“We were living in a truck when the Americans attacked,” said the man in a low and shaky voice. “We hid behind the driver’s seat.”

He was perched on a chair in the refugee service of Amnesty International in Paris, recounting his odyssey with his wife and three children from Iraq to France.

His name is Yeshar, he is an Iraqi Kurd from Baghdad and he said he faces sure death if he has to go home.

“We went all the way to Istanbul,” he continued. “We stayed there for five months. Then, we took a boat, next a train and a boat again. We arrived at a big harbor. There were some Arabs, they told me to take another train to go to Paris. It was at this moment, I realized I was in France.”

Waves, roads and rails brought him to another confusing landscape, this one made up of offices, wretched papers and endless interviews. Now he winds his way through the halls of French justice, pleading his case for political asylum to judges and bureaucrats who sift through thousands of stories like his every year.

The asylum system in France, as in other western countries, is not like other courts.

The people who make life-and-death decisions on cases like Yeshar’s listen every day to claims of torture, repression and death in far-away places. The stories can tend to blur together. Lies have to be separated from legitimate fears. There is a constant risk of becoming too involved on one hand or too cynical on the other.

It is a stressful process for everyone, bound by objective rules set out in the Geneva Convention but at the same time reliant on subjective human judgment. This big legal machine functions with feelings. They search for a truth without proof. Few of the applicants are able to provide documents or witnesses to support their stories.

But only a fraction of all asylum seekers in France eventually win refugee status. Meanwhile they wait in a state of desperate limbo, weighed down by their past yet unable to imagine their future.

“I’d rather kill myself here than there”

Yeshar has been in that limbo for more than three years.

Almost every week since September 2007, he has commuted to Amnesty International’s refugee service, on Boulevard Villette. He drinks cup after cup of instant hot chocolate and recounts the story of his life over and over again to an Amnesty volunteer helping with his application.

From his jumble of memories and terrors, he tries to construct for his advocates a coherent case. He speaks little French. The work of cataloguing and summarizing is done with the help of a translator.

Many events are hazy, days and entire years are often mixed up. He said he has a hard time “putting [his] memories in order,” a confusion he blames on having been tortured during the reign of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He said he cannot go back home because he ran afoul of important Ba’ath Party members still in Iraq, owing to his oldest brother.

The Office for Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA), the agency that adjudicates all such claims, rejected his first application for asylum. He appealed but the French national court for asylum, formerly known as the CRR, also turned him down.

He has since filed a new asylum claim, based on his contention that he still has a well-founded fear of persecution, the standard according to international law, because his parents were killed last year when a grenade was thrown at their house in Baghdad.

Again he is waiting for a decision on his fate. He may get refugee status. Or he will keep wandering because, even in the case of a refusal, this brown-haired, fine-featured man insisted, he will not return to his homeland.

“I’d rather kill myself here than there,” he said in a whisper. “Death here is better than death over there.”

“What is peculiar to this job is humanity”

B21, B22, B23….around 40 boxes are lined up on the ground floor of OFPRA in a suburb of Paris. Here is the first leg of the asylum-seeker’s odyssey. It is here that in front of a representative of the French state, all applicants must tell their story and persuade a protection officer. The interviews take place in wooden cabins, like boxes, set up in the hallways.

Each adjudicator starts out with a hefty file folder containing details of the applicant. But while the information is a starting-point, it is often necessary to start from scratch.

“The story is the heart of the file, but important weight is given to what is said during the interview and whether that fits the file,” said Pascal Baudouin, a former protection officer who is now a spokesman for OFPRA.

In a conversation of about an hour and half, asylum-seekers have to explain their pasts and their fears of returning home.

“Asylum is not an absolute science but, after the interview, the officer will basically know,” said Baudouin, sitting in his sunlit office. “What is peculiar to this job is humanity. We work on the human being.”

Protection officers face the constant risk of burnout, he added. They risk either becoming embittered or too compassionate, tired or bored with stories of hard lives, with possible lies and stereotypical tales.

“It’s not always easy or pleasant to be in the position of the protection officer,” he said. But the job can get in the blood. It is not out of the question, Baudouin hinted, that he might one day leave his office and its bay-windows to move back in the ground floor boxes.

