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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Professor Michael Kagan Calls for More Objective Approach to Refugee Credibility Assessment

Professor Michael Kagan spent two days in Yerevan, Armenia, training asylum adjudicators from Armenia, Georgia and Moldova on the art of credibility assessment in refugee cases.

Asylum cases around the world are decided based on an international definition of a refugee that requires a person to prove that they have a "well-founded fear of being persecuted," the same basic criteria that is used when people seek asylum in the United States. But because people who escape from persecution rarely can bring definitive independent evidence with them, their cases typically depend on the credibility of the applicant's own testimony.

Historically, adjudicators often used instinct and subjective impressions to decide asylum cases, relying on people's tone of voice, whether they made eye contact, and other nonverbal communication. But such decision-making has been shown by research to be inconsistent, unreliable and dangerous. Even in the best of circumstances, most people cannot discern whether another person is telling the truth based on demeanor alone, and it is especially difficult with a person from another culture who is naturally nervous and may be suffering from the effects of trauma or may simply be overwhelmed by anxiety.

In 2003, Professor Kagan published a groundbreaking article in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal calling for a more objective approach to refugee credibility assessment, which became the basis for a new approach grounded in social science and a more careful analytical method. He followed this in 2010 with a study of credibility assessment in asylum cases based on religious persecution. Last year, Professor Kagan co-authored a state-of-the-art training manual on refugee credibility assessment for use in Europe.

Co-taught by Gabor Gyulai of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the training in Armenia was part of a United Nations initiative to assist emerging asylum systems in Eastern Europe. Countries like Armenia have been seeing increasing numbers of asylum claims as a result of the war in Syria and continuing human rights violations in Iran.

"Not long ago, credibility would have been just an hour out of longer course on refugee law, if that, even though it ends up deciding the majority of cases," Professor Kagan said. "It's a great thing to be able to go into credibility in so much depth, and with an impressive group of adjudicators in a region bordering so much turmoil."

At Boyd, Professor Kagan co-directs the Immigration Clinic, which represents asylum-seekers in the American asylum system. Before coming to UNLV, Professor Kagan spent a decade developing legal aid programs for refugees in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

"The issues our students have to master to represent our clients here are essentially the same as the issues that come up in Moldova or Georgia," Professor Kagan said. "And if we win a case here, it can end up influencing an asylum system on the other side of the world.”