NEW STAFF INTRODUCED to increase efficiency at the International Protection Office are not trained to be interpreters but are acting as such, an investigation by Noteworthy has found.
This is putting asylum seekers’ applications at risk and leading to delays.
The Department of Justice began employing ‘cultural mediators’ at the International Protection Office (IPO) in Dublin in November 2022 through a 12-month pilot programme with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN body. The programme has been extended to the end of March 2024.
The 12 IOM-trained cultural mediators speak 14 languages and are there to “support applicants in understanding and completing their International Protection application” the first day they arrive, as stated on the IPO website.
This includes providing interpretation services to asylum seekers, according to the Department when asked for details of the role.
“The IPO primarily provides Cultural Mediators and interpretation services through a partnership” with IOM, a Department spokesperson also said. They added that the IPO used the services of interpretation companies for “less common languages”.
However, the IOM told Noteworthy that cultural mediators are “not necessarily” trained for this.
“We are not there to replace translation or interpretation,” said Zuzana Vatralova, the IOM Ireland chief of mission since May 2023. She said that asylum seekers should have a choice between a cultural mediator or an interpreter at the IPO because interpretation “is not our expertise”.
The role of an official interpreter has legal implications in the asylum system and “the IOM doesn’t have a mandate for that”, she said.
There is no requirement that cultural mediators have interpretation qualifications – only that they speak English and another language fluently. The IOM does not train them in interpretation, nor do they get legal training.
This is clear from a job description provided by the IOM to Noteworthy (which you can view here). That “would be a slightly different set-up for us”, said Vatralova.
If cultural mediators were applicants’ only option then Vatralova “would see this as a problem”. In that case, she said, she doesn’t think the IOM would have accepted the contract because “this is not our expertise”.
However, Vatralova said that the cultural mediators “are interpreting, with the caveat… that it is clear to the applicant that this is not an interpreter.” Instead they are “adding that mediation value to explaining” what is happening.
They do this initially when an applicant comes to the IPO and later in the applicant’s formal interview.
A Department spokesperson said that both interpreters “for many languages” and cultural mediators are “at hand during the application process and applicants can choose the language that they receive support in.”
“It is either provided on the day or arrangements are made for it to be provided the next day or as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said.
When Noteworthy asked whether it was acceptable that people without interpretation training are providing interpretation to asylum seekers at the IPO, the spokesperson said that “if an applicant has concerns, or is not comfortable with, the linguistic assistance of a cultural mediator they can request for an interpreter to be provided.”
They added that if none is available on the day, the application or interview is rescheduled.
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What is a cultural mediator?
Vatralova said that the role of a cultural mediator is to “provide support” to asylum seekers in understanding the asylum application process. This, in turn, helps the government and speeds up the process.
But, she stressed, the IOM is a neutral agency and the cultural mediators are not there to help asylum seekers get refugee status or to help the IPO to verify documents, for example.
The roles of an interpreter and a cultural mediator can seem blurred from the outside. “The difference,” said Vatralova, “is that a cultural mediator is able to explain to a person what is happening, what is the process like, what the person is saying” whereas an interpreter can only interpret word for word what an official at the IPO says. She said:
If I’m a cultural mediator, you can ask me: ‘What did the person mean? What did the officer mean by this?’
The concern among the lawyers and advocates Noteworthy spoke to is that without legal or interpretation training, a cultural mediator might just – inadvertently – negatively influence the way asylum seekers make their application.
Vatralova said that some people could see lack of such training “as a problem, it depends on how you look at it”. She added that cultural mediators are cultural mediators, not trained to be interpreters or offer legal advice. They are “not legally accountable” for the asylum application.
A role that is unclear for some
The “vast majority” of asylum seekers do not have sufficient English to apply for asylum – which is complex and technical – according to the Department of Justice. This means that the international protection system can be impacted in every aspect where interpreters are not appropriately trained.
In particular, asylum claims are routinely rejected due to insufficient detail or inconsistencies in stories made at different stages of the application process. Mistakes resulting from incorrect interpretation are often used to undermine applicants’ credibility.
Immigration solicitor Wendy Lyon criticised the Department of Justice for introducing cultural mediators at the IPO, calling the move “a disgrace”.
