UK Asks Asylum Seekers to Use ‘Online Translation Tools’ in High Stakes Contexts

UK Home Home Asylum Interpreting Services

A leaked Home Office document exposed by The Guardian on February 22, 2023 indicated new plans to try and clear the backlog of asylum claims. The Guardian report described how a questionnaire of 50+ questions would replace in-person interviews under the Streamlined Asylum Processing.

The questionnaire will be sent to more than 12,000 people from five countries for which there are high rates of acceptance of asylum applications: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Claimants will have 20 days to answer the questions in English, or they risk their claim being withdrawn. The advice in the document is for those with limited English proficiency to ask family, friends, or use “online translation tools.”

The Home Office’s streamlined asylum processing web page, updated on February 23, 2023, outlines intentions to replace face-to-face interviews for people who have not yet had a personal interview and whose claim it is determined can reasonably be decided without one. Although the web page states that the “claim may be withdrawn if [the questionnaire] is not returned within the timescale provided”, it does not mention the English language requirement.

Backlog at a Record High

The leaked news coincided with the Home Office releasing figures on February 23, 2023 that showed over 160,000 people were waiting on an initial decision on their asylum claim in the UK as of December 2022. This is up 60% compared to 2021, and the highest figure since modern records began in 2010.

Risk of ‘Policy Backfire’ and ‘Public Outcry’

Language industry associations in the UK have spoken out. The Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) expressed their consternations in a letter to the Home Office on February 27, 2023. The National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) followed suit, publishing a letter to the government the following day.

They all stressed “the importance of the use of qualified translators in high stakes contexts” (ITI, CIOL, NRPSI) and focused on concerns regarding the advice that “online translation tools” should be used.

ITI, CIOL, and NRPSI’s letters emphasized that, despite advances in machine translation (MT) and AI, important information would be mistranslated and “machine translated text would be a common cause of errors and appeals,” thereby “canceling out any perceived or imagined savings.” The associations also highlighted the data and privacy issues that could arise if people enter personal and identifiable data when using the Internet and tools, like Google Translate.

‘Government’s New Announcements Are Not The Answer’

Proponents for asylum seekers have responded with some apprehension. The UK charity Refugee Council commented, “Moves to reduce the backlog in asylum cases are welcome, but the Government’s new announcements are not the answer.” The British Red Cross said that “translations are [already] rarely provided” and further condemned the idea of ending face-to-face interviews, citing the increased risk of people being wrongly denied asylum.

Asylum Seekers’ Claims Around the World

As of mid-2022, there were 4.9 million asylum seekers worldwide (UNHCR) and the upsurge in claims continues. There are varied approaches to language assistance among governments.

Some countries provide immigration and asylum claim services in several languages, including Japan which, despite only granting asylum to 1% of applicants in 2019, offers applications for recognition of refugee status in 28 languages. Most nations, like Germany, offer translation / interpretation services to asylum seekers completing application forms or attending in-person / virtual interviews.

However, as is inferred by the new UK policy, some governments place responsibility on the applicant. In New Zealand, language assistance can be organized for the interview and if the claimant completes the forms in a Refugee Status Unit office; applicants completing forms elsewhere must seek their own translation / interpretation support. Additionally, in most nations, official documents must have a certified translation attached, paid for by the applicant.