Seeking Asylum: Epistemic Injustice and Humanitarian Testimonies – by Lisa Eckenweiler

Chainlink fence


When asylum-seekers present themselves to immigration authorities, the way they do so is crucial for success and may be critical for survival.

According to the UN Refugee Convention [1], a person seeking asylum must convince authorities that she has suffered violence, been traumatized, and is afraid to return to her country for fear of persecution. In order to be admitted into a destination country and granted refugee status asylum-seekers must, then, tell a story; this story must be believed; and it must be deemed to meet the necessary criteria. Knowledge-sharing, understanding, and justified, true belief are thus at the heart of the process(es) of claiming and being granted asylum.


Much works against asylum-seekers when it comes to sharing their narratives of trauma and fear. Evidence suggests that the interview process is “expeditive and inquisitorial” and infused with an air of suspicion and tension [2, p. 23]. In almost all cases cultural differences between interviewers and interviewees can make explanations and understanding difficult. There are also problems involving translation. Although interpreters are assigned, stories may be poorly explained and inadequately understood. The process also calls for asylum-seekers’ assertions to be verified and for any apparent inconsistencies to be resolved. In cases where trauma has occurred, however, inconsistent testimony is not uncommon which can work to erode the credibility of claimants. More generally, the process is ethically fraught to the extent that it’s unclear how to assess trauma, or fear, or to determine how “much” is needed to justify asylum.

The chaos that forces people from their homes and the violence they may themselves suffer can be hard to sort for oneself; conveying it in a coherent and compelling way to others is more complex still.

Asylum cases that involve experiences of sexual violence are even more challenging. Fear, shame, stigma, and victim-blaming present formidable barriers to most all who testify to sexual assault. These barriers may be more daunting and difficult to overcome for asylum-seekers given cultural norms and differences surrounding gender, translation issues, and a lack social support. They may be reluctant to tell their stories in full if at all, and if they do, they may meet with misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and disbelief.


We can understand the ethical significance of this situation confronting asylum-seekers through the lens of epistemic injustice. In a global context of profound social, economic and political inequalities, the notion of epistemic injustice was developed to take into account the relationship between power and knowledge. Epistemic injustice is linked to inequalities in who has access to positions of knowledge-based authority and how credibility is assigned to different agents, as well as to different types and sources of knowledge. Here we can highlight at least two forms of epistemic injustice: testimonial and hermeneutical.


Testimonial injustice is a form of injustice that involves a hearer giving a speaker less credibility than he or she might grant to others, usually due to prejudice and stereotyping. Asylum-seekers are among those vulnerable to testimonial injustice and are accused sometimes, for example, of concocting stories of persecution and fear, and rehearsing them to improve their chances of success. At the same time, as Chung and Hunt note in an upcoming Applied Example, the use of a specific set of languages and consequent need for translation in humanitarian assistance contributes to testimonial injustice when it undermines the capacity of people not fluent in them to share their stories of trauma and have them satisfactorily understood and accepted as credible.

Epistemic Injustice Graph - FINAL

The concept of Epistemic Injustice and the terms “Testimonial Injustice” and “Hermeneutical Injustice” are taken from the work of Miranda Fricker.

Bias and stereotyping work to undermine the credibility of girls and women, men and boys who give accounts of trauma and fear. Evidence suggests that in hearings, people testifying to sexual violence confront “a tendency amongst some asylum professionals to marginalise, trivialise or ignore accounts….” Researchers argue that, indeed, refugee women who testify to persecution and fear linked to sexual violence are, among asylum-seekers, least likely to be heard and believed [3]. Although women and girls continue to be the majority of victims, the sexual violence against displaced men and boys now increasing at alarming rates demands urgent attention in this context.


Hermeneutical injustice occurs when someone’s interpretation of a situation (or her overall reading of the world) is unintelligible to both oneself and others. This form of epistemic injustice happens as a result of identity prejudice and stereotypes, yet, may also be attributed to the nature of knowledge and knowers as situated. In other words, the limited experiences and epistemic resources of given communities can create barriers to understanding knowledge shared by others, especially when norms and experiences are incongruous.

Refugees who have fled places permeated by violence and at some point(s) themselves endured sexual or other intimate violence are highly vulnerable to hermeneutical injustice. The chaos that forces people from their homes and the violence they may themselves suffer can be hard to sort for oneself; conveying it in a coherent and compelling way to others is more complex still. In cases of sexual violence, gender norms, cultural differences, differences in the embodied experiences of men and women can separately and in intersecting ways threaten asylum officials’ understanding of asylum-seekers’ narratives and undermine their credibility.

When the system that asylum-seekers must navigate—its language and other norms, procedures, the manner in which they are conducted—contributes to fear, re-traumatization, distortion of identity and experience, misunderstanding, and perhaps too, political exclusion, thwarted life prospects, and gendered injustice on a global scale, it is fair to say that it is “epistemically disadvantaged or defective” [4, p.40].

Suggestions for reforming the process for welcoming asylum-seekers are beyond the scope of this case study. However, future efforts ought to attend closely to the ways the existing system is structured to generate epistemic injustice and, in turn, a series of other harms, especially against displaced sufferers of sexual violence.


Lisa Eckenwiler is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Health Administration and Policy, and former Director of Health Ethics at George Mason University

References & Other Articles

[1] UNHCR (1951). Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[2] Agier M. (2011). Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[3] Baillot H., Cowan S., and Munro VE. (2009). Seen but not heard? Parallels and dissonances in the treatment of rape narratives across the asylum and criminal justice contexts. Journal of Law and Society 36(2): 195-219.

[4] Alcoff, L.M. (2006) Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cowan S., Baillot H., and Munro VE.  (2013). ‘Hearing the right gaps’: enabling and responding to disclosures of sexual violence within the UK asylum process. Social and Legal Studies 21: 269-96.

Fassin, D. (2012). Truth ordeal: attesting violence for asylum-seekers, in Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, Berkeley: University of California Press, 109-131.

Fricker (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oliver K. (2017). Impossible testimony, in Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 28-34.

Sertler E. (2018). The institution of gender-based asylum and epistemic injustice: a structural limit. Feminist Philosophy Quarterly 4(3).

Young I.M. (1997). Asymmetrical reciprocity: on moral respect, wonder, and enlarged thought, in Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 28-59.

______. Communication and the other: beyond deliberative democracy, in Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 60-74.


Image by Mitch Lensink.