Promised interpretation standards for asylum applications not being introduced by deadline

Poor interpretation undermines asylum seekers’ credibility and delays their cases, say lawyers.

By Alice Chambers

THE GOVERNMENT IS reevaluating its commitment to improve interpretation for asylum seekers by the end of 2024.

Interpretation services have been identified as a weakness in the asylum process long-criticised by lawyers, advocates and asylum seekers themselves.

Ireland, unlike other countries, has no accredited training or competency standards for spoken language interpreters.

Lawyers and advocates say this leaves standards in the hands of private companies with varying results. This can lead to problems for the asylum seekers and for the efficiency of the international protection process.

The introduction of an accreditation test by mid-2023 was recommended by a government report in 2020. Since then, the government’s landmark White Paper to End Direct Provision, committed to doing so by the end of this year in addition to introducing competency standards and quality controls.

That will most likely no longer happen within the timescale initially envisaged, Noteworthy can reveal.

In light of the increase in asylum applications – there were over 13,000 in 2023 compared to under 5,000 in 2019 – a spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) said that “there is a recognition that the underlying assumptions on which the White Paper was based need to be re-examined.

“A review of the timelines and deliverables was initiated” the spokesperson said. “A memo will be going to government in the coming weeks setting out a revised White Paper implementation approach from 2024 to 2028.”

The White Paper was based on an assumption of 3,500 new arrivals each year, the spokesperson added. 

Tents and the blown away remains of tents surround the IPO Asylum seekers face cold and windy weather in tents outside the IPO during accommodation shortage.
Source: Alice Chambers/Noteworthy

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Struggling on through poor interpretation

When asylum seekers first make their application at the International Protection Office (IPO), they are given a questionnaire and interviewed. If their claim is rejected, they have a chance to appeal at the International Protection Appeals Tribunal (IPAT).

All lawyers who regularly attend IPO interviews or IPAT sessions, who spoke to Noteworthy, have had experience of some cases being cancelled or adjourned due to poor interpretation.

Cathal Malone, an asylum solicitor, said that up to a quarter of interviews he attends suffer from poor interpretation. He stopped an IPO interview because the Lingala – a language spoken in parts of the Congo – interpreter didn’t know the word for ‘spy’.

In another case, Malone discovered during an appeal that the first interview had taken place with an interpreter who spoke the wrong language:

His story was completely nonsensical.

One lawyer who regularly represents asylum seekers at the IPAT told Noteworthy that one of their hearings was adjourned because the interpreter’s English was too poor. They arrived at the rescheduled hearing to find that they had hired the same interpreter again.

Frequently, the same lawyer said, interpreters mix up ‘assault’ and ‘insult’ which undermines their clients’ claims and creates inconsistencies. The delay to the government’s White Paper commitments is “really outrageous when you consider that the increase in applications here has only brought us to the EU average”, they added.

Postponements are a worst case scenario. However, the Department of Justice said that from 15 May 2023 to the end of the year, 30 IPO interviews were rescheduled due to interpreter-related issues.

“This was in the context of thousands of interviews,” a spokesperson said. Provisional figures for 2023 released by the Department of Justice show that 8.5% of cases at the IPAT were delayed due to interpretation.

The entrance to the IPAT - a sign beside the sliding doors reads The International Protection Appeals Tribunal In 2023, 8.5% of cases at the IPAT were delayed due to interpretation.
Source: Alice Chambers/Noteworthy

Bilal’s* asylum case was delayed by almost five months last year because of interpretation. He arrived at the IPO after a four-hour trip from another part of Ireland and waited for the interview to begin. But there was an issue last minute, he said, and no interpreter was available.

“I was so disappointed,” he told Noteworthy. He was delighted to finally have the interview because he has found waiting so long for certainty really difficult, he said.

At the rescheduled interview, the interpreter spoke a slightly different dialect and joined via a phone line that was occasionally hard to hear. Bilal said both of these issues made it sometimes difficult to understand but at least it went ahead.

Far more common than postponements, lawyers say, is for asylum seekers to struggle on with poor interpretation. Malone has recommended clients end an interview only for them to refuse because they’ve waited so long already, or because they don’t feel they can retell a traumatic story.

It then becomes hard for a lawyer to know if interpretation is getting in the way of their clients’ application, said Stephen Kirwan, an asylum solicitor.

“The asylum system is very much based on credibility,” he told Noteworthy. “The first port of call is to assess the credibility. If there’s not accurate interpretation, often clients will be found not to be credible.”

