Refugees seeking asylum on religious grounds quizzed on 'Bible trivia'

Refugees applying for asylum in the UK on the grounds of conversion to Christianity are being interrogated on “Bible trivia” by immigration officials, according to MPs.

Questions such as, “What are the 10 commandments?”, “When is Pentecost?” and “How many books are there in the Bible?”, are being put to asylum seekers in an attempt to test claims of religious conversion, says a report published by the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. Refugees face the rejection of their applications if they do not answer correctly.

The report, Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds, published on Tuesday by the all-party group and the Asylum Advocacy Group, said that questions from crib sheets were “a very poor way of assessing a conversion asylum claim and result in wrong decisions and expensive appeals”.

Refugees seeking asylum on the grounds of religious persecution include Muslim converts to Christianity, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Hindus and people of other faiths or no faith. Churches in the UK and across Europe have reported rising numbers of asylum seekers, especially from the Middle East and Central Asia, among their congregations over recent months.

Although data is not kept either by the Home Office or the churches, the report says: “We are seeing numerous cases of individuals seeking asylum in the UK due to persecution based on their religious beliefs.

“And the reality is that this trend will continue. The number of individuals seeking asylum on the grounds of religious persecution is not going to diminish in the coming years.”

The report says factual questioning of asylum seekers is “too simplistic a way to judge if an individual is, for example, a genuine convert. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence has shown that some people are learning as much as they can so they can be prepared for the Home Office interview.”

Although religious persecution constitutes grounds for asylum, assessment through question and answer sessions fails to reflect the “inherently internal and personal nature of religion and belief”, the report says.

It adds that there is a “lack of understanding and misperceptions of religion” among those making decisions on asylum applications.

However, Elizabeth Berridge, chair of the all-party group, acknowledged that the Home Office was trying to make “incredibly nuanced and difficult decisions to make sure that genuine claims are accepted and non-genuine ones are rejected”.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Geoff Gilbert, professor of law at Essex University, said persecution was easy to spot when it involved physical violence, but an inability to practise one’s faith, or lack of faith, was much harder to prove.

“It’s important that religion is not ignored as grounds [for asylum] because it’s a difficult issue,” he said.

The MPs are calling for religious literacy training for Home Office immigration and asylum officials, and for data to be kept on the number of asylum claims made on the grounds of religious persecution. Cases involving religious persecution should be checked by an expert supervisor, they say.

“Applicants should not be caused unnecessary distress and should be able to speak freely, especially in cases where the case worker/interpreter is a member of the religious community that has carried out the applicant’s persecution,” the report says.