Language and vulnerability: interpreting in Immigration Removal Centres

Language and vulnerability: interpreting in Immigration Removal Centres


Written by: Aisha Maniar

Aisha Maniar discusses Stephen Shaw’s follow-up report on the detention of vulnerable people from the perspective of interpreting facilities for detainees. 

The United Kingdom has one of the largest immigration detention estates in Europe. While detention is punitive in nature, the measure itself is administrative and not criminal. In 2017, for the non-offence of not holding a British passport, 27,331 foreign nationals entered the detention estate (immigration removal centres and prisons). Over 5,300 European Union nationals were detained, or around 19 percent of those detained. Former or current asylum seekers make up the largest category of detainees, accounting for around 47 percent. 

Home Secretary Sajid Javid set out the Home Office’s rationale for immigration detention recently in the House of Commons: ‘It encourages compliance with our immigration rules, protects the public from the consequences of illegal migration and ensures that people who are here illegally or are foreign criminals can be removed from this country when all else fails.’

The Windrush scandal, involving the deportation and denial of rights to British residents lawfully in the UK for decades, demonstrated the arbitrariness of both the immigration rules and immigration detention. With more than half of immigration detainees being released into the community rather than removed, the purpose of immigration detention as a policy is questionable. 

Arbitrary, indefinite detention, by its very definition, renders detainees vulnerable. Pregnant women, survivors of torture, domestic violence and/or modern slavery, ex-offenders, individuals with learning difficulties and mental health issues are held in ‘unacceptable conditions’. Language also presents a major vulnerability for detainees: the inability to speak English, communicate with others, understand what is happening to you and make informed choices, and ultimately to trust those around you. The language barrier also maintains the secrecy that surrounds practices and policies at Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs). 

The Shaw Review 

In 2015, the Home Secretary commissioned an independent review into policies and procedures relating to the welfare of immigration detainees. Published in January 2016, this became known as the Shaw Review, carried out by Stephen Shaw CBE, a former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales. In his critical review, Shaw made sixty-four recommendations. A follow-up review of the progress made was then commissioned by the Home Office in September 2017. The result, an ‘Assessment of government progress in implementing the report on the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons‘, also by Stephen Shaw, was made public at the end of July 2018. 

A protest calling for the closure of Yarl's Wood detention centre on 12 March 2016. © Elly Robson
© Elly Robson

While Shaw welcomed positive action taken by the government since 2016, such as a reduction in the overall number of detainees, he found that the statistics hid ‘troubling’ realities, including the fact that ‘the number of people held for over six months has actually increased’ and that the reduction in detainee numbers had been almost wholly of male detainees. In addition, there remained ‘significant concerns about the current levels of demand and the provision of healthcare services’. 

Language Recommendations

Of the sixty-four recommendations made in 2016, fifty-six ‘were accepted or partially accepted’. These include two recommendations made on the use of translation and interpreting services: 

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. 

These were counted as ‘minor operational’ recommendations, which were addressed in July 2016 by the re-issue of Detention Services Order (DSO) 06/2013 (updated in July 2018), providing staff with ‘guidance on the process for admitting, inducting and discharging a detainee from an immigration removal centre, short-term holding facility or the pre-departure accommodation.’ These guidelines include: ‘Professional  interpreting  facilities must be used whenever language barriers are identified on reception, induction or discharge’, and ‘Other detainees must not be used for detainee specific translation purposes due to confidentiality and quality issues, however peer support  detainee workers may be used to translate for general purposes, for example during group inductions.’ 

Quality of interpretation questioned

While in 2016, the main issue was lack of professional interpreters, in 2018 Shaw found that ‘use is now widespread but … quality remains an issue.’ Although reliance on multilingual staff and other detainees continues, there appears to be greater use of telephone interpreting, particularly via the thebigword agency, which since the end of October 2016 has been delivering the foreign language component of the Ministry of Justice’s second Language Services Framework Agreement across the legal sector, now expanded to include the prisons and probation service. Another company cited, Language Line, has been used less frequently. 

