Background: In order to recognise a refugee in a receiving state, decision makers have to make a judgment based on background information and the account given by the individual asylum seeker. Whilst recognising that this is a very difficult decision, we examine one of the assumptions made in this process: that an account which is inconsistent is probably fabricated for the purposes of deceitfully gaining asylum status. We review some of the psychological processes at work when a person applies for asylum, and report a study offering empirical evidence of some of the reasons why accounts of traumatic experiences may be inconsistent.
Methods: In the study reported, 39 Kosovan and Bosnian (UNHCR) program refugees in the UK were interviewed on two occasions about a traumatic and a non-traumatic event in their past. They were asked specific questions about the events on each occasion.
Findings: All participants changed some responses between the first and second interview. There were more changes between interviews in peripheral detail than in the central gist of the account. Changes in peripheral detail were especially likely for memories of traumatic events. Participants with higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were also more inconsistent when there was a longer delay between interviews.
Interpretations: We consider this and similar studies in the light of asylum decision making, proposing that these decisions, often a matter of life and death to the applicant, must be based not on lay assumptions, but on established empirical knowledge.