Two decisions canceled the refusal of asylum by courts in Milan, asking them to reconsider the applications.
by Massimo Introvigne
In Italy, more than one thousand requests from asylum based on religious persecution were filed by Chinese refugees. Most of them belong to The Church of Almighty God. As this church becomes more well-known thanks to the works of scholars, and to official documents by the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs, more applications for asylum are granted. However, a significant number of them are still rejected and, for whatever reason, authorities in Milan have been more reluctant than in other Italian cities to grant the requested protection to members of The Church of Almighty God.
Some of the unfavorable decisions in Milan were appealed before the Supreme Court (Corte di Cassazione [Court of Cassation]; confusingly, sometimes the Italian Constitutional Court, which only examines whether laws are in accordance with the Constitution, is also sometimes called “Supreme Court” in foreign media). Two decisions of the Supreme Court, whose grounds have just become public, now offer some hope to the refugees.
The first decision (n. 30962/2019, formally dated September 25, 2019: note that grounds are made public in Italy several months after the decision) concerns a refugee from The Church of Almighty God, who had been represented by lawyer Francesco Curto and who had been interviewed by the administrative commission, which had rejected its application. The Court of Milan decided based on the administrative interview, even if the refugee claimed that its transcript was not accurate, and the interview had not been recorded. The Supreme Court has now decided that the Court of Milan should have interviewed again the refugee, and sent the case back to Milan for a new trial.
The second decision (no. 7546/2020, formally dated December 3, 2019), which attorney Laura Furno kindly supplied to Bitter Winter, goes more into the substance of the application submitted by a female member of The Church of Almighty God. She had reported to the authorities in Milan that she had converted to the Church through her mother, who was already a member, during a difficult period of her life. She had brilliantly passed a school exam, but another candidate was placed before her through corruption and political connections. The husband of a co-religionist had denounced both his wife and the refugee to the police as members of a banned religious movement. She had been found in possession of the main scripture of The Church of Almighty God, The Word Appears in the Flesh, and arrested. She was then released, but fired from her job and kept under surveillance, with no chances to find another job. She decided to escape to Italy, where she arrived in October 19, 2015 with a tourist visa, and applied for asylum.
The administrative commission found contradictions in her story, claiming it was not clear whether her conversion was a genuine religious experience or simply derived from the injustice she suffered at school. The Court of Milan confirmed the negative decision, although the refugee claimed that the alleged contradictions came from an inaccurate transcript of the interview. The Court also observed that the fact that the refugee had obtained a passport proved that she was not persecuted, and that there was no general situation of risk for believers in China.
The Supreme Court observed that the Milan decision is wrong on various accounts. First, the Supreme Court examined in detail the relevant Italian and European case law on how interviews with refugees should be conducted and evaluated. Interviews with administrative commissions are often conducted without lawyers, transcripts include frequent mistakes, and they should not be used against the refugees in court cases. Rather, courts of justice should conduct a new interview. The aim of this interview is not to shop for contradictions. If the judges find a potential contradiction, they should call the attention on it, and give the refugee a chance to explain. When evaluating the interview, judges should not divide it in segments and claim that one or more of these are not believable, but assess it globally. Often, the basic truth of the story will emerge beyond minor contradictions in non-essential details. In this case, the Supreme Court argued, the impression is that the refugee went through a genuine religious conversion, which is not incompatible with the fact that this happened when she was upset for the injustice at school. The Supreme Court also observed that the refugee had a credible medical certificate proving she was mistreated by the police in China.
The Supreme Court also asked the Court of Milan to interpret the refugee’s individual story by comparing it with reliable available information, including from governmental sources in Italy and other countries, which in this case proves that The Church of Almighty God is severely persecuted in China.
Finally, the fact that the refugee obtained a passport may be indeed problematic, the Supreme Court said, but may be explained with the fact that Chinese authorities “are happy to send away from China persons they regard as dangerous for the internal stability.” I personally believe that, on this point, other interpretations may also apply, such as the fact that the police data base do not work perfectly, and corruption is widespread in China. But, apart from the passport question, the decision offers a very good discussion about the aim of interviews with refugees, which should not be an attempt to find pretexts not to grant the asylum but a way of understanding and assessing the experience of those escaping persecution.