Interpreter quality concerns include: ‘issues with detainees trusting a third party on the telephone, and disclosing sensitive information when using interpretation services. Other problems include the presence of domestic noise in the background, and unwillingness on the part of the interpreter to describe sensitive subjects such as the details of sexual assault’. In addition, one NGO told Shaw: ‘The experience and expertise of interpreters is regularly a cause for concern, with some either being unable/unwilling to discuss matters relating to sexual orientation in asylum interviews because of cultural/religious bias. A lack of literacy skills amongst interpreters is also a cause for concern.’ 

In Stephen Shaw’s visit to Brook House, reception staff told him that telephone interpreting included ‘background noise including children and a dog’, and healthcare staff recounted ‘examples of poor conduct including an interpreter hanging up half-way through a mental health session, and background noises suggesting the interpreter might not be in private’. At Dungavel, ‘iPads were sometimes used as a supplement to the Big Word service for translation, and occasionally peers were used to translate where the information required was not medical in confidence or sensitive.’ 

Such criticisms match those made of the quality of interpreters supplied by thebigword in other parts of the legal sector, which also echo Shaw’s criticisms about the unavailability of interpreters. Although the Ministry of Justice seems to have got the memo about providing interpreting services, it seems to have overlooked the essential qualifier ‘professional’. Consequently, number 19 of Shaw’s latest recommendations states: ‘The Home Office and Ministry of Justice should conduct a review of the quality of interpreter services in IRCs.’ 

Interpreters in immigration detention

Given the high numbers of vulnerable foreign language speakers, quality written translation and interpreting services are essential within the immigration detention estate. Such services are required at all times; interpreters will be involved in the reception, induction and discharge of detainees as well as medical assessments and meetings. Legal representatives are expected to provide their own interpreters. 

A 2017 report by the British Medical Association (BMA) on health and human rights in IRCs lists a number of cultural barriers doctors may face during consultations, including different cultural understanding or stigma surrounding mental health issues. ‘Some detained individuals will have complex and sensitive health needs as the result of torture or violence’, it says, as well as a ‘a deep-rooted mistrust or suspicion of authority figures’ and ‘in relation to sexual health or drug or alcohol use’. 

Interpreters can help to overcome these barriers and ensure effective consultations are carried out in difficult conditions. The use of other detainees as interpreters is ‘inappropriate’, the BMA says, as ‘It raises potential problems with confidentiality, particularly where patients may wish to discuss intimate or sensitive issues such as sexual health or previous traumatic experiences. Depending on the nature of the relationship, there may also be questions about the accuracy of the information being shared.’ 

On the other hand, issues such as confidentiality, accuracy, dealing with sensitive issues, respecting the privacy of a detainee (even over the telephone) and lack of bias should already fall within the ethics and practice of a professional trained interpreter. These are some of the skills a professional interpreter brings to the table that multilingual staff and detainees cannot. 

Interpreting in such circumstances can be stressful and traumatic for the interpreter too, thus they would need to be trained to deal with vicarious trauma. Shaw recognises the impact of interpreting in such circumstances on IRC staff: ‘Given the emotional toll of such work, perhaps they would benefit from some formal recognition or incentive. In particular, staff who can speak foreign languages (e.g. Arabic, Urdu, Polish) are responsible for a lot of unrecognised work in immigration detention.’ 

Shaw further recognises that ‘Clinical discussions with patients are extremely difficult if the patient has little or no use of English’, and in such cases professional interpreters must be used. The BMA recognised the use of interpreters as ‘a crucial link in ensuring information is correctly shared and relevant services and support accessed.’ Nonetheless, whereas Shaw calls for the use of ‘professional interpreters’, the BMA calls for the ‘services of a professional and accredited interpreter’. In the UK, this would mean membership of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) or Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). For telephone interpreting, a professional accredited interpreter outside the UK may not be as suitable given the specific legal and medical framework operating in the UK. 

In practical terms

There are no statistics on language use or provision in IRCs. Nonetheless, prison inspection reports shed some further light on the quantitative and qualitative gaps. 

A November 2016 inspection of Morton Hall, weeks after the justice sector-wide contract between the Ministry of Justice and thebigword came into effect, shows that there were problems with the ‘professional telephone interpreting’ service immediately. In addition, ‘A small number of staff could speak languages other than English and detainees often assisted with non-sensitive conversations’. A recommendation to ‘include interpretation for non-English speakers where necessary’ from the previous 2013 visit was found not to have been achieved. Three detainees died at Morton Hall in 2017. 

