A leaked Home Office document revealed by The Guardian on 22 February 2023 outlined new plans to try to clear the backlog of asylum applications. The Guardian report describes how a 50+ question questionnaire will replace face-to-face interviews in the streamlined processing of asylum claims.
The questionnaire will be sent to more than 12,000 people from five countries with high acceptance rates for asylum applications: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Claimants will have 20 days to respond to the questions in English or risk having their claim withdrawn. The advice in the document is for those with limited English to ask family, friends or use “online translation tools”.
The Home Office’s Streamlined Asylum Processing webpage, updated on 23 February 2023, outlines intentions to replace in-person interviews for people who have not yet had an in-person interview and whose claim is found to reasonably be able to to be resolved without such. Although the web page states that “the claim may be withdrawn if [the questionnaire] not returned within the time allowed’, no mention is made of the English language requirement.
Record high lag
The leaked news coincided with figures published by the Home Office on 23 February 2023 which showed that over 160,000 people were awaiting an initial decision on their asylum claim in the UK as of December 2022. This is a 60% increase in compared to 2021 and the highest figure since modern records began in 2010.
Risk of “policy backlash” and “public discontent”
UK language industry associations have spoken out. The Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) expressed their concerns in a letter to the Home Office on 27 February 2023. The National Register of Public Interpreters (NRPSI) followed suit by publishing a letter to the Government of the next day.
They all emphasized the “importance of using qualified translators in high-stakes contexts” (ITI, CIOL, NRPSI) and focused on concerns about advice that “online translation tools” should be used.
The letters from ITI, CIOL and NRPSI stress that despite advances in machine translation (MT) and AI, important information will be translated incorrectly and “machine translated text will be a common source of errors and appeals”, thus ” cancels out any perceived or imagined savings.” The associations also highlighted the data and privacy issues that can arise if people enter personal and identifiable data when using the internet and tools such as Google Translate.
“New government announcements are not the answer”
Supporters of asylum seekers responded with some concern. The UK charity Refugee Council commented: “Moves to reduce the backlog of asylum cases are welcome, but the government’s new announcements are not the answer.” The British Red Cross said “the transfers are [already] are rarely provided’ and further condemned the idea of ending face-to-face interviews, citing the increased risk of people being wrongly refused asylum.
The pleas of asylum seekers around the world
As of mid-2022, there were 4.9 million asylum seekers worldwide (UNHCR) and claims continue to rise. There are different approaches to language assistance among governments.
Some countries provide immigration and asylum application services in multiple languages, including Japan, which, despite granting asylum to only 1% of applicants in 2019, offers applications for refugee status in 28 languages. Most nations, such as Germany, offer translation/interpretation services to asylum seekers filling out application forms or attending in-person/virtual interviews.
However, as the new UK policy concludes, some governments place the onus on the applicant. In New Zealand, language assistance can be arranged for the interview and if the applicant completes the forms at a refugee status unit office; applicants completing forms elsewhere must seek their own translation/interpretation support. In addition, in most countries, official documents must have a certified translation attached, which is paid for by the applicant.