Research into practice

Competence in English is desired by many asylum seekers and refugees in the UK and, for those allowed to work, is a prerequisite for most jobs.

Although the government supports these aspirations to a degree, the focus upon the integration of asylum seekers and refugees has resulted in a neglect of their current needs for help with interpretation and translation. Yet, as previous studies have shown, access to public services for those who speak other languages is patchy and generally poor.

This research1 was commissioned by the North Staffordshire Asylum Seekers and Refugee Support Group and funded by the Ashden Trust. The main aims of the research were to:

  • Identify the minority languages used by asylum seekers and refugees.
  • Audit existing provision for interpretation and translation.
  • Examine the feasibility of training existing asylum seekers and refugees to become formally employed interpreters and translators.
  • Report on the viability of setting up a local service using their skills.

The study found that there were no conclusive figures about the local asylum seeker and refugee population and their linguistic needs. These ranged from 654 people housed by the National Asylum Support Service in Stoke on Trent to an estimate made by the local race equality council of more than 2,500 in the larger north Staffordshire area.

Few agencies kept records of languages used by the asylum seeker and refugee communities, but it was evident that the most commonly used languages (Sorani, Pushtu, Dari, Farsi and Arabic) differed from those used by local settled ethnic minorities (Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Cantonese). Thus, even where agencies had some provision, there was no overlap with the linguistic needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

In many agencies there were no systematic arrangements for providing and monitoring interpretation and translation, though all acknowledged a growing need for such services. There were few attempts at co-ordination between service providers and in many instances little knowledge of how to develop language services.

Many asylum seekers and refugees were proficient in several languages, and those who spoke English often felt obliged to help others. Frequently, they had been used as interpreters in meetings with agencies, but only one person had received any payment for this work. It was clear that they often lacked training, were poorly supported and were under pressure.

This study concluded it was feasible to establish a language service using the skills of asylum seekers and refugees. It recommended that:

  • The most immediate need was for interpretation rather than translation services.
  • Asylum seekers and refugees were already being widely used, but their work should be formalised through proper training, support and payment to ensure the quality of the service and to avoid further exploitation.
  • Agencies should use the practical guidance and service models developed by other organisations such as the Maternity Alliance and Brasshouse (a local translation and interpretation service).
  • Greater effort should be made to develop local co-operation, co-ordination and investment to ensure the sustainability of interpretation and translation services.

Richard Pugh is senior lecturer in social work, school of social relations, Keele University.

1 Joe Andrew, Steve French, Tracie French, Jutta M”hrke, Richard Pugh and Dawn Sedman, A Feasibility Study Assessing the Viability of a Refugee and Asylum Seeker Translation and Interpreting Enterprise Project in North Staffordshire, Keele University, 2002. For more information e-mail

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