“We do asylum, not immigration”

The numbers attest to the obstacles facing people like Yeshar.

OFPRA approved only 8 percent of the requests for asylum that its officers heard in 2006. That amounted to 3,000 people.

At the next stage of deliberation, the appeals court or CRR, only 15 percent of the applications are approved. Out of 30,000 appeals filed, that meant only 4,500 were granted.

The volume of cases makes the asylum system the single busiest court system in France.

In the corridors of the appeals court, it is common to hear that each case is unique and treated as such. The stories can seem similar, the geopolitical situations too, but “each file is a person,” said Nadine Guilbaud, the general-secretary.

However individualized their decisions, the courts are bound by the strict criteria for asylum set out in the Geneva Convention. It defines a refugee as someone with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

As Guilbaud put it, judges have to keep those objective criteria in mind at all times, no matter how emotionally powerful an applicant’s fears and hopes.

“Someone starving in his country – that’s awful,” she said. “But it’s not our job to help this person. Otherwise the court is empty of meaning.”

“We do asylum, not immigration,” the general-secretary added.

An appeals hearing generally lasts just 30 minutes. During that brief time, the petitioner has to convince the judge of the specific danger he or she faces back home. The refugee asks for help. The judge asks why he or she fled home.

There is little time for hesitation on the part of either.

“It’s very basic,” said Gérald Peytavin, project manager for Guilbaud. “We don’t expect big words or theatrics. It is justice based on sincerity, and that results from an inner conviction. When someone is lying, we know it.”

Yeshar is always with a black file folder. Inside are all the papers relating to his application. After three years in the French justice system, he has come to understand a bit better its twists and turns.

He knows his newest case represents his last chance. He probably does not realize to what extent his refugee status is conditional on feelings, on men and women who use the Geneva Convention but above all their sensibility.

It doesn’t matter that Saddam is dead

Perhaps is it to difficult to think his own life depends on the impression he makes on strangers, especially when each recitation of his story is so painful. In hindsight, Yeshar said he has realised that his first appeal was rejected because his story had not been understood.

He failed to show that to go back to Iraq would put his life at risk, that it does not matter that Saddam Hussein is dead and the Ba’ath Party is abolished, that the reasons he fled are still valid.

“Neither the judges nor others understand the issue,” he murmured one day recently, between puffs of his hand-rolled Camel cigarette.

“Until 2003, there was only one dictator,” he added. “It was clear for everybody. After Saddam’s collapse, there were many small dictators, many small terrorist groups.”

But how can he prove that they are a threat to him? He does not know but hopes the judges, even without hard proof, will believe him.

“I’ve come to understand I mustn’t talk anymore about details,” he said. “I’ve got to focus on myself. I’ve to present the events more clearly and let them ask me their questions. And I’ve got to answer without getting scattered. I’ve tried to tell too many things.”

The subjectivity of fear

Credibility. Plausibility. Sincerity.

These are the keys to success, according to non-profit advocacy groups and lawyers who help asylum-seekers.

But they are no guarantee. Advocates complain that the overall asylum process does not work as it should, that it is too rushed and too concerned with restricting the number of refugees.

“They work on the assumption that asylum-seekers are lying and that asylum is a gate for immigrants who couldn’t enter the country in any other way,” said Jean-François Dubost, head of Amnesty International’s refugee service in France.

He did not hide his irritation. “The logic of the system is based on determining if a person is lying or not, rather than trying to know if the person is truly fearful.”

The asylum courts are also focused on numbers rather than individuals, “frantically running after results and quotas,” said Dubost. “They depersonalize what should be kept human.”

A refugee is someone with “a reasonable fear,” he noted. “And fear is a subjective emotion. … My mission is to allow the asylum-seekers to be able to express their fear. It’s to make them master of their own stories.”

“It’s only through long talks that can we hope to glimpse truth”

Subjectivity is an issue that preoccupies judges, as well. With more than 140 courtrooms, each with a judge and associate judges, the decisions made on asylum appeals vary widely according to individual temperament and points of view.

