When assessing a client’s needs and developing a case strategy, your ability to communicate effectively and elicit the necessary information is paramount. Furthermore, client interviews are the most important time for your legal advocates to build trust and confidence with refugees. Effectively acquiring all necessary information from an interview will help your organization avoid presenting fraudulent or frivolous claims. The ability to manage an interview helps legal advocates make best use of their time and handle the emotional stress of refugee work better.

As legal advocate, your ability to effectively interview clients is crucial to acquire all the necessary information for representing a client. Especially when representing client with a complicated claim, or clients who have trouble articulating the reasons for their flight (e.g. traumatized individuals, children, persons facing problems in the country of refuge) how you interview your client is of utmost importance to elicit information.
This page will help you and your team develop effective interviewing skills. First, it will discuss effective ways to interview through a video. Then, it will detail steps to take and strategies to employ during different aspects of the interview process.

The training video below is a good introduction to interview skills. Keep in mind that these skills are a constant work-in-progress, and should be the focus of ongoing training. As there are few strict interviewing rules, the best way to improve your team’s interview skills is to practice, observe, and reflect. Ask your legal advocates to discuss the best and worst part of an interview with their supervisor on a weekly basis. When appropriate, have your legal advocates observe their colleagues’ client interview to provide peer review. To further assess legal advocates’ performance, establish objective feedback forms for clients to complete.

What is the focus of your interview?

As a legal advocate you will typically spend more time with the client to elicit their testimony than an adjudicating officer has during an RSD interview. Because of this, you are in a position to go into a greater degree of detail and frame the refugee claim. Keep in mind that many clients get rejected at the UNHCR because they stress on general deplorable humanitarian reasons in their country believing that only this information will get them recognized as a refugee and cannot understand why they need to go into events that are unimportant in their view. The client should be made aware of this early in the interview so that by the end of the interview, when asked the single question: “What do you fear should you be returned to your home country?” the client’s response will include all the following elements without further prompting:

  • WHAT does s/he fear (e.g. death/torture/detention)
  • WHO does s/he fear (e.-g. police/other tribe/political group)
  • WHY does s/he fear (ideally this part should match one or more category of persecution as stated in the refugee convention- political opinion/ethnic group/religious belief/social group/military service).

Once this has been achieved it is also important to ascertain factors which strengthen this fear. If the applicant has observed similar ill-treatment of other members of his political/ethnic/religious/social group for the same reasons then this is said to strengthen his/her fear. Persistent attempts by aggressors to apprehend the client or repeated experiences of detention/ill-treatment will also strengthen the fear. If the client has suffered ill-treatment then s/he may have residual psychological issues. All these issues should be investigated because they can cumulatively lead to a strong subjective fear of persecution.

Interviewing Skills

The purpose of interviewing clients is to gather information about the client, give the client information about your organization and what you may be able to do for him or he, create a written record of what happened to him or her, and to build a relationship. In order to do this effectively, you need to employ good interviewing skills. Interviews can be highly stressful for refugees so it is important that you work to make the person feel comfortable. Below are some suggestions of how to conduct interviews so that your client feels comfortable and safe.

Throughout the interviews you conduct with your client, you should assess the needs of the client regarding psychological and psycho-social support in particular. Some of these aspects may only become apparent as the relationship of trust grows:

  • Be attentive to whether the RSD process or rights claim may have retraumatized your client to some extent. This may be inevitable given the difficult nature of recalling traumatic events for the purposes of proving persecution or experiences of violence or discrimination.
  • Be alert in particular for signs of SGBV, torture, trafficking, domestic abuse and other issues which may only have made themselves apparent throughout the case as the trust between the client and the adviser grows.

Before the Client Arrives:

  • Familiarize yourself with the client’s country of origin and the conditions there.
  • Read all notes in the client’s record
  • Have all the forms and agreements that the client may need to fill out and sign ready to give to the client.
  • Complete other pressing matters so that you can give the client your full attention
  • Speak to the interpreter about ground rules for the interview and any other relevant matters.

Once the Client Arrives:

  • Put the client at ease by asking how they are, and offering him or her a refreshment.
  • If necessary, introduce yourself and your organization to the client.
  • Introduce the client and interpreter. Confirm that they can understand each other.
  • Let the client know what you plan to cover in the interview and that he and she can take a break at anytime.
    • Explain the purpose of the interview.
  • Explain any paperwork that the client needs to sign.
  • Assure the client that anything he or she tells you will be kept confidential.

Once the Interview Begins:

  • Maintain eye contact with the client and a friendly expression.
  • Do not direct questions to the interpreter.
    • Always speak directly to the client.
  • Make sure that the client can see the notes that you are taking.
  • Sit next to the client rather than across from him or her.
  • Express sympathy if the client reveals something difficult or sad.
  • If the client brings up other issues that he or she is having such as health issues, stop the interview and address those issues first.
    • You could address these issues by referring the client to medical services or other service providers who can help.
  • Stay in control of the interview by keeping the interview focused and promote exchange of information
  • Don’t ask judgmental questions.
  • Don’t ask client to speculate.
  • Don’t ask client to draw legal conclusions.
  • Don’t break long silences too quickly.
  • Don’t press for too many details (but try to get as many as possible).
  • Don’t ask leading questions/don’t put words in client’s mouth, even if she or he has hinted at something.
  • Don’t expect perfect recall.
  • Make sure that you are able to find out why this client specifically fears persecution rather than general information about the dangers in his or her country of origin.

Strategies to Elicit Information:

  • Try to go in chronological order
  • Do not use “interrogation tactics”
  • Explain to the client that it is okay if he or she does not remember everything.
  • Ask open ended questions.
  • If the client cannot remember something, offer suggestions such as:
    • Did you cross the border on foot?
    • Were you detained for days, weeks, or months?
  • Ask one question at a time.
  • It can be difficult for people to remember dates of when events happened. Help them by linking the events to other personal markers like their children’s ages.
    • Other markers are if they remember what season it was, in relation to big events (before or after a revolution, elections, etc), how old they were, or in which grade in school their children were.
    • If a client is able to give an exact date, ensure they will be able to remember the date during the interview as well.
  • Double check dates against the rest of the client’s testimony and general country information, address inconsistencies.
  • It is better for clients to say ‘I don’t know’ than to make a guess for something that they are not sure about, such as dates, how long they were something, or how far away something is. Giving information when unsure can lead to inconsistencies, and possibly credibility concerns.

Ways to Talk about Difficult Subjects:

  • Before you ask about a difficult subject, acknowledge that it may be hard for the person to speak about. Say:
    • “I’m sorry, but I need to ask you more about X”
    • “I know this is hard to talk about…”
  • Let the client know that he or she can take a break whenever they need one.
  • Do not ask blunt questions like “were you raped?”
  • Do not get into unnecessary detail.
  • Be sensitive to your client’s emotional state and comfort him or her as necessary.
  • Show empathy.

At the end of an interview:

  • Read back the testimony to the client.
    • Explain to him or her that he or she needs to cross check everything you read back.
    • Break down long sentences.
    • If the client is uncertain, take out some details.
    • Engage the client: ask him or her if what you have written in correct.
  • End the interview on an emotionally neutral note.
    • Do not leave the most difficult topics for the very end of the interview.
  • Explain what will happen next and when you will contact the client again.