01 November 2011
Finding a voice
Asylum seekers' prospects and even their lives are put at risk by a lack of translation support, argues Arnaud Vervoitte, Senior Operations Manager of the Refugee Council
Language can be a significant barrier for asylum seekers and refugees who have recently arrived in the UK as they attempt to navigate a complex asylum system. But a crisis in interpreting and translation services is making it even harder for them to settle into their new environment.
Many asylum seekers and refugees will have fled their countries at short notice, and will have little prior knowledge of the English language. The countries from which the largest numbers come include Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Eritrea – none of which count English as a first language. At the Refugee Council, we have long recognised the need to provide for the many languages our clients speak in order to give them the support they need – with our Own Language Telephone Advice Service, multilingual website and publications, and team of interpreters, we are able to offer advice in languages including Farsi, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish and Mandarin.
Outside of the Refugee Council, for legal and asylum matters to date, the Ministry of Justice has been responsible for providing translation and interpretation services, and requires qualified interpreters to sign up with the Register of Public Service Interpreters (RPSI). But the Ministry of Justice is proposing to outsource these services to a private company, which will render the RPSI defunct – potentially lowering the quality of language services provided.
This could potentially have very serious consequences for asylum seekers. The Home Office is making life or death decisions on asylum cases – if asylum seekers are not supported properly to explain why they need protection here using high-quality interpreters, they could face being returned to countries where their lives are at risk.
There is also clearly already a shortage of interpreters to meet the demand, and cutting the service further will cause people to have to wait for their cases to be heard. We know from working with asylum seekers every day that courts often postpone hearings for weeks in order for people who speak the same language to attend on the same day. More shockingly, we also know of appellants being pressurised into accepting the proceedings to be conducted in English in the absence of an interpreter, which can, of course, detrimentally affect the outcome of the proceedings. This is due to both the shortage of people specialised in this area and to save on interpreter costs. This will no doubt worsen as the justice system is forced to squeeze budgets further.
As well as asylum and legal matters, asylum seekers and refugees rely on interpretation in order to access public services to meet their basic needs and to aid their integration into society: from GPs and housing providers to children's services.
Mental health services are a particular issue.
Evidence suggests refugees and asylum seekers experience a higher incidence of mental distress than the wider population, due to the traumatic experiences they have faced. Last year, the charity Mind published a report that identified language as a key obstacle for this group in accessing mental health services. Dispersal areas, such as Norfolk, which are not traditionally diverse, find it particularly difficult to source interpreters. Asylum seekers are often still relying on family – in some instances, their own children – and community members to interpret for them, which compromises their confidentiality and can put service users and the people interpreting for them in very uncomfortable or inappropriate situations. It is clear that the situation is already critical. In a year when David Cameron has called for immigrants, including refugees, to make more of an effort to integrate into society, the government is making it extremely difficult for people to access the services they need in order to do that. There must be more investment into translation and interpreting services to ensure that those seeking safety in the UK can not only get the protection and help they need, but also play their part in our society.