My family received asylum in the U.S. for religious persecution. Why were we believed, when so many others are dismissed?

Why are so many asylum seekers branded as liars and turned away? Dina Nayeri’s new book, “Who Gets Believed,” examines our culture of disbelief and how it impacts Western refugee and asylum systems.
Cover Image for My family received asylum in the U.S. for religious persecution. Why were we believed, when so many others are dismissed?

Migrants behind a chain link fence in a refugee camp.

Ajdin Kamber

When my family first arrived in the U.S. after fleeing Iran, I thought of Western asylum officers as enforcers of humanitarian right and duty. Empowered by the Refugee Convention and a unified global response to the Holocaust tragedy, these gatekeepers were listening to understand, to rescue, to fulfill a historic mandate — they listened to us with the same care and horror as they had to those mid-century Russian mothers stumbling out of a decimated Europe, reaching for a hand.

As I grew up, I shed some of this naivete, but the officers changed, too. Their incentives, their training, their ideologies transformed with the governments they served. They became cynical, miners of tiny contradictions.

Today’s asylum officers are instructed to dig out inconsistencies. Trained to disbelieve, they demand a perfect performance and accuse survivors of inventing details, of passing off unrelated injuries, even of inflicting scars on themselves. In the U.K., a few years ago, a 50-year-old asylum seeker was told that she was too old to be plausibly raped. Imagine performing in a show in which the stakes are your life. Now imagine an untrained, exhausted heckler sneering in the front row. Now imagine he is your judge.

In a 2016 report called “Proving Torture,” doctors and researchers working on behalf of Freedom from Torture wrote that in some torture cases, U.K. asylum caseworkers were blithely dismissing expert opinion in favor of their own judgment of a victim’s performance: they didn’t seem depressed or sick enough, their bones seemed unbroken. 

One caseworker made the absurd conclusion that if an asylum seeker was in such bad health, he would have been identified at the airport. Another said a bribe seemed too high. In a maddening refusal letter, the Home Office contradicted itself, calling it impossible that an Algerian hate crime victim would tell the police about his sexuality without being arrested, and that Algeria is safe for a gay man.

The study found that caseworkers even substituted their own “clinical” interpretations for those of experts, on matters far outside their training or knowledge: “In any other court or tribunal setting, a similar pattern of such practices would be scandalous.” More troubling still, caseworkers showed a poor understanding of the 1999 Istanbul Protocol, the international standard for assessing torture injuries, and were applying incorrect burdens of proof to a wide range of asylum stories. 

Dina Nayeri pictured with her book, "Who Gets Believed? When the Truth Isn't Enough"
“Who Gets Believed? When Truth Isn’t Enough” by Dina Nayeri (pictured right) was released in March. Courtesy photo

Though the law requires a “reasonably likely” burden for refugees, officers were using something closer to the criminal standard, “beyond reasonable doubt,” rejecting strong asylum claims based on the mere existence of remote other possibilities. Sabine, a young rape survivor from Congo, for example, had proven that she was Tutsi and that the rapists were soldiers; she was still rejected despite the probable link.

In one case, a survivor was put in detention and tortured, then escaped. After that, he was recaptured and tortured again. A U.K. officer writes in his rejection of this claim:

If it were accepted that your injuries were so severe that it was believed you would die, it is inconsistent that these injuries would permit you to escape detention by jumping over a wall.

All right, one might think. You don’t believe the wall part. What does it matter? The man was in detention at least once and has torture scars characteristic of that facility. But the rejection letter follows one logical fallacy into another:

As it is not accepted that you escaped detention it is also not accepted that you were detained a second time . . . It is concluded that the scarring described in the medico-legal report was not suffered in the context you have described.

It took an appeal judge to see the stupidity of this logic. Aside from the considerable expertise of the doctor who wrote the medico-legal report, this survivor’s many deliberate scars, the judge said, point to “really only one possible conclusion, which is that the appellant has been subjected to sustained torture or acute ill­ treatment . . . I suppose it is theoretically possible that such treatment could have been inflicted on him by people other than the [country] authorities; but if so who were they — no one else has been suggested or identified; and why would the appellant himself not identify them, since it is likely that the outcome would be the same?”

Today’s asylum officers are instructed to dig out inconsistencies. Trained to disbelieve, they demand a perfect performance and accuse survivors of inventing details, of passing off unrelated injuries, even of inflicting scars on themselves.

Immigration lawyer Ana Reyes wrote a memo with similar conclusions as the “Freedom from Torture” report in America. Common errors in adverse credibility findings included repeated failure to correctly assess testimony, rejection based on mere speculation, and even rejection based on failure to disclose facts that were never requested. In one case, the applicants were called “religious zealots” whose religious practice was “offensive to a majority.” This might, of course, be the very reason they’d need asylum, as do Christian converts from the Islamic world; but if the logic is to reject because their faith isn’t appealing to Americans, we have here a gross misreading of the Refugee Convention.

In another case, the interviewer wasn’t satisfied that the applicant described his own bleeding head without including the depth of the wound. Reyes cites cases where applicants were both denied for not having medical records on them, and denied because “it was implausible that the applicant would have immigrated from China to the United States carrying a copy of his medical record for no apparent purpose.”

In 2020, Freedom from Torture published another report called “Beyond Belief: How the Home Office Fails Survivors of Torture at the Asylum Interview,” including verbatim exchanges:

Claimant: I fear the government and their troops in the army because I was neglected and discriminated against. I remember my youth and childhood. I noticed that during the school years, shall I tell you the story of what happened?

Caseworker: I want to know why you are specifically claiming asylum, not things that have happened 190 years prior to this.

Or in another case, where the claimant begins weeping at the memory of a rape:

Caseworker: Were you raped during the five days?

Claimant: Yes, beaten and raped and left naked, I don’t like to think about it.

Caseworker: How many times were you beaten and raped over the five days?

Again and again in the report, torture survivors described being cut off as they told harrowing stories, instructed to give short answers, told that their answers were irrelevant, only to find themselves later rejected for not offering enough information. “He doesn’t give me a chance to explain why they have arrested me, where and how,” said one refugee. 

A caseworker said, in response to a refugee’s struggle to tell her story as it happened: “You need to start listening to my questions and answering them correctly, as your inability to answer the questions I am asking you is causing delays in progress, do you understand?”

In The Human Condition, Holocaust survivor and leading political theorist Hannah Arendt describes public life as a way to cement reality. The opportunity to have one’s story heard, to bring it to the public sphere, is to make the story real, and so storytelling is a necessary link between public and private. 

“Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life — the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses — lead to an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed . . . into a shape to fit them for public appearance. The most current of such transformations occurs in storytelling.”

To stumble to the door of a new nation with nothing but a story, a gruesome torturous story that has altered you, and to be told “you’re not correctly answering my questions” is a violence, a removal from the public sphere, the end of a reality, and a kind of death.

Excerpted from Who Gets Believed?: When the Truth Isn’t Enough by Dina Nayeri, published by Catapult/Counterpoint Press. © 2023 by Dina Nayeri


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