IPO interviews are not recorded, making it impossible to go back and check whether the quality of interpretation has affected a case.

Two languages alone not sufficient

Although set qualifications are not required in Ireland, Dr Hassina Kiboua argues that a professional interpreter needs skills beyond an ability to speak different languages.

To work in the international protection system, the government does not even specify that basic requirement – that interpreters must speak two languages fluently – as per the most recent tender.

“Having two languages is just the starting point,” said Dr Hassina Kiboua, resettlement officer with the Irish Refugee Council (IRC). On top of this, “you need more training to become an interpreter”.

Kiboua researched interpretation in international protection for her doctorate and trains interpreters in the asylum context as part of her IRC role.

Interpreters should be trained to organise their thoughts, take notes, switch languages and to work within a code of conduct that defines their role, boundaries and ethics, she said. Echoing many lawyers Noteworthy spoke to, she said they also need specific training in the asylum context.

Interpreters must specialise. She said:

Ideally, it’s diploma level or even Masters, but we could start with a certificate.

Currently, there is only one interpretation course in Ireland – the MA in conference interpreting at University of Galway.

To work in EU institutions, interpreters are required to have a BA or MA in conference interpreting or equivalent. Closer to home, Irish Sign Language interpreters are accredited – they must have an honours bachelor degree or equivalent level 8 qualification plus ongoing professional development to stay on the national register.

None of that exists for foreign spoken language interpreters. In its tender documents for the procurement of interpretation service providers, the government only specified that interpreters should have English language skills, and not at a “proficient” level either.

This means that a Turkish-language interpreter, for example, needs English at a level that would enable them “to understand most TV news and current affairs programmes”, according to the European language classification that the government cited.

This is “not adequate for legal (or any other) interpreting”, according to Mary Phelan, chair of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association.

Noteworthy asked the Department about the lack of interpretation standards, accreditation or quality control measures in interpreting for the international protection process. A spokesperson responded that the Department relies on external service providers.

“Any concerns about the quality of interpretation or translation services are brought to the attention of the relevant service provider,” the spokesperson said.

“There are arrangements in place for interviewers to provide feedback on interpreters, and this is considered by the IPO and the IPAT. All persons providing interpretation services must adhere to Codes of Conduct set by the IPO and the IPAT respectively.”

The IPAT Interpreter Key Standards is a one-page document that covers confidentiality, accuracy and conflict of interest. The IPO Interpreter Code of Conduct is almost identical. Noteworthy reported in more depth on the IPO code in this morning’s lead story.

‘I wasn’t well prepared’

Albert Llussà, an asylum solicitor based in Dublin, said that most interpreters are excellent, some are good but would benefit from training but “a very small number of interpreters do not appear to have the necessary skills to interpret and, in my opinion, should not be interpreting, because too much is at stake”.

Bulelani Mfaco, spokesperson for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, was more critical. He said:

Any Tom, Dick or Harry who says they have knowledge of a particular language can apply for work as an interpreter.

He felt that every interpreter working with asylum seekers should have a third level qualification in interpretation or linguistics – in addition to speaking two languages fluently. He observed, based on time he spent working with the Teaching Council, that Ireland expects far higher language qualifications for European language teachers than it expects from asylum interpreters.

“When you’re talking about sensitive matters like an asylum case where a person might be… sent home to face death or torture,” he said, an asylum seeker must have “full confidence that the state will assess them fairly, and you can’t guarantee that when anyone can become an interpreter”, regardless of training.

Noteworthy spoke to current and former interpreters at Word Perfect Translation Services Ltd, until recently the main company providing interpretation services to the IPO and IPAT. They were paid at least €3.2 million by the Department between 2018 and 2023, according to Department records.

Nandi* used to work as an interpreter for Word Perfect at the IPO for two years. When she was an asylum applicant, her own interpreter was impressed and recommended she apply for an interpreter job.

She got the job and a week later was sent to interpret at the IPAT. She had no interpretation qualifications such as a degree or diploma. She said that Word Perfect did not make her do a language test.

“I wasn’t well prepared,” she said. “But I knew I had to help the person.”

In the foreground a sign reads Office of International Protection, in the background is a tent The International Protection Office, where asylum seekers make first steps in the application process.
Source: Alice Chambers/Noteworthy

When Jimmy Gashi, Word Perfect founder and chief operating officer, was approached about this, he told Noteworthy that he “unfortunately cannot comment at this time”.

“We have never had any complaints in relation to our services,” he said. “We haven’t received complaints from the Department of Justice or the IPO.”

