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Interpreters and Detainee Welfare in Immigration Removal Centres (II)

An inability to communicate in English is not a prerequisite for immigration detention: in January 2016, a US Shakespeare scholar was held at Morton Hall IRC for 10 days following the expiry of his student visa. Language is not always the problem. Countless reports and studies written in English over the past two decades about immigration detention by officials, NGOs and politicians have recommended the need for ‘professional interpreters’, not ‘people who talk English and foreign’.

The difference is stark, and all the more important in the hostile, complex and sensitive environment found inside immigration removal centres (IRC), where detainees, imprisoned arbitrarily at the discretion of the Home Office and not for having committed any crime, are distressed and vulnerable. Confidential and matter-of-life-and-death information needs to be communicated in a professional manner. How many people need to say the same thing in how many different ways and over how many years before someone will listen?


Protest outside Home Office, December 2013, for hunger-striking detainee at Harmondsworth IRC

The failure to use professional interpreters is not without consequence. As early as June 1990, 24-year old Zairean asylum seeker Kimpua Nsimba hung himself in the toilets at Harmondsworth IRC, “where he had been detained on seeking asylum four days earlier because he could not be interviewed for want of a Lingala interpreter. No one had spoken to him for the whole time he had been detained.” (Webber, 2012: 133).

The inability to communicate basic needs and understand what is happening around you is no doubt frustrating but it also accentuates the isolation and powerlessness of detainees. As Nsimba’s case shows, the results can be fatal. Detainees are more susceptible to depression, self-harm and suicide attempts.

Deaths in custody

According to the Shaw Review, there have been 26 deaths in immigration detention since 1989. Since the January 2016 publication of the review, Moroccan national Amir Siman-Tov became the latest casualty of the system at Colnbrook IRC on 17 February 2016. No cause of death has been mentioned, although a fellow detainee said he was on suicide watch when he died.

In a review of deaths in detention between 1989 and 2014, the Institute of Race Relations mentions two where the lack of access to an interpreter played a role. In 2003, 40-year old Kurdish asylum seeker Elmas Ozmico died three days after being admitted to hospital from Dover IRC. On arrival in the UK, she claimed asylum and her nephew, with whom she had travelled had requested a doctor and an interpreter, but his requests were ignored.

In 2004, 35-year old Vietnamese Tran Quang Tung was found hanged in Dungavel IRC, where he had been moved a few days earlier from Harmondsworth IRC. A nurse who had seen him there did not know what language he spoke and did not use an interpreter. No interpreter was used by the immigration officer who served him with his removal notice. A solicitor who saw him on the day he died was also unable to speak to him effectively because of his poor English. Undoubtedly the lack of interpreters has played a role in the deaths of other detainees too.

With a little help from my friends

Abdul Khan pressed the emergency button again. It was after 6 am and his roommate Muhammad Shukat was groaning in agony, clenching his chest, and sweating profusely—he had collapsed for the second time that morning. Nursing staff came in, unlocked the door to the small window-less room, picked Shukat up, put him back in his bed, took his temperature, administered medication, and left the room. After three separate similar visits by nursing staff and ten different frantic calls of the emergency button by 19-year-old immigration detainee Khan, an ambulance was called at about 7·20 am—nearly 2 hours after Khan’s initial call for help. Paramedics attempted to resuscitate Shukat but the 47-year-old was pronounced dead on arrival to hospital. His body was flown from the UK back to his family in Pakistan. This was Kahn’s account of a tragic morning at Colnbrook immigration detention centre, Middlesex, UK, at an inquest in 2012.

This account of the death of a detainee by his roommate is stark proof of why other detainees and non-professionals should not be allowed to interpret for detainees. Muhammad Shukat, 47, was arrested in March 2011 for overstaying his visa. He had agreed to return to Pakistan but by 2 July 2011, 3 days after arriving at Colnbrook IRC, he was dead. He died of a heart attack; in 2012, an inquest jury found neglect by IRC staff had contributed to his death.

His 19-year roommate had raised the alarm. Witnesses saw that Shukat could not speak English well and so officers asked the roommate, Abdul Khan, to translate. The process is described in detail in the fatal accident inquiry. Yet, although Khan was relied on to provide interpretation for a dying man, the inquiry report was delayed until an interpreter could be found to facilitate an interview with Khan about the death. A detainee with inadequate English skills was relied on. In addition, Khan was traumatised by the experience himself and should not have been present. The inquiry report states, “Although, ideally, the room mate should not have been present during the medical examination at 5.35am, it is probably fortunate that he was, as he helped staff communicate with the man.”

The use of an interpreter at Colnbrook and at Harmondsworth may not have prevented his death but could have ensured he received adequate care. Shukat’s death was one of three at Colnbrook IRC that year.

Epic fail

The failure to provide an interpreter was one of the criticisms singled out in the death of Tahir Mehmood, 43, from Pakistan. Mehmood was detained on 20 July 2013, having overstayed his visa. He was due to return to Pakistan, and had even bought his own ticket.

