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on the world: a view on human rights

Interpreters and Detainee Welfare in Immigration Removal Centres (I)


Protest outside Harmondsworth IRC, September 2014

On any given day of the year, around 3000 foreign national men, women and children are locked up in immigration detention facilities across the UK. In spite of the punitive nature of detention, the measure is administrative and not judicial, at the discretion of the Home Office and its immigration agencies.

Detention is arbitrary and indefinite in nature and can range from a few hours to several years. The majority of detainees spend less than two months in immigration detention, and are just as likely to be released back into the general population as removed from the UK. Although immigration detention is used in a variety of cases, past and present asylum seekers make up more than half of all detainees. Very little is known about what goes on inside immigration removal centres (IRC), as they are formally known, run largely by private corporations.

Talking in tongues

The services of language professionals, and particularly interpreters, are undoubtedly essential in such a sensitive and peculiar multilingual and multicultural environment. Nonetheless, neither UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) nor IRCs provide interpreters. Interpreters are sometimes provided through lawyers, but with extensive cuts to legal aid, many detainees find themselves without any legal representation. NGOs Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice use their own interpreters for medical assessments.

According to UKVI’s operating standards manual for immigration service removal centres, with respect to detainee healthcare, “The Centre must ensure that appropriate decisions are made about the use of interpreters or translated materials on a case by case basis. The level of communication must be adequate to ensure correct clinical outcomes. Particular consideration to this should be given in cases where there may be sensitive health issues, issues of confidentiality or the need to obtain fully informed consent.”

In practice, this is not what happens. There is overreliance on detainees interpreting for each other, raising questions of accuracy and confidentiality, the use of centre staff, and access to a commercial telephone interpreting service, Language Line. In many cases, no interpreting service is available at all.


Any deprivation of liberty renders an individual vulnerable. Immigration detainees are more susceptible to depression, mental health issues, self-harm and suicide attempts. Some detainees are especially vulnerable, such as pregnant women, children, and survivors of torture.

Language ability adds to this vulnerability. In research carried out in 2013-2014, Professor Mary Bosworth found that detainees who had to use interpretation and/or translation services at an IRC were more likely to be depressed. This was linked to poorer access to healthcare, ability to communicate and autonomy. Overall, it has a negative impact on the mental health of detainees.

In addition, IRCs are largely located in remote, difficult-to-access areas. The physical isolation of detainees, miles away from friends and family, is heightened by the linguistic isolation of not being able to communicate with those around them in any meaningful way.

Shaw Review

On 9 February 2015, Home Secretary Theresa May announced an independent review of policies and procedures affecting the welfare of those held in immigration removal centres. The review, carried out by Stephen Shaw CBE, a former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, was published on 14 January 2016 and focused mainly on healthcare and impact on mental health: “policies applying to those in detention, not the decision to detain.”

As in much literature critical of immigration detention, language and communication issues were quickly noticed and flagged: “detainees often struggled to access healthcare, for reasons including language and cultural issues” and “There were huge variations in the IRCs in the levels of healthcare staffing, access to healthcare, […] access to interpreters […].”

Noting the poor use of interpreting services, two of the 64 recommendations provide:

46: I recommend that the Home Office review the use of fellow detainees as interpreters for induction interviews.

47: I recommend that the Home Office remind service providers of the need to use professional interpreting facilities whenever language barriers are identified on reception.

The recommendations were overall critical of practices in the immigration detention estate and were welcomed by NGOs and activists, although some felt they did not go far enough and others feel they could create other problems for vulnerable detainees.

Professional interpreters

Languages are not just sets of words and interpreters are not merely individuals who speak more than one language. Languages come with a set of assumptions and codes used by speakers in different situations. Spoken languages are dynamic and seldom uniform across age and professional groups, gender and region. The ability to interpret languages is a skill that is learned and honed.

In their submission to the 2015 parliamentary ‘Detention Inquiry’ Jane Straker and Helen Watts state, “Analysing and managing the demand for language services and the supply of adequately trained, competently assessed, professional interpreters, has attracted little attention by government departments.”

Interpreters bring certain skills to an assessment or meeting that bilingual centre staff and detainees cannot, in the long term saving both time and money and creating more trustful relationships. Among other professional abilities, they ensure accuracy, impartiality and confidentiality.

This is no small feat. Straker and Watts state that the vulnerability of some detainees adds further complexity to the interpreter’s task: they need to be “robust, and have had the benefit of training which strengthens their ability to render accurately often sensitive and distressing information between the two parties, their knowledge of specialist medical terminology and the need for debriefing.” Indeed, it takes special skill to earn the trust of the other party and deal with the vicarious trauma.

Dr Juliet Cohen, Head of Doctors at Freedom from Torture, says, “A professional interpreter should definitely be used, to ensure accuracy of translation, adherence to professional code of practice and in particular for confidentiality of sensitive disclosures. Clients need to feel they can trust the interpreter and disclose things their partner, family or community cannot know about.”

In practice

According to the website of Yarl’s Wood IRC, “Many of our staff speak multiple languages, including Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, French and Spanish and we have access to a Chinese interpreter who attends the Centre each week. For residents with other language needs we access translators through Language Line. Effective communication is essential for both staff and residents.”


Protest outside Yarl’s Wood IRC, June 2014

Concerning healthcare screening on arrival, often conducted in the middle of the night and by male nurses at this women’s facility, Shaw reported “Some detainees have little or no English so the induction briefing must be confusing, carried out as it is when the detainee is already feeling disoriented. The use of a telephone translation service can hardly encourage detainees to reveal sensitive information.”

Prof Mary Bosworth reports that Chinese detainees stated that the Chinese interpreter did not always turn up and there was overreliance by detainees on other detainees who could interpret for them (Bosworth, 2014:1).