Our team asked the Department of Justice whether it had received complaints. A spokesperson said: “If the IPO receives negative feedback in relation to any contractors it is addressed with our suppliers.” The Department did not clarify to Noteworthy as to how it assesses the quality of interpreters provided by companies.

We spoke to five current and former interpreters who worked with Word Perfect. They told us they had to do an English test but no tests to check their foreign languages.

No Word Perfect interpreter Noteworthy was in contact with said they had received training from the company in asylum-specific interpretation. Only one Word Perfect interpreter we spoke to had formal qualifications – a degree in interpretation. That person also said they knew other very qualified interpreters with third level degrees and many years experience who worked with the company.

These five interviewees do not, of course, speak for all previous and current employees of Word Perfect, and Gashi told Noteworthy: “Of course we do continuous training for our interpreters.”

He also said that Word Perfect worked with the Department of Justice until mid-January and refuted any suggestion that the company hired people without sufficient language skills.

He claimed that most of his interpreters are certified by a DCU course.

DCU did run a certificate in community interpreting from 2004 to 2009 which had about 45 graduates but currently it offers only a translation course, with a single module in interpretation. Interpreting is for spoken language, translation is for written language.

There are two micro-credentialled courses – one in healthcare interpreting and one currently ongoing in interpretation ethics.

However, enquiries to the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at DCU, which would be the appropriate department for interpretation studies, said that they have not offered any certificate or equivalent course in interpretation in the recent past.

When asked for clarification to which certifications Gashi referred, he told Noteworthy that he could not comment on this at this time either, but stressed in a previous exchange that his company had never received a complaint.

As of mid-January, a new company, Translit, has taken over the IPO contract from Word Perfect.

Translit has not started working with the IPAT yet as the paperwork hasn’t been signed, according to its CEO Alex Chernenko.

“Our translators and interpreters are required to have formal qualifications along with specific training in terminology. Their expertise is further validated by rigorous background checks and professional certifications,” he said, adding:

“While Translit has only started working with the IPO, we have already been providing services for many months to multiple government bodies such the Department of Social Protection, Legal Aid Board and others receiving positive feedback.”

Chernenko said that he is “not in position to discuss the historical quality of work of our competitors”.

The Department of Justice said it is currently finalising contractual arrangements and that it would not be appropriate to comment.

en The walls around Ritsona refugee camp in Greece where lack of interpretation standards is also a problem.
Source: Moira Lavelle

Ireland not alone in letting down asylum seekers

While interpreters in the EU institutions are rigorously trained, standards for working with asylum seekers in other European countries besides Ireland can also be found lacking.

As part of a cross-border project, Noteworthy’s partner in Greece investigated the situation there. They found that Greece, like Ireland, has no standards or minimum requirements in the recruitment of interpreters within the asylum system.And similar fears were expressed in Greece. Ahmed*, an asylum seeker there said:

If you say anything wrong, it goes like you are lying.

“So it’s a big problem if during your interview the [interpreter] makes a mistake. It can change the decision. You cannot eat, you cannot sleep, you cannot think.”

He speaks Farsi, Dari, and English but wanted to conduct his asylum interview in Farsi, his most-comfortable language. However, when the Farsi interpreter spoke to the officers interviewing him in English, he could understand that they were misinterpreting several things.

“I heard mistakes in the English, big mistakes with the dates.”

Service needed ‘more than ever’

Increasing numbers of asylum seekers, the accommodation crisis and the Ukraine war mean that interpreting is not a priority in the international protection system, according to Phelan. “Unfortunately, however, more people are in need of interpreters than ever,” she said. “And both they and the IPO staff need quality interpreting.”

Given that no accredited training exists, she said she doesn’t see “how everyone can have access to high quality interpretation services at the moment”.

Since a model already exists for Irish Sign language administered by DCEDIY, Noteworthy asked the Department whether they planned to extend the scheme.

A spokesperson said that recommendations from the White Paper to End Direct Provision are “progressing” but “key deliverables and timelines are being reviewed due the unavoidable impact of the war in Ukraine” and the substantial increase in applicants.

In the absence of official interpretation standards or quality control, the most vulnerable may never know that their asylum case was negatively impacted because they don’t have enough English to realise the interpretation was poor.

“How many people have been wrongly deported because of an interpretation issue?” asked solicitor Stephen Kirwan. “If I’m not getting [an interpreter] who’s perfectly qualified, how will I know?

*Names have been changed

Read more articles in this series >>


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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