Concerning his death, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman stated, “While the man’s death appears to have been sudden and unexpected, there are some lessons to be learnt from this sad event. The man spoke very little English and I am concerned that a professional interpretation service was not used to help obtain a medical history when he arrived or when he reported feeling unwell. ”

Mehmood’s is the only death ever at Pennine House IRC near Manchester Airport; it is a short-term facility where detainees stay for less than one week. No interpreter was used for his initial screening or when he fell unwell on 26 July. Although the nurse could have used a telephone interpreting service, this was not used during his examination. During induction, another detainee was used to interpret for him and staff took his quietness and nods to mean he understood. On the other hand, he told his brother-in-law on the telephone that “he was dying, was not comfortable at Pennine House, had not slept in two days and wanted something to help him sleep. He said that no one understood him at Pennine House.”

The fatal accident inquiry into his death stated, “We are particularly concerned that an interpreter was not used during the man’s contact with healthcare staff. The man’s brother-in-law told the Ombudsman’s family liaison officer that the man felt that no one had understood him when he became ill.” A recommendation was made to ensure professional interpreting services are used at Pennine House when necessary. This is reported to have been accepted by the management run by Tascor.

Unless concerted measures are taken across the immigration detention estate to ensure professional interpreting services, preferably face-to-face, are available and used, a lack of interpreting services will be part of the neglect contributing to the death and suicide of prisoners. Mistakes will be repeated. It is not simply a case of ensuring the service exists, because it does: staff need to be trained to understand what it is interpreters do and the difference they make. Centre staff need to understand that by working with interpreters they can improve time and cost efficiency as well as the overall welfare of detainees.

Do you hear us?

The solution has been recommended and stated many times. Nonetheless, it appears that interpreting services, and thus improving the welfare of detainees, is not a priority. There are several possible reasons for this. The most obvious one is the profit motive. Immigration detention is a lucrative, profit-making growth industry. In spite of pitiful conditions, including inadequate food, broken fittings, bed bugs, mice, and other shortcomings, the private multinational corporations that run them, like GEO, Serco and G4S, continue to make a large profit and secure substantial contracts in spite of failings and criticism. In cutting corners, interpreters are no doubt considered an unnecessary expense. In some centres where staff are reluctant to use telephone interpreting services available, the cost of the service is cited as a reason not to use it. In the long term, however, the use of interpreters would help to keep costs down through efficiency.

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Protest outside Yarl’s Wood IRC, Augut 2015

Frances Webber states that “Detention fosters inhuman treatment. A culture of casual racism, brutality and neglect has been consistently documented” (Webber, 2012: 139). Reports and inquiries have been carried out into incidents and allegations of racism and mistreatment of detainees. Bullying, beatings, and even rape have also been reported. The overall conditions of detention have caused some pregnant women to miscarry. By making it impossible for detainees to communicate, their inferiority and helplessness is reinforced. In a 2004 report by Asylum Aid on women in immigration detention, one detainee reported that “the communication problems were not just a language issue: in her opinion, detainees were also denied the opportunity to express themselves.” Guillermo R. Navarro Montesdeoca, in an essay on immigration detention in Spain, notes the inferiority felt by detainees within the system (Navarro Montesdeoca, 2001).

Navarro Montesdeoca further notes that “power relations underlie almost every utterance, and interpreters do their job within those relations.”(Navarro Montesdeoca, 2001: 171). Indeed, in a country like the UK, where interpreters are not employees of the immigration authority, there is possibly a fear that they could undermine existing power structures and also empower detainees by making them aware of their situation. Detainees may feel solidarity rather than isolation as a result. There may also be a fear of interpreters blowing the whistle on questionable practices they witness or are informed of by detainees, as in Australia. Immigration detention is a secretive regime. Language is one way of enforcing silence.

As in many other aspects of public life where they play a vital role, the work of interpreters is undervalued. As well as a lack of awareness of the role of interpreters there may be a fear that the value interpreters bring by mediating for detainees would mean that greater value would also have to be attached to the detainees. It is undeniable that the very purpose of arbitrary detention and abusive treatment is to dehumanise detainees and deter them from fighting for their right to remain in the UK. Detainees have claimed to be “treated like animals”.

There is no interest in and no attempt to reconcile this enduring problem that can easily be resolved, in the interest of all parties concerned. With frequent unrest and mass hunger strikes, clearly the system is not working, but reports commissioned by the government may be little more than an effort to pay lip service to the need to improve the welfare of detainees. As Amnesty International UK states in its press release in response to the Shaw Review, the Immigration Minister has made no commitment to implement all the recommendations made: “Shaw’s report is the latest in a series of reviews commissioned by the government into immigration detention in the last few years, but every time ministers have failed to implement recommendations to reduce the numbers locked up and end indefinite detention altogether.”


Webber, F. 2012. Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights, London, Pluto Press.

Navarro Montesdeoca, G. R., 2001. Interpreting at an Immigration Detention Center in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. In: Pym, A., Schlesinger, M. & Jettmarova, Z. (Eds.), Sociocultural Aspects of Translating and Interpreting, Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

Part I looks at the general issues involved in interpreting facilities and detainee welfare in IRCs. Part II looks 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.

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

6 comments on “Interpreters and Detainee Welfare in Immigration Removal Centres (II)

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