“Everything depends so much on the sensitivity of the court,” said Francine Cahen Fouque, an appellate judge. “For me, my average is important. I’m quite a rejection girl.”

In the “organized mess” of her living room with its ornate ceiling mouldings, between two “orangeade” glasses, she described the way she works. It is, she said, a “feeling of running.”

Though she reads the case files before going a hearing, her decisions are based on what happens once the applicant is standing in front of her.

“It’s only through long talks that we can hope to glimpse truth,” she said.

Once her decision is made, though, she never allows herself any pangs of conscience because, in the courtroom, she used to give the applicants the benefit of the doubt.

“This appearance is horrible for them,” she said. “So it’s always important to say that I’m asking these questions to understand, not to upset them.”

She also worries how about the strain of the proceedings on asylum seekers.

“These people come from worlds completely unknown to me, from worlds with values and standards different from my own,” she said.

“But what can be done?” the judge added. “We can’t set up proceedings specific to each culture, each nationality or each religion.”

“It’s a privilege I have to believe him without judging him”

In her office at Amnesty International, volunteer Julie Chamagne finds herself constantly trying to organize and compress all the emotion of Yeshar’s case into a document of three or four pages.

She has become deeply involved in his case, an all-too-human response that is an occupational hazard for those working with asylum seekers.

Although she is expected at Amnesty’s office for only a half-day a week, she is often there every day. She can afford to volunteer her time, she said, because she has a separate business renting out apartments to tourists.

“It’s my double life,” she laughed. “I’m a humanitarian capitalist.”

But with Yeshar, she has mixed the two worlds.

For a time, he lived in housing provided by a refugee assistance group. Then, for a month, he lived outside, camping out in the cold with other migrants in a small park by the Gare de l’Est train station in northeastern Paris.

Chamagne could not bear to see him there. She has since given him a room in one of her apartments on Faubourg Saint Denis Street, a few meters from the park where he used to sleep.

“I saw him everyday for one month in the street,” she recalled. “He was tired and sick. I couldn’t be unconcerned.”

She said she knows she cannot do that for every asylum-seeker. She seemed a bit embarrassed at not being able to keep her distance. “But I can’t be otherwise,” she added. “Even my little dog is a refugee from Puerto Rico.”

Her goal now is to assemble tangible evidence about what happened to Yeshar’s parents, who were reportedly murdered in Baghdad. That is the key, she said, to his new asylum application.

“It’s essential to establish this new fact,” she said. “Otherwise they won’t look at the rest of the case. Then, after that, he must be ready. They’re going to ask him only four or five questions. He has to be convincing and do it quickly.”

Again, Yeshar’s case could come down to how sincere he appears to the judge.

At best, he has some medical certificates attesting to scars on his body that could be traces of torture. But he does not have a copy of a video tape that, he said, resulted in his receiving death threats. Nor does he have the phone number of the neighbor in Baghdad who he said called him with news of his parents’ death.

Chamagne is cautiously optimistic about his chances.

“He must not go back to Iraq,” she said, turning suddenly serious. But does she believe he would be in danger? She hesitated, then looked up and replied, “Yeah, I guess. I can’t really know, he probably embellishes a bit but basically I believe him.”

“But, I know, it’s a privilege I have, to believe him without judging him.”

“I don’t have any future”

For three years, Yeshar has been living between hope and fear. He lives in a borrowed apartment. To earn a bit of money, he sometimes cleans floors in a nearby Kurdish restaurant.

But when asked how he envisions the future, he does not understand.

Future? The question seems to him incongruous. Yet, he finally answered. “I don’t have papers and I haven’t seen my kids for months. I don’t have any future. And I’ve nothing to lose.”

He often talks about his three children, above all his little girl. He has not seen them for more than two years, since his wife left him shortly after they arrived in France after their long and uncertain journey from Iraq.

His voice was full of desperation. “I never thought I would find a country respecting human rights as France. That’s why I’m asking for my right,” he said. “I’m sure in France, there are some people who respect the rights. I keep the hope they will accept my demand alive. If not…I don’t know. I’ll disappear in nature.”