The Department of Justice is now looking to expand the cultural mediation programme.
Noteworthy put it to the Department that the role of the cultural mediators is extremely unclear and that their involvement can negatively impact an asylum seeker’s application but the Department did not respond directly.
A spokesperson did say that “if an applicant is unhappy with the support they receive in completing an application they can alert an International Protection Officer and/or avail of free legal aid at any stage in the process”.
They added that the IPO “requires all cultural mediators to sign and adhere to a code of conduct”.
Two roles, almost identical codes of conduct
These are one-page documents and require workers in both roles to maintain confidentiality, accuracy and declare conflicts of interest.
They are almost identical except for the title and a line relating to remote work. Hassina Kiboua, who researched interpretation in international protection for her PhD and works at the Irish Refugee Council (IRC), called this unacceptable.
In most instances ‘interpreter’ had been switched for ‘cultural mediator’.
This has led to some contradictions. For example, one section of the cultural mediator code specified that they must “not engage in discussion with an applicant”. This makes sense for an interpreter but not for a cultural mediator if their job is to explain the asylum process to people.
This illustrates the lack of clarity over the cultural mediator role which activists have criticised for a host of reasons since its introduction.
Given the similarities of both codes of conduct, Mary Phelan, chairperson of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association, said that cultural mediators effectively have to abide by the interpreter code of conduct which she finds “totally confusing”.
“I think they must find it confusing too because they’ve been trained by IOM to do one thing, be cultural mediators, and suddenly they’re interpreters.
It’s a total blurring of roles.
Vatralova said that the IOM has no specific code of conduct for cultural mediators but that they must adhere to the IOM’s Standards of Conduct, which is for all IOM staff.
This 10-page document covers the IOM’s core values, ethics and professional standards. It does not mention interpreters or interpretation.
Programme a ‘work in progress’
On the same day that asylum seekers present themselves to the IPO, they must fill in a questionnaire in English: the first stage of the application process. If they can’t write English, a cultural mediator completes it for them.
This “is not ideal”, according to Albert Llussà, an international protection lawyer who said that there’s no privacy for people who may be recounting the worst moments of their lives, and the cultural mediators aren’t always accurate. “There have been problems with how questionnaires have been filled out by such ‘interpreters’.”
Others are uncomfortable with the boundaries of the role – are they case workers, advocates or interpreters? IRC’s Kiboua said one person cannot take on all these roles.
The IOM’s Vatralova confirmed that they are not supposed to be any of these.
Pre-Nov 2022, applicants could bring the questionnaire home and were allowed to complete it in multiple languages. Answers would then be translated into English for IPO officials. This was a source of delay, according to a 2021 IPO review which recommended speeding this process up.
“Adopting English as the language removes the need for translation, which in turn speeds up case processing to the benefit of customers,” wrote Simon Harris, then minister for Justice, in a letter to the IRC in February 2022 seen by Noteworthy. “Our new procedures mean the applicant is supported on site to confirm that their responses fully state their case. This also enhances the quality of the process.”
Kayla* had to stop a cultural mediator taking her teenage daughter’s questionnaire and completing it for her. Kayla had applied for asylum under the old system. When she was faced with a new questionnaire for her daughter late last year she asked a cultural mediator to explain the differences.
Kayla alleged that the cultural mediator wanted to fill in the questionnaire for her and was impatient when she refused.
The cultural meditators can complete the questionnaire for asylum applicants, said IOM’s Vatralova, but the applicants are also free to refuse that help or to ask for an interpreter. “They shouldn’t be pushy,” she said, and added that she would take that as feedback to find out whether the cultural mediator was pushy, or whether it was a matter of perception.
Many other lawyers and advocates Noteworthy spoke to had concerns about a third party completing the questionnaire on behalf of asylum applicants. Llussà told Noteworthy of one client whose questionnaire, filled in by a cultural mediator, was full of errors.
Vatralova said that the IOM’s cooperation with the Department was agreed in the “context where the number of international protection applicants rose really rapidly”. The cultural mediator role was piloted because it is the kind of programme that the IOM has run in other countries.
