacks are often stored in fractured pieces in the brain. Having to unravel and verbalise these painful memories can re-traumatize victims, their asylum application playing out like a dangerously ad hoc psychotherapy session. When applicants are disbelieved by the immigration authority and sent back, it can be a huge psychological blow.
From the immigration official’s perspective, there are questions as to why these applicants, having been arrested and beaten, can escape or are released so suddenly, yet are able to pass through airports unchallenged. How is it, the officials ask, that the applicant is arrested and hounded, yet their relatives are okay? But that’s often how it works in Africa. Take my family, for instance: my father, a human rights activist, was executed by Sani Abacha’s military regime in 1995. One of my cousins was arrested during that era of military rule. He was thrown into a jail so crowded there was only standing room. There were no regular showers, so the prisoners kept clean by caking their bodies with talcum powder. That cousin won asylum in the United States. Yet throughout that period of the 1990s, my father’s youngest brother was a (legitimate) serving officer in the Nigerian army.
Some may find this hard to understand, this selective persecution. Oppression is supposed to be Rwandan-style, the baddies trawling death nets systematically across society, collecting victims and converting them into mountains of cadavers. There’s a half-expectation that an atrocity will leave a trail of evidence, the Nazi dossier containing stock counts of Jewish tooth fillings. But Africa is a landscape dotted with patches of quick sand. You can walk for miles untroubled before suddenly falling in.
There is an idealized perception of what an asylum seeker looks like, and the legal criteria for refugees often correspond with that ‘ideal’. Whether an individual asylum seeker fits that ‘ideal’ may vary from year to year. Although the pain of rape or torture may be constant and objective, the asylum process can be subjective, its criteria varying from country to country: violence in one country is deemed a ‘crisis’, while violence in another is not accorded the same status. This can confuse applicants. It makes as much sense to them as their supernatural rituals does to European officials. Unsurprisingly, some asylum applicants change their stories, tell ‘innocent lies’, for fear that their particular ordeal won’t pass muster.
“And,” Beneduce says in his research paper, “… what is the experience of those who, by telling the simple truth, see their request for asylum refused? This is the question that Omar—a young Malian who arrived in Italy at the end of 2010— kept asking me, while scenes of persecution and death, ghosts of witchcraft and “voices from a satellite” tormented him unceasingly: “If I had said I was from Ivory Coast, as a guy suggested on the boat that took us to Lampedusa, they would have believed me, I would not be here. Instead, I am still here, with no job, without a thing! Oh Doctor, this does not work.”
And so the woman who has been gang raped by soldiers will point to her caesarean scar and pretend it is a stab wound. Such ‘mendacity’ strikes the cynic as a sign of moral incorrectness, a cause for deep suspicion. And this cynicism can reach laughable levels.
Take, for example, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. When he publicly declared his homosexuality in 2014, one British newspaper online commenter wrote: “… shall we be expecting at least one application for asylum shortly, then?”
A cursory Google search would have informed this commenter that Wainaina is the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College in upstate NY. The Kenyan author crosses the globe attending literary and cultural events. He enjoys a purposeful and rich life. He doesn’t want to live a jobless life in a British council house, watching TV re-runs of Judge Judy. In the commenter’s mind concerned, every African is an economic exploiter; Africans are neither fleeing persecution nor living satisfying lives. All truth is refracted at this prism of self-contentment.
The rise and fall in nations’ fortunes is not a reflection of its people’s superiority or inferiority. If, on the day Christ was nailed to a cross, someone told a Roman consul that within two thousand years Albion (a small, damp island in northwest Europe) would rule a fifth of the world’s land mass, the Roman would think you were insane. The world evolves in ways we never foresee. Today’s paradises could become the purgatories of tomorrow. Which is why it’s best to treat others the way we would like them to treat us.
Seeking a asylum is a lonely and painful process. Migrations of this sort are often considered a sacrifice. Most people don’t want to leave their family and friends and culture any more than the Scottish crofters wanted to leave the Highlands during the 18 and 19th century clearances. These refugees are may be the designated migrant. The rest of the family save and pool their money so that this individual can ‘get out there’, so to speak, and create a lifeline that makes the rest of the family’s lives more bearable. Some parents can’t bear to see their children suffering in a war torn country. Better to send them on a journey to a safer region than have them hunker down in hell. It is a fraught and lonely experience for the migrant, a transition from frying pan to fire. These decisions are never taken lightly. The language around asylum seeking is indicative, as Professor Beneduce points out:
“In Lingala (the main spoken language in Democratic Republic of Congo) asylum-seekers are called ngunda, literally ‘jungle,’ but in a wider sense the word also means ‘perdition’. The whole process of escape to Europe is called kobwaka nzoto, (‘to sacrifice’, ‘to give up one’s own body’). Bitumba noted a further meaning for the expression bwaka nzoto (‘hand-me-downs’) [cit. in Ayimpam 2014:91]. Different ideas coalesce in various expressions: ‘dip into the water,’ sell off your body, sell off your identity (by using the name of someone other), use your body and exploit it even in dirty work, cheat . . . [Ayimpam 2014:90]… It is no coincidence that the loss of identity (as lived for example in the diasporic experience where one, often literally, becomes a non-identity, a sans papiers) is referred to in terms of a bodily loss (‘kobwaka nzoto’) [De Boeck and Plissart 2004:239]. Changing name, inventing a story, disavowing your birth-town, or your age, constitute a painful process, perceived as both a necessary tactic and a dispossession with little possibility of redemption.”
Migration is a complex issue. People will always disagree on intake numbers and overall policy. But whatever your position, we should never forget that asylum seekers are human beings in fragile circumstances, and they deserve our respect.
A Country of Refuge (Unbound, 2016) is a poignant, thought-provoking and timely anthology of writing on asylum seekers from some of Britain and Ireland’s most influential voices.