INTERPRETERS working in the UK asylum system are dealing with a “chaotic” set-up which underestimates how crucial translators are to the process, a researcher has said.

Adam Williamson, who undertook a year-long Master of Philosophy (MPhil) research project at Glasgow University, said that the lack of training and guidance for interpreters engaging with tribunals, and refugees who may be traumatised, is undoubtedly having an impact.

In one case, a miscommunication over the Southeast Asian dialect used by an asylum seeker in a case he observed led to a tribunal hearing descending into a “complete farce” after it emerged that the translator could not understand the client.

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There is also no formal training for interpreters working in the asylum system, how it works, what the asylum seeker's rights are, or guidance for the translator's own well-being, as well as how to maintain impartiality throughout the sometimes gruelling process.

There are also different layers to the process from initial meetings with solicitors and lengthy Home Office interviews to appeal hearings at the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal.

“There is a complete lack of understanding of how complex the task of interpreting can be, and how little attention is really paid to it as a potential complication,” Williamson told the Sunday National.

The Home Office insisted that all interpreters are "robustly trained" and qualified to undertake the job. 

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Previously, in 2019, David Bolt, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, probed the Home Office’s use of language services and found that there is no system-wide policy for “the provision of information and services in foreign languages”.

The review also found issues with the Home Office’s Interpreter Operations Unit (IOU), which maintained a log of freelance interpreters Bolt said was not “sufficiently precise” in relation to dialects.

Williamson, who undertook the project which was funded and supervised by the UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts and Dr Allison Phipps, said he saw this unfold for himself during a tribunal hearing he observed.

During a case where the asylum seeker spoke Tetun, the official language of East Timor in Southeast Asia, Williamson said he noticed the interpreter was “acting in a strange manner” and appeared “agitated from the very start”.

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It later emerged that the asylum seeker did not understand the interpreter, who was speaking a dialect which was more heavily influenced by the “colonial language” Portuguese, but this was not raised until an hour into proceedings.

“It just degenerated into a complete farce,” Williamson said.

“What really came across there was that the onus was on the asylum seeker to raise concerns.

“That obviously must be really intimidating, if you're turning up to a tribunal for the first time, your life is on the line, and you’ve got an interpreter who’s not necessarily wanting to admit there’s a problem because they want to get paid, or if there’s a conflict of interest there.”

Williamson (pictured below) observed 20 tribunals as part of the research project, as well as conducting interviews. He also works as a freelance interpreter and has had some experience within the asylum system itself.

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The Glasgow-based researcher pointed out that “tiny inconsistencies” such as a misspelt name or getting a birthday slightly wrong are all things that can be used by the Home Office to reject an asylum application.

This, Williamson argued, is why having well-trained interpreters who are comfortable navigating the system is crucial.

“There needs to be training made available specifically for the asylum system itself, which doesn’t focus just on language aspects, but looks in detail at the asylum system, how it functions, what people’s rights are, and how interpreters can take care of their own wellbeing as well,” he added.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Austria published a 244-page handbook for interpreters working with asylum seekers to help them navigate the procedures in place in 2022.

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Williamson urged the Home Office to look at embedding the guidance in the UK system, which he insists could be “easily adapted”.

It sets out the role of the interpreter in the system, how to handle vulnerable applicants and the impact on their own mental health and well-being.

A UK Government spokesperson said: "Interpreters are available to all asylum seekers, free of charge, at all stages of the asylum process, as part of the Immigration Rules.

“We ensure that all interpreters are robustly trained and are highly qualified for the job.”

The Home Office also pointed out that interpreters who work in the immigration system must either be a member of the National Register of Public Services Interpreters (NRPSI) or hold another qualification that meets their standards.