This is just a snapshot of one IRC. Numerous reports and reviews have uncovered many other failings where professional interpreters are not used.

Initial screening

Upon arrival at any IRC or similar facility, detainees undergo a medical examination. Medical Justice told the 2015 Detention Inquiry that “they should take around 30 minutes but in practice are usually around 10 minutes and that interpreters are not always available or used when required.” In its submission to the Shaw review, NGO René Cassin also raised concerned about these screenings, “in practice, these screenings are rushed, often conducted without an interpreter, and are very limited in their scope. As a result, this has a deep impact on the level of medical care afforded to detainees, which in turn raises concerns over detainees’ long-term health and wellbeing.”

A report by the Tavistock Institute on mental health issues in IRCs published on the date the Shaw Review was announced in 2015 found that “if the majority of screenings are done by Language Line or with no interpreter, it may lead to inaccurate assessments of detainees’ mental health.”

This undoubtedly has a knock-on effect on the treatment they receive for any physiological ailments and mental health. Using a professional interpreter would be more cost effective in the long run with respect to treatment. Medical Justice also reported that sometimes other detainees are used for this purpose. The awkward timings of such screenings, as detainees are often moved at night, as well as the location of IRCs makes it difficult to get both doctors and interpreters on site.

Language Line

Language Line is a commercial telephone interpreting service used by a large number of public authorities, including the National Health Service and the police. It offers 24-hour support in over 200 languages. Given the wide number of languages involved and the emergencies that can arise, telephone interpreting has a place in facilitating communication in IRCs, but presents its own problems. It should be considered after other possibilities.

In its submission to the Shaw Review, the British Medical Association (BMA) criticised an overreliance on telephone interpreting, particularly for initial screenings: “The use of remote interpretation services may affect the nature of the consultation, so as to inhibit discussion and make patients less likely to disclose sensitive or emotionally distressing information. Accordingly, they should not be routinely used as a substitute for in-person interpretation.”

Straker and Watts suggest a number of issues that need to be taken into consideration when using telephone interpreting services: companies such as Language Line are international and medical interpreters may not be familiar with detention and asylum issues specific to the UK, cost effectiveness of the service, lack of visual cues (communication is only verbal in part; particularly in a medical examination facial expressions, gestures and pointing are a vital part of communication), confidentiality and impartiality.

In a 2004 report by Asylum Aid on women immigration detainees, Dr Pourgourides states that telephone interpreting is inadequate for medical assessments. Medical Justice concurs that it is not ideal, and particularly for medico-legal reports and Rule 35 reports, only a face-to-face professional interpreter will do.

Prof Mary Bosworth found that “detainees did not trust the official interpreters who staffed that service and so I decided not to use it. I feared it would create further barriers in an already difficult environment, and, if the detainees were right, might not be reliable.” (Bosworth, 2014: 78).

Making do: staff and detainees interpret

Even when telephone interpreting is the best option available, staff at many IRCs will not use it. Instead, they will get by, having staff or other detainees interpret, right from the initial screening on arrival.

For many reasons this is far from ideal. Many countries are multilingual, where speakers from different regions communicate with each other in their second or third language, and have varying levels of fluency in this second or third language: this weakens the ability to interpret when the person doing so lacks fluency in both languages.

Trust is a major issue for vulnerable detainees, especially those who are political dissidents and torture survivors. Recent claims from the Netherlands that Eritrean government operatives have been posing as interpreters in asylum cases highlights the need to use professional interpreters who are impartial. A professional interpreter knows when to decline work on ethical grounds. Simply being from the same country and speaking the same language does not create an automatic affinity: a Punjabi-speaking Pakistani national who has overstayed their visa may not wish to interpret for a Baloch separatist seeking asylum even though they can communicate easily in a common language, Urdu.

Furthermore, there may be issues an individual does not feel comfortable disclosing in front of the newly-made friend at the IRC, particularly relating to their history, family or medical condition. This could lead to them omitting information vital to their own case, in addition to issues related to accuracy and confidentiality.

Prof Mary Bosworth states, concerning her own experiences: “Detainees sometimes offered to translate. However, this too was not always a successful strategy. Not only did it raise ethical questions about confidentiality, but those interpreting usually found it hard to avoid intervening. ‘Interview with Bangladeshi man who didn’t speak very good English. I spoke to him with help from a friend of his who translated. The friend often disagreed with how the first man answered my questions, and so didn’t tell me what he said’ (Fieldnotes, Campsfield House, November 2009).” (Bosworth, 2014: 78).

Dr Juliet Cohen states, “If the only available interpreter is a staff member or other detainee then trust and confidentiality are under question. A better alternative is the use of telephone services like Language Line. Sometimes people will say they are happy for a friend for example to translate for them, but this can still impair the amount they disclose and the quality of translation so is only an absolute last resort. Particularly for sensitive details and expression of thoughts and feelings, a high level of fluency is required and rarely available outside a professional interpreter. ”

Indeed. Stephen Shaw is not the first person to recommend the use of professional interpreting services in IRCs. Many reports by officials, specialists, NGOs and parliamentarians over the past two decades have made similar recommendations. They have seldom been followed up and little improvement has been noted.

Part I looks at the general issues involved in interpreting facilities and detainee welfare in IRCs. Part II will look at the fatal consequences of the failure to provide adequate professional interpreter services and possible reasons why interpreters are undervalued. Special thanks to Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice.


Bosworth, M. 2014. Inside Immigration Detention, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

If you are a professional/qualified interpreter, Medical Justice needs interpreters particularly if you live outside of London and if you are a speaker of Tigrinya, Amharic, Albanian or Vietnamese


5 comments on “Interpreters and Detainee Welfare in Immigration Removal Centres (I)

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