Believable Victims: Asylum Credibility and the Struggle for Objectivity

14 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2014

See all articles by Michael Kagan

Michael Kagan

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

Date Written: 2015


Asylum adjudication is often the invisible frontline in the struggle by oppressed groups to gain recognition for their plights. Through this process, individual people must tell their stories and try to show that they are genuine victims of persecution rather than simply illegal immigrants attempting to slip through the system. In 2002, because the world had not yet acknowledged the nature of the calamity from which they were escaping, many Darfurian asylum cases would have relied on the ability of each individual to convince government offices to believe their stories. They would have had to be deemed “credible,” or they would be in danger of being sent home. Today, a similar process is playing out for youths fleeing gang violence in Central America. The 2014 State Department Human Rights Report on Guatemala, for instance, includes three sentences about gangs recruiting “street children.” But recent arrivals pleading to stay in the U.S. have described a far more dire situation.

Human rights problems are often sources of public controversy because it is often debatable – at least at first – whether claims of persecution are real, or if they are exaggerated to serve a particular agenda. But while these debates play out in the media and in official statements, they also play out with individual lives on the line. Individual lives are affected as government officials decide whether to accept the claims of persecution submitted by migrants trying to avoid deportation. These adjudications are typically hidden from public view, and have long been typified by a highly subjective approach. Implicit assumptions about how foreign countries work and, most importantly, how a genuine victim would act or talk can lead to inconsistent, unreliable decisions with grave consequences for people in danger.

Keywords: Human rights, immigration, asylum, credibility, refugees, adjudication

Suggested Citation

Kagan, Michael, Believable Victims: Asylum Credibility and the Struggle for Objectivity (2015). Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2015, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Michael Kagan (Contact Author)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )

4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States

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