Asylum hearings are not public proceedings. Aside from the asylum seeker, only the government official making the decision, an interpreter, a clerk, and an observer from a non-governmental organisation are present. “I was sitting here, and everyone was staring at me,” recalls one asylum seeker, who has agreed to re-enact their asylum hearing with the Swiss authorities to a documentary filmmaker.
Four asylum seekers and four government officials took part in the documentary. The asylum seekers – from Nigeria, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and Sri Lanka – relive the process during which they were asked extremely intimate questions. These questions are often asked without warning, in an attempt to make it more likely for them to tell the truth.
However, human memory is fragile, and people who have suffered or witnessed traumatic events may have no recollections regarding those traumatic experiences. It may never be possible to speak of violence one has experienced or witnessed, even if doing so were the only way to prove that returning to one’s country of origin is not an option.
While different countries stage asylum hearings in different ways, the basic principles are the same in each country, including Finland. The applicant is given the opportunity to argue, in their own words and language, why their application should be approved. The decisions are based on law and international agreements, but the individual government official wields enormous power in making their decision.
Lisa Gerig’s documentary approaches the problematic nature of power by switching the roles halfway through the film. Being examinees is not a pleasant experience for those who are accustomed to being the examiners.
Johanna Siik (translated by Herman Tikkanen)