Poor interpreters put asylum seekers at risk

A lack of compulsory education for interpreters in Denmark could lead to errors translating interviews with asylum seekers with potentially fatal consequences

Asylum seekers are placed at risk due to the poor quality of interpreters on offer to them, according to an editorial published last Friday in Politiken newspaper.

The two authors, Enhedslisten MP Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen and Michala Clante Bendixen from Refugees Welcome, referred to a report released earlier this year that exposed the poor level of training required for Danish interpreters.

The report from the Department of Business Communication at Aarhus University found that 80 percent of interpreters used by the national police Rigspolitiet in court cases had no education in interpretation and that judges had reported problems associated with this deficit. 

In the editorial, the two authors argue that asylum seekers are also at risk because the Udlændingestyrelsen (Immigration Service) and Refugee Appeals Board used the same interpreters as the Rigspolitiet.

“Asylum cases are not about guilt or punishment but often about life or death, as it is up to the Udlændingestyrelsen and Refugee Appeals Board to decide whether the life of an asylum seeker is at risk if they returned to their home country,” the two authors wrote.

The authors identified two problems: firstly that interpreters are only required to complete a one-day course to become qualified for the police’s list of interpreters, and secondly there is not enough training available for interpreters. Those that do become qualified can also expect low salaries.

Asylum seekers often have their applications rejected because they are considered untrustworthy, which can happen if their story deviates between the three interviews they give to the police, Udlændingestyrelsen and Refugee Appeals Board.

Refugees Welcome finds this unacceptable given that asylum seekers are often given different interpreters for the three different interviews. As a result, they argue that asylum seekers could have their cases rejected because of deviations in the interpretations in their stories.

But speaking to Politiken, immigration lawyer Anne Osbak argued that problems with interpreters are rare.

“I have not had any cases where I could say that the interpreter affected the outcome,” said Osbak, who has represented asylum seekers through the Refugee Appeals Board for the past 15 years. “You could certainly be assessed as being untrustworthy by Udlændingestyrelsen but then I would simply add a reply on behalf of the Refugee Appeals Board in which I explain the situation.”

Asylum cases that are rejected by Udlændingestyrelsen are automatically appealed by the Refugee Appeals Board, which manages to overturn about a quarter of all rejections.

Helge Nørrlung, an immigration lawyer with over 20 years of experience, can remember at least one instance where poor translators may have contributed to a failed asylum case, however.

He recalls a case of an Afghani man that had an Iranian translator for his first interview with Udlændingestyrelsen even though they spoke very different dialects of Farsi. The Refugee Appeals Board employed a different interpreter that was trained in both dialects and revealed mistakes made by the Iranian translator.

“We managed to prove to Udlændingestyrelsen that three or four words he used actually had a totally different meaning from what his police translator had interpreted,” Nørrlung told The Copenhagen Post. “It could have been the reason why he appeared untrustworthy.”

According to Nørrlung, interpreters in Denmark should be forced to take more stringent training like that found in other European countries, though he fears the issue is too low priority for most politicians.

“We had a period where interpreter training was state-controlled but this was abandoned," he said. "Now they don’t want to invest in it so their attitude seems to be: ‘It’s only foreigners, never mind’.”

Nørrlung added that he has encouraged Udlændingestyrelsen to tape interviews so that interpretation errors can later be discovered.

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