Language and credibility: Implications for the construction, reproduction and assessment of asylum identities

This keynote presentation is part of the inaugural Law and Linguistics Interdisciplinary Researchers’ Symposium.

In response to the increasing numbers of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe since 2015, significant efforts have been made at EU level to manage its asylum and migration systems more efficiently. While EU policy is relatively cognisant of the technical-legal and medical-psychological complexities of the procedure, the discursive, multilingual challenges specific to the asylum process remain underexposed. When it comes to the determination of refugee status, it is particularly surprising and worrying how little attention is paid to the role of language in what are essentially discourse-based procedures, where spoken and written discourse form the main input for the representation and the assessment of asylum cases (Barsky, 1994; Pöllabauer 2004, Inghilleri 2005; Maryns 2006, Tipton 2008; Blommaert 2010, Smith-Khan 2017). In my presentation, I aim to explore two areas of tension in the discursive management of asylum cases:

(a) the tension between the often very rigorous conditions for submission, representation and assessment of asylum applications on the one hand and the unreasonably high linguistic demands set by the asylum authorities on the other; and

(b) the unclear and to some extent even conflicting roles attributed to language, either as a meaning-making tool (for the representation asylum seekers’ accounts), as a categorisation tool (for the legal classification of asylum cases according to the Convention criteria of refugee status) or as a verification tool (for the evaluation of the veracity and credibility of asylum seekers’ accounts).

Drawing on linguistic-ethnographic data from the Belgian asylum context, I will discuss some of the implications of these conflicting linguistic demands for the construction and evaluation of asylum identities. I will look closely at processes of discursive reproduction (at intra- and inter-discursive levels) and demonstrate (on the basis of data examples) how these discursive dynamics can seriously impact legal argumentation and decision-making.

Barsky, R. (1994) Constructing a productive other: Discourse theory and the convention refugee hearing. Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Blommaert, J. 2010. The sociolinguistics of globalization, Cambridge: CUP.
Inghilleri, M. (2005) Mediating Zones of Uncertainty: interpreter agency, the interpreting habitus and political asylum adjudication, The Translator, 11 (1), 69-85.
Maryns, K. (2006) The Asylum Speaker: Language in the Belgian Asylum Procedure. London: Routledge.
Pöllabauer, S. (2004) Interpreting in asylum hearings: Issues of Role, Responsibility and Power, Interpreting 6, 2: 143-180.
Tipton, R. (2008) Reflexivity and the social construction of identity in interpreter-mediated asylum interviews, The Translator 14 (1), 1‒19.
Smith-Khan, L. (2017) Different in the same way? Language, diversity, and refugee credibility. International Journal of Refugee Law, 29(3), 389–416.

About the speaker:
Associate Professor Katrijn Maryns is a member of the MULTIPLES Research Centre for Multilingual Practices and Language Learning in Society at Ghent University. Her linguistic-ethnographic research examines the role of discourse, multilingualism and linguistic inequality in institutional contexts of globalisation, with a particular focus on asylum and migration. She is the author of ‘The asylum speaker: Language in the Belgian asylum procedure’ (Routledge 2006) and co-editor of the book series ‘Translation, Interpreting and Social Justice in a Globalised World’ (Multilingual Matters).


Sydney Law School, Common Room, Level 4, New Law Building (F10), Eastern Avenue, Camperdown 


Complimentary, however essential. A light lunch will be provided from 12.45pm.
To register, please email and advise of any dietary requirements.


01 Apr 2019


A light lunch will be provided from 12.45pm
1:00 pm - 2:00 pm


The University of Sydney
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