“So,” she said, “it’s a work in progress” as they try to figure out the best way to meet the needs of asylum seekers – and in such a way that they understand the cultural mediators’ role.
On whether the questionnaire being in English created a problem for non-English speaking applicants, Vatralova said that it would be better if applicants could complete it in their own languages but acknowledged that this is time consuming.
“It’s a matter of finding the right balance between being able to deal with people and with applications”, but also ensuring “that something could not be misinterpreted, or miscommunicated”, she said.
Addressing these points, a Department spokesperson said:
“Having an English-language questionnaire has helped reduce the time required to process cases as translation happens instantaneously with support from cultural mediators. In cases where language is a barrier, each applicant has the opportunity to reschedule until the necessary support becomes available.”
They added that asylum seekers “have their responses confirmed to them by cultural mediators, and sign their questionnaire to indicate they are satisfied”.
“The IPO has retained all existing safeguards that support applicants’ rights,” the spokesperson continued. The application process, including the “customer-centric questionnaire all allow a customer ample opportunity to articulate their case in line with the International Protection Act 2015”.
‘Creating a more efficient process’
The cultural mediators were introduced at the same time as other sweeping changes designed to speed up the asylum application process.
The questionnaire, now in English, was shortened. Previously, asylum seekers had six weeks to complete it during which time they could consult a lawyer. Now, they must complete it on the day they receive it, without much time to obtain legal advice.
Experts who spoke to Noteworthy said that cultural mediators should not replace legal advice. Vatralova of the IOM said that this is not their purpose and the mediators do not get legal training.
The Minister for Justice has said that it doesn’t – that cultural mediation “is complementary to the provision of formal legal advice”. Experts told us in practice the shortened timeframes mean that most asylum seekers do not consult a lawyer before completing the questionnaire.
The Irish Refugee Council wrote to the Minister for Justice in November 2022 to say that the changes, which it called “retrogressive”, had been brought in with insufficient consultation and said they risk disregarding the rights of asylum seekers.
In the absence of legal advice, cultural mediators will be relied upon instead, “inappropriately”, the IRC continued.
In his reply, Harris said that “85% of applicants previously completed the questionnaire without legal advice or any other form of assistance. The new IPO procedure offers customers the support of a cultural mediator to assist them in completing the questionnaire, reducing stress and creating a more efficient process.”
Going ‘backwards’ by expanding service
The Department is considering expanding the cultural mediation service at the IPO and extending it to other departments.
In November 2023, it published a ‘Request for Information’ described as an “an information gathering exercise seeking the views of market operators”.
The Department said that during the ‘pilot’ phase, cultural mediation had been crucial in the “facilitation of communication between the international protection applicants” and the IPO officers. The Request for Information specified that the work of the cultural mediators was to interpret, identify signs of vulnerability, be aware of migrant smuggling, help collect personal documents and be aware of fraud.
Unlike a lawyer, who has a duty to act in the best interests of a client, many have pointed out that there’s ambiguity in that regard with cultural mediation.
“Other countries are moving away from using cultural mediators,” said Kiboua of the IRC. “Ireland is going backwards.”
Vatralova said that the increasing number of asylum seekers is a new situation for Ireland and the introduction of cultural mediators is part of the “adaptation process”.
Maybe the programme will change once the IPO evaluates it, the IOM chief of mission said, but “the situation in terms of numbers has changed dramatically and it requires adaptation”.
Noteworthy asked how the Department of Justice had measured the success of the pilot. “Requirements were based on an evaluation of our current provision with the International Organisation for Migration,” a spokesperson said. They did not answer our query regarding plans to expand cultural mediation.
A spokesperson did say that the Department “continues to take all necessary steps to manage the international protection process efficiently and effectively, while ensuring the integrity of the immigration system is maintained at all times”.
Others are sceptical. Mary Phelan, chairperson of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association, said:
“If the Department of Justice is serious about improving things for people seeking international protection, a far better approach would be to provide access to legal advice from the very start.”
*Names have been changed
Why does Ireland not have any standards or regulations for interpreters?
By Alice Chambers of Noteworthy
This project was proposed and part-funded by our readers. It was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe as part of a cross-border project with Moira Lavelle for Solomon in Greece. Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform of The Journal.
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