An October 2017 inspection of Harmondsworth at Heathrow, the largest immigration detention facility in Europe, which has a high number of detainees with mental health problems and ‘many feeling depressed or suicidal’ on arrival, showed that ‘Many detainees did not speak fluent or any English. Apart from in health care, use of professional interpreting was low, although many staff spoke other languages.’ 

‘Although staff were aware of the professional interpreting service available, they were reluctant to use it and many staff we spoke to preferred to use other detainees to interpret or made hand gestures to convey their messages’. Indeed, ‘Professional telephone interpreting services were not used sufficiently, even though many detainees spoke little or no English. Although this was partially offset because many staff spoke languages other than English, other detainees continued to be used to interpret in confidential interviews’. The inspector recommended that ‘Professional translation and interpreting services should be used in all cases where confidentiality or accuracy is required.’ 

A protest calling for the closure of Yarl's Wood detention centre on 12 March 2016. © Nilüfer Erdem
A protest calling for the closure of Yarl’s Wood detention centre on 12 March 2016. © Nilüfer Erdem

At Yarl’s Wood, the women’s and families’ facility in Bedfordshire, a mixture of practices was observed in a June 2017 inspection: ‘Professional telephone interpretation was used well in some areas, including health care, reception and immigration interviews. Staff who could speak other languages also did some interpreting and detainees helped each other and staff with day-to-day communication issues.’

An April 2018 inspection of Tinsley House found that although telephone interpreting was often used, ‘we saw some examples where it was not used when it should have been’ and ‘there was a reliance on other staff and on detainees’. In addition, ‘the immigration interviews we observed were mixed. Detainees said immigration staff did not always use interpreters when necessary.’ A recommendation was made that ‘Professional interpretation should be used for all immigration interviews where the detainee is not fluent in English.’ 

Compliance with the DSO is patchy at best. The quality of the telephone interpreting service offered may contribute to the preferred used of untrained multilingual staff and other detainees, particularly when the so-called professional interpreter’s skills prove inadequate. 

2017 – A Deadly Year

Perhaps the most damning demonstration that the implementation of the 2016 report recommendations has not improved the situation overall is that in 2017 more prisoners died in IRCs than in any year since 1989. In late November 2017, the Institute of Race Relations had the number of deaths down as six, including four suicides. Weeks later, The Guardian reported that ten detainees had died across the estate in the previous twelve months. 

The Home Office is slow to release details and even names of dead detainees, particularly in the case of suicides. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) carries out independent investigations into deaths in custody, but it has not published findings in respect of any deaths in IRCs since the January 2017 suicide of Polish national Lukasz Debowski at Morton Hall. Debowski had a history of attempted suicide and although he was given an interpreter on arrival, it was later decided that he did not need an interpreter as ‘he could speak a little English’. Although there were other important failings in his case, a Polish interpreter would have been crucial to assessing his physical and mental health. 

After the September 2017 death of fellow Polish national Marcin GwozdzinskiThe Guardian found that Polish detainee Marcin Malicki, who was deported days after Gwozdzinski’s death, was used as an interpreter, even though Gwozdzinski’s mental health had severely deteriorated and he was at risk of suicide. Why Malicki was used to interpret, in a situation that was no doubt highly stressful and sensitive for both men, is a further question that needs to be answered. In addition to the reasons given by the BMA for not using fellow detainees, such tasks can also be detrimental to their own mental health and wellbeing. 

Language is crucial to an individual’s sense of orientation and safety and feeling of wellbeing. It is thus inevitable that both the quality and quantity of language provision – interpreting and written translated materials – across the immigration detention estate has contributed to the increase in self-harm and suicide attempts by detainees. Behind bars and locked behind the language barrier, hostages to the current hostile immigration environment, cries for help are going unheard. [1]

Interpreting and translation are often viewed as ancillary. In an immigration setting, where distressed people speak many different languages, there is nothing secondary about the role of professional interpreters. Such a view and practice demonstrate, not a desire to make real progress, but a reckless disregard which continues to isolate detainees by preventing access to information about their situation and options, ultimately leading them, under the pressure of immigration detention, into making choices they would not otherwise make. 

The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office need to move away from the false notion that the simple provision of a person who speaks two languages is enough. If the Home Office is serious