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The Precarious Truth of Asylum

Didier Fassin

Civilized countries did offer the right of asylum to those who, for political reasons, had been persecuted by their governments, and this practice, though never officially incorporated into any constitution, has functioned well enough throughout the nineteenth and even in our century. The trouble arose when it appeared that the new categories of persecuted were far too numerous to be handled by an unofficial practice destined for exceptional cases.

—Hannah Arendt, Imperialism

“What is truth?” asked one of Oxford’s most distinguished philosophers, J. L. Austin (1950: 111), quoting “jesting Pilate,” in a symposium of the Aristotelian Society. His famous answer to this question was not very engaging prima facie: “‘Truth’ itself is an abstract noun, a camel, that is, of a logical construction, which cannot get past the eye even of a grammarian. . . . Philosophers should take something more nearly their own size to strain at. What needs discussing rather is the use, or certain uses, of the word ‘true.’ In vino, possibly, ‘veritas,’ but in a sober symposium ‘verum’” (Austin 1950: 111). As it happens, at the same time that this symposium on truth was held in England, an ad hoc committee of the United Nations (UN) was meeting in Switzerland to discuss asylum. The draft the committee submitted to the General Assembly evolved the following year into the “Convention relating to the Status of Refugee,” usually referred to as the 1951 Geneva Convention. The chronological coincidence between the philosophical symposium and the juridical meeting was purely fortuitous, but had it not been, an exchange between the two sets of experts could have been remarkably heuristic, not only because the legal specialists would have been inspired by the definitions of truth and of true propositions made at Oxford but also because the philosophy of language would have been put to the test of the formulations of the conditions of asylum in Geneva.

Of this imagined encounter, I would like to make the matter of a reflection on truth and asylum, not in the historical moment of the fabrication of the new international law but in the current state of the “refugee question.” So instead of being discouraged by Austin’s humorous remark, I take it as my point of departure. His distinction between truth and true, veritas and verum, serves to address this question by distinguishing two interrogations: What is the truth of asylum? And how are the accounts of asylum seekers recognized to be true? The two raise significantly different issues. The first emphasizes the substance of asylum, the way it is permanently transformed through international debates and national jurisprudence and by the daily work of officers and magistrates confronted with concrete cases. The second focuses on the evidence of the asylum seekers, on the relations between what is told and what really occurred and between these alleged facts and the legal definition of the refugee. The distinction between “truth” as substance and “true” as evidence is, I contend, crucial to our understanding of asylum both as an anthropological object and as a political issue. Of course, I do not mean to reify the truth of asylum (what I call “truth” here is a historical construction) or the true propositions of asylum seekers (what is considered as true is precisely the result of complex negotiations). On the contrary, by showing the permanent interpretive work of which asylum is the object, I want to de-essentialize what is often represented, in reference to the founding text, as an immutable reality and, in the investigation of the claimant’s past, as the search for an ultimate veracity.

To apprehend these two dimensions, I ground my analysis on material collected in France, but I believe that these findings may have a broader relevance for our comprehension of the refugee question. My inquiry into the French system of asylum includes the study of a corpus of asylum seekers’ files and of three hundred medical and psychological certificates in support of their applications; interviews with claimants to the refugee status, lawyers, rapporteurs, magistrates involved in asylum granting, and activists and physicians from nongovernmental organizations; and observation of the everyday work of the National Court of Asylum during the first semester of 2009 and of the Conference of the European Ministers of the Interior for the establishment of the Pact on Immigration and Asylum in September 2008. Moreover, at different moments, I have been involved in these issues via what one may call “observant participation” (as opposed to “participant observation”), as a physician writing medical certificates, as an activist chairing the French Committee for the Exiles, and more simply as a citizen involved in public debates in France. In other words, my reflection could be viewed as inscribed at the crossroads of classical ethnography and public anthropology. In the following pages, I analyze, from a long-term perspective, the contemporary reconfiguration of asylum; then discuss, through various philosophical paradigms, the diverse approaches of asylum seekers by institutions; and finally conclude by articulating the two dimensions of truth making and truth telling.

The Changing Truth of Asylum

Winner of the 2003 Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, among many other prizes, the docudrama In This World (dir. Michael Winterbottom; 2002) tells the story of the epic journey of two young Afghans trying to reach Britain across Asia and Europe. The movie begins in the Shamshatoo refugee camp in northeastern Pakistan, where fifty-three thousand Afghans, who fled the successive invasions of their country by the Soviet army and the Allied forces, survive in miserable conditions. As many others do, the Udin Torabi family decides to send their son Jamal and his cousin Enayatullah to try their luck in London, where they have relatives. With the help of smugglers, their venture brings them through Iran, from which they are deported back to Pakistan the first time but manage to cross on their second try, and Turkey, where migrants of the whole region meet up and embark in Istanbul inside a shipping container. On arrival in Italy, Jamal discovers that his cousin, along with other refugees, has died by suffocation during the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. He continues his odyssey to Paris and Sangatte, where a warehouse supervised by the Red Cross and overseen by the French police provides shelter for those en route to England. Stowing away on a truck, he crosses the English Channel and then calls his uncle to tell him that he has succeeded in his voyage—but alone. The last images of the film revert to the refugee camp in Pakistan, and a sentence appears on the screen as a realistic epilogue indicating that the young man playing Jamal, who is not a professional actor, was granted asylum at his own request—although only until his eighteenth birthday, when he would reach the age of majority.

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This article is a revised version of the Elisabeth Colson Lecture delivered on June 15, 2011, at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. The research on which it is based was undertaken thanks to an Advanced Grant of the European Research Council titled “Morals.” I am grateful to lawyers, rapporteurs, and judges of this institution, as well as to asylum seekers and to members of various nongovernmental organizations involved in this domain, for their generous availability.


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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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