Lost in translation
Understanding the cultural and linguistic differences in language is key to reforming the process of refugee status determinations.
One of the biggest barriers asylum seekers face in Australia is satisfying the authorities that they are telling the truth.
To pass this credibility test, an asylum seeker must meet the refugee definition under international law of having a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ in their home country.
There is often little documentation; it comes down to the applicant’s story told in their own words and in their own language.
UTS Law’s Dr Laura Smith-Khan views this intersection between language and refugee law as fraught with difficulties:
There’s a set of problematic language myths on which these credibility assessments rely.
Decision makers base status determinations on their understanding of the applicant’s language and meanings; they make value judgments which don’t take into account the cultural and linguistic differences.
Dr Smith-Khan says the language issues permeate the entire process so that an asylum seeker’s story can become distorted through the involvement of many players:
The officials who ask questions and determine the conduct and content of interviews; legal advisors who speak and write on behalf of their clients and advise on what to say and how; their story might even be the product of multiple languages when interpreters are involved.
She points out there are stark differences between a person’s lived experience and the institutionally preferred knowledge of a country’s conditions and practices.
Ironically, this official country information might be produced by the very authorities from whom they fear persecution … there’s a danger that asylum agencies might take the word of the alleged persecutors over that of the asylum-seeker.
There’s also the problem of decision-makers trying to understand applicants’ fears and circumstances which are often so far outside their own experiences as to seem implausible.
Dr Smith-Khan says, when the language problem is added, it calls into question the credibility of the entire decision-making process:
Clearly, we need to revise our understanding of communication, discourse and language in determining the refugee status of those whose first language is not English.
Dr Smith-Khan is also focussing on the role of migration advisors and investigating how best to train them to become outstanding communicators.
Interested in Migration Law? UTS offers a Graduate Diploma in Migration Law and Practice