How professional interpreters can help in the refugee crisis

30 Jan 2018

The European refugee crisis is now entering its fourth year. There have been over 3.5 million first time asylum applications in EU countries over the past three years, which has brought challenges to both European host countries and the refugees who have entered these countries.

The role of qualified interpreters is crucial in surmounting these challenges. Refugees who have fled war, poverty and instability are now faced with the prospect of trying to navigate their way through unfamiliar systems in an environment where they are faced with a new culture and language. Communication problems and misunderstandings with officials, professionals and the local communities are common.

Interpreters can alleviate problems in a number of ways, from helping to ensure that the rights of refugees are protected, to assisting with access to services such as healthcare, through to helping new arrivals settle and integrate into their new home. But although interpreters provide a valuable role, they are unfortunately in short supply both at the points of entry and in the countries receiving refugee populations. In many cases, the gap is filled by community interpreters who provide an invaluable service but who lack the training and experience of professional interpreters and may be unaware of ethical codes and principles of refugee interpreting.

This article will look at ways in which professional interpreters can provide much needed support in the ongoing refugee crisis.

Helping at the entry points in Greece and Italy

There is currently an acute need for more humanitarian interpreters in the refugee ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy where new arrivals have been entering the continent via the Mediterranean Sea. A 2017 study carried out by Translators Without Borders with nearly 250 refugees, migrants and humanitarian aid workers in Greece – where there are over 40,000 refugees currently living in refugee camps – highlighted that lack of effective interpreting services as one of the main obstacles to delivering humanitarian assistance in the refugee crisis.

The need is for qualified interpreters who can speak Greek or Italian (or sometimes English) as well as one of the native refugee languages. The most commonly spoken languages in the camps are Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu, Pashto and Kurdish. The TWB report identified a need for verbal interpreters as around half of the refugee respondents had limited capabilities in understanding their language in written form, although there is also a need for translation of written documents.

The presence of interpreters can help prevent refugees from getting lost in an ‘information void’. They can liaise with authorities and officials to smooth communication channels, help refugees understand and recognise their rights, translate important documents and act as a representative voice to sort out any problems which may arise – from health issues to reporting crimes. They can help ensure that refugees receive adequate healthcare, food and accommodation. They can also play an advocacy role, making phone calls or filling out forms on behalf of clients.  

There are a number of projects running in both countries where professional interpreters can help out. Following their study, Translators Without Borders launched a service called Interpreter Connect which links up humanitarian interpreters with non-profit organizations working on the ground in need of interpreting support. TWB have also piloted a scheme called Words of Relief, which aims to tackle the interpreter shortage by training up more translators and interpreters and providing a range of resources and tools.

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is another organization offering support through the provision of interpreters at the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Greece as well as working in countries across Europe. UNCHR interpreters liaise between refugees and Greek officials, helping refugees understand their rights and options, as well as assisting with the asylum application process. For interpreters wanting to work on things at a more community level, there is the Language Project which aims to bring those in refugee camps in Greece together and offer them platforms of expression.  

Helping in host countries across Europe and the rest of the world

Many of the refugees arriving in Europe end up dispersed throughout the continent in different countries. The majority of countries have taken a share, although some countries have taken many more than others. According to 2016 figures from the EU/EFTA, the country with the largest number of asylum applications was Germany, followed by Italy, France, Greece, Austria and the UK. These are the European nations where there is likely to be the greatest need for support from interpreters, although nations taking in smaller numbers where there are fewer qualified interpreters in the most needed languages will need help also.

Interpreters can help asylum-seekers and refugees with relocation in their new home countries in the following ways.

Helping refugees to secure their rights

Making sure that refugees secure their rights when settling is the foundation to sorting out a lot of what may lay ahead, but it is not always a straightforward process and, without the help of a professional interpreter, refugees can end up caught up in the legal system and unsure what their status is. Immigration and asylum procedures vary from country to country but are usually fairly complex and anyone without knowledge of the country’s language and customs will need help.

Interpreters can provide that crucial link by helping with the initial asylum application, explaining the process and likely time-frames, explaining decisions, ensuring that their clients receive a fair hearing, helping with appeals in situations where an application has been rejected, as well as providing a degree emotional support throughout the process.

Helping to deal with problems

Refugees arriving in a new unfamiliar environment, usually without the necessary support networks to get by, will often experience problems on a day-to-day basis. Professional interpreters will not always be around to assist with some of the more common, less serious problems, but there are situations where they will be needed. For example, if a refugee is a victim of a crime. Reporting the crime is not just going to be difficult in a practical sense due to the language barrier. Refugees may feel intimidated by police officers, especially if they have experienced harsh treatment from police in their home country, and may need support in coming forward and alerting the authorities.

Another common problem with many refugees is dealing with psychological trauma and stress incurred in their home country and on the journey overseas. Interpreters can help through being someone trusted who stories and problems can be relayed to, who can seek out professional support if necessary. However, studies have shown the importance of interpreters themselves getting adequate psychological support to avoid becoming overburdened in these situations.

Helping refugees to access services

Interpreters can play a key role in helping refugees access available services that they might either not be aware of or unsure how to use. These can include housing and welfare services, but arguably the most important is healthcare services. Refugees often struggle to access healthcare, despite having higher levels of mortality from illnesses such as measles, diarrhea, respiratory infections and malnutrition. Many arrive in their new country needing urgent medical care for serious physical or mental illnesses.  

The presence of a professional interpreter can assist with access as well as ensuring there is no miscommunication that could lead to misdiagnosis and the wrong treatment. They can also make sure that informed consent is given for treatment and assist with improving the health literacy of their client.

Helping with settlement and integration

Aside from dealing with all of the legal formalities and accessing public services, refugees also need to adjust to their new environment and settle into a new community. This can take some time. Again, interpreters can offer valuable assistance, helping both refugees learn about new culture and customs and existing community members better understand and accept new refugee residents.

Interpreters can help refugees take advantage of what opportunities are on offer so that they can make the most of their experience. As they have an understanding of the cultural norms of both refugees and the host society, they can help reduce cultural misunderstandings that may occur. They can also help improve the language skills of refugees, enabling them to reach a position when they will no longer be reliant on the skills and compassion of an interpreter.

Refugee organizations

A list of international organizations providing support to refugees can be found here.

A list of European organizations providing support to refugees can be found here.

A list of American organizations providing support to refugees can be found here.

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