Universiteit Leiden

nl en

‘People can be expelled to countries that they don't come from'

The 'language analysis interview' on the basis of which the Immigration and Naturalisation Department attempts to determine where an asylum-seeker without any documents comes from, does not meet the criteria of reliability and validity. Joachim Detailleur, student of Arabic, substantiates this statement in his master's thesis, for which he earned a grade 9. He expects to receive his master's diploma on 1 November.

Swedish export

Asylum centre in Zeewolde
Asylum centre in Zeewolde

The Immigration and Naturalisation Department (IND) is faced with the by no means easy task of determining the country of origin of asylum-seekers who do not have any documents. If their account of how they were forced to flee their country leaves questions unanswered, how do you determine where an asylum-seeker really comes from? 

The solution was devised in Sweden in the nineteen-nineties: an interview with the asylum seeker would be recorded and an analysis made of the language used in the recording. This analysis method is a Swedish export product to other West European countries, including the Netherlands. Detailleur's weighty dissertation discusses the objections to this method. His main objection is that the 'expert' who carries out the analysis is a native speaker who is not trained as a linguist. In many cases, the person is not even a native speaker. The IND does also employ linguists, but these experts only make random checks on the work of the native speakers.

Refugee work

During his study, Detailleur also studied Egyptian Arabic, Palestinian Arabic, Ge’ez and Amharic, the last two being Ethiopian, non-Arabic languages. He did a work placement with the Dutch Council for Refugees (Stichting Vluchtelingenwerk), an organisation that offers practical support to refugees. His job was to study the source materials to find information that would support the accounts given by asylum-seekers. He examined more than 120 dossiers of asylum-seekers from Sudan where language analysis played a role. During his time at the IND he exposed several individuals who did not come from the country they claimed to originate from.

Rita Verdonk

Examining these dossiers gave him the idea of writing his thesis on this subject. He studied the material in more depth and discovered that criticism of the language analysis method was by no means new: several experts have already denounced it. The defence by the IND that the analysis had been scientifically approved by professors of linguistics provoked a shocked reaction from the experts: their name was being used in vain. Yet the criticism was brushed aside at the highest political level, for example by the then Minister for Immigration Affairs Rita Verdonk. It was nothing to worry about.

High percentage of errors

Detailleur quotes in his research two reports that mention an error percentage of 13 and 25 per cent respectively in determining the country of origin of asylum-seekers on the basis of language analysis. 'These percentages are much too high,' he comments. 'These people are in real danger of being expelled to countries that they do not come from.' In his dissertation he demonstrates that the language analysis fails to meet scientific criteria.  


Young asylum-seeker with Dutch identity papers
Young asylum-seeker with Dutch identity papers

Detailleur concentrated his study on Arabic in Sudan, a unique field since nothing has so far been written in the context of a language analysis in this region. The language situation in Africa is highly complex. It is a country where two thousand languages are spoken, divided generally into four language families. These languages have not all been described yet, which means that scientific data are often lacking.


A large group of these languages is used across national borders. Many Africans are also multilingual, although not necessarily wholly proficient in the different languages, whereby one language will be used in a particular situation and a different language in another situation. A further complicating factor is that as a result of drought and natural disasters in Africa, many tribes are no longer settled in one place, which means that their languages are more susceptible to change than in normal circumstances. Contacts between different languages can result in pidgin, languages without native speakers that arise from the desire of people who do not speak one another's language to be able to communicate with one another. It can be compared to a kind of local esperanto enforced by circumstances.

Significant silences

Psychological aspects also play a role in the language analysis interview. For example, an individual who does not feel at ease speaks differently from normal. Furthermore, every culture also has its own language conventions. Whereas a silence in Western Europe is experienced as uncomfortable, in other cultures this silence has a particular significance, for example it can express a difference in social standing. The volume level of speech can also be significant, for instance as a means of expressing anger (in Western Europe) or expressing joy (in Africa). 

Case study

Open day in the asylum centre in Oisterwijk, in 2007
Open day in the asylum centre in Oisterwijk, in 2007

Detailleur devotes more than half his dissertation to explaining a particular case study: the language analysis of an Arabic-speaking man who claimed to have come from the Nuba mountain area in Sudan and to belong to the Ghulfan population. There is considerable uncertainty among linguists about the forty to sixty Nuba languages and dialects, including the way in which these languages are influenced as there are no historical details, and the degree to which the languages are still spoken after decades of Arabisation policy by consecutive Sudanese governments. Detailleur describes in detail the language situation in the Nuba region, and makes a thorough reanalysis of the language of the man in question. He came to a different conclusion from the IND analyst, that the asylum-seeker may well have originated from the area he claimed.

IND not obliging

According to Detailleur, analyses should be carried out by linguists with specialist knowledge rather than by native speakers.  And the IND, what is their response to his dissertation? Detailleur: ‘I don't know; I have had no contact with the IND.  I have based my study exclusively on public information. I have done this knowing that requests submitted by lawyers on the basis of the Government Information Public Access Act (WOB) would be rejected. The IND is not very obliging in providing information. This is becuse they are afraid that asylum-seekers will use the information to prepare themselves better. The IND has, however, heard about my work and has requested a copy of my dissertation in advance. But I haven't agreed to send it.' 

Detailleur is not yet finished with his dissertation. His supervisors from the Department of Arabic have not only awarded him a 9, they have also advised him to consider the possibility of producing a commercial edition. And, as a PhD candidate, to broaden his research further.


This website uses cookies.  More information.