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Bogus until proven otherwise: Asylum applicants’ journey in Swedish migration courts

By Ebru Öztürk  | OMC 2024

All images were taken by the author.

Migration researchers have predominantly examined the relationship between migration and religion, emphasising how migration influences community dynamics and the role of religion in supporting migrants through their journey. This includes exploring the complexities of “leaving religion” and its effects on individuals and their social circles. However, there has been limited research into the legal consequences of conversion for asylum seekers. In recent years, the surge of forced migration to Europe has sparked significant scholarly interest as well as public and media attention, (and suspicion), in asylum processes, particularly those centred around conversion to Christianity and the accompanying concerns of religious persecution. This topic holds a compelling allure due to the emergence of Middle Eastern ex-Muslim asylum applicants who claim affiliation with Christianity upon reaching Europe or the United States. These cases serve as crucial arenas where policymakers, legal adjudicators, asylum applicants, and church authorities negotiate the boundaries of belonging. They highlight the intricate interplay between power dynamics, religion, and cultural identities, revealing the complexities within the contemporary relationship between Church and State. While it may initially appear limited in focus, research on asylum and conversion to Christianity provides invaluable insights into overarching themes such as authority structures, nationalism, sovereignty, identity formation, and secularism. 

When considering discourse surrounding asylum and conversion cases, one might assume the focus lies solely on religious matters, specifically the act of forsaking one faith for another. However, this assumption does not fully capture the complexity of the situation. In reality, the lives of asylum applicants who have converted undergo significant scrutiny within the asylum application process. Foremost among their challenges is the obligation to convincingly demonstrate to decision-makers the genuineness of their conversion.

When deemed lacking in credibility by the respective migration agency, often due to factors such as unverifiable identity or inadequate documentation, individuals may seek recourse through the avenue of migration courts, where the validity of the agency's decision is subject to review. In a court, individuals accused of a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty, whereas in migration courts, appellants are initially presumed to lack credibility until evidence suggests otherwise. Within the procedural framework of migration courts, the construction of truth is purportedly achieved through the adjudication of asylum claims. This construction, however, is contingent upon judicial discretion, wherein truth is defined by the determinations rendered by judges. Judicial officials, including both professional judges and lay judges, through evaluating the credibility of appellants’ assertions, distinguish between the ones that are ‘telling the truth’ and the ones that are ‘lying’. 

In the realm of asylum cases at migration courts in Sweden, the adjudicating panel typically comprises one professional judge alongside three lay judges. These lay judges, although lacking formal judicial training, are appointed by political parties in proportion to their representation in the county council, serving for a term of four years. Eligibility for this role extends to any Swedish citizen over the age of eighteen. The inclusion of lay judges in Sweden’s administrative court system (in which migration courts are) aims to present citizen representation directly into judicial deliberations, particularly within administrative courts. However, research suggests that the political affiliations of these lay judges can significantly impact the outcomes of asylum appeals. For instance, cases involving asylum applicants are more prone to rejection when a lay judge affiliated with an anti-immigrant party participates in the decision-making process. This phenomenon raises serious concerns about the impartiality of courts for asylum applicant converts, for whom the judicial outcome holds profound implications, often determining life or death. 

In conclusion, the asylum journey of converts in politically charged Swedish legal settings demonstrates the crucial role played by migration courts, where the destinies of individuals seeking refuge are shaped.

Ebru Öztürk is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mid Sweden University, Sweden. Her research interests focus on the intersection between religious conversion, ontological security, populism, and power dynamics concerning religion, ethnicity, and gender. She is co-editor, with Dr. Lena Rose, of "Asylum and Conversion from Islam to Christianity in Europe: Interdisciplinary Approaches," (Bloomsbury Academic). Her recent articles include "She lacks a 'male network' in her home country: Gendering the credibility assessment and the discursive space of intersectionality in migration courts in Sweden." (2024) "Finding a new home through conversion: the ontological security of Iranians converting to Christianity in Sweden" (2022), and co-authored ones are “A typology of right-wing populism in Europe: Intersections of gender, religion and secularity" (2023)  and “The veil as an object of right-wing populist politics: A comparative perspective of Turkey, Sweden, and France" (2022).


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