Story tellers

The top three countries from where asylum seekers come to the
UKare Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe. To provide services for people
from these countries interpreters fluent in Arabic, Kurdish,
Assyrian, Armenian, Somali, Shona and Sindebele, are needed. But
are such specialised and skilled workers, who must also maintain a
professional detachment, readily available?

In London, trained interpreters in a huge array of tongues can be
found:elsewhere organisations often struggle to locate any.
Shortages can lead to untrained people or even members of the
asylum seeker’s family, including children, being asked to
translate. All have inherent problems, says Jill Gander,
interpreter co-ordinator at the Medical Foundation for Victims of

“It can be quite dangerous if you use someone who isn’t trained or
skilled. One nuance of terminology can change the whole account,”
says Gander.

Gander works with a team of about 80 interpreters, working on a
sessional basis, covering about 35 languages. Most in demand are
Turkish, Farsi (spoken by some Afghans and Iraqis), French, Lingala
(spoken in the Congo), Arabic and Amharic (spoken in Eritrea and
Ethiopia). She prefers to take on individuals who have either the
diploma in public service interpreting from the Institute of
Linguists or the London Open College Network certificate in
community interpreting.

Sikander Malik, head of community languages at the Hounslow
translation and interpreting service at Hounslow Council, agrees
that a trained interpreter has a specific set of skills, knows the
boundaries and their role, and is clear about impartiality.

Most of the unit’s work is with asylum seekers and refugees. It
provides interpreters to councils and other statutory and voluntary
providers and to the community.

The unit has more than 400 interpreters covering over 100
languages. They are all required to attend an in-house training
course regardless of their qualifications.

By using professional interpreting services, service users can be
assured that the chosen interpreters will be suitable, says Malik,
something that cannot be gauranteed if an untrained person or
family member is used. “The client could be a woman who has been
physically abused at home. Is a family member going to interpret
objectively? Will the right information come out? If their child is
used, they may not have the necessary vocabulary for a doctor’s
surgery, but would a parent want to discuss personal health issues
in front of their child anyway?”

This can be said of any sensitive information that an asylum seeker
may wish to discuss. It is bad practice to use a family member or a
bilingual member of staff, however good their language skills, says
Malik. “An impartial interpreter should always be used,” he

This is the only way to establish trust. Without this, asylum
seekers may worry about confidentiality. While some will feel more
comfortable with an interpreter from their community, others will
view them with suspicion. Thy may be anxious that anything they say
will find its way back to their own community.

Lynn Learman, co-ordinator of the PSS asylum seekers and refugee
counselling project, says: “I used to assume that if someone came
from the Cameroon I would get an African French speaker rather than
a Parisian. I thought that by matching people up they would feel
welcomed. But it can backfire, because if they have been raped or
tortured by somebody from their community you are putting the
oppressor in the room. For that person, the Parisian who has
nothing to do with their culture is far safer.”

She says there are some countries where criminal gangs are active.
Asylum seekers from these countries are concerned that what they
say will get back to their country where they may still have
family. “Some will want an English person who speaks their language
so they feel reassured that the connection with their country is
not there.”

PSS is a large voluntary agency running several social care
projects working mainly in Merseyside. Its asylum seekers and
refugee counselling service has been running for 18 months with
money from the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. The project
obtains its interpreters through the council’s translation service
and Learman would recommend that organisations only use
professional agencies. It runs an interpreting in therapeutic
settings training course accredited by the Open College

Sessions will raise stories of torture, rape and human rights
abuses, which can be shocking for the interpreter – after all they
are not trained counsellors – or they may have gone through similar
events themselves. If it is needed, they are offered counselling
from an independent counsellor.

The North West is one of the major dispersal areas. Estimates show
that more than 90 languages are spoken in Liverpool alone. The PSS
project uses interpreters in 75 per cent of its counselling
sessions in order to make them accessible to asylum seekers who
don’t speak English.

Using an interpreter within a counselling session changes the
dynamics as normally it involves one-to-one work between client and
counsellor. To ensure it works, boundaries have to be clearly

The counsellor meets the chosen interpreter to brief them. “I want
the client to watch me, and the interpreter is like the radio, so
that you get the rapport between client and counsellor. I can see
the emotion in their face and they can see I am listening. We also
ask the interpreter to speak in the first person. The interpreter
has to be inconspicuous,” says Learman.

As Malik points out, it is a duty under the Race Relations
Amendment Act 2000 for public sector organisations to promote
equality: “To do this, people need to be able to communicate what
they need and be understood.”

Language barrier

Language is a huge barrier, says Sue Ives-Moiba, English as a
second language (Esol) lecturer at a north London college. Esol is
for people living permanently in the country and asylum seekers.
“It makes me die when the government talks about people needing to
get into work, but there are so many barriers to refugees doing
that. There is always a waiting list for language classes. We have
a volunteer home tuition service used mainly by women with young
children, but there is more demand for that than we can find

On top of this, asylum seekers’ attempts to learn English are
interrupted by constantly being moved from one temporary placement
to another, she says. Consequently, some drop out of college. “One
of the biggest myths is that asylum seekers just want to take
benefits,” she says. “In my experience, those who come to class
want to work, but they can’t get the jobs without the language

Tongue tied

 “You are not expected to be a welfare or community worker,
doing the work of other agencies. You are not expected to solve the
non-English speaker’s social or other problems, even if they want
to involve you personally. You must remain impartial at all times
and not be tempted to advocate in any way. But this does not mean
that you cannot help either the client or the professional worker
to express themselves more fully or to explain to either party any
cultural factors, which may be hindering understanding, provided
you tell both parties what is happening.” 
Extract from the code of practice used by Hounslow
translation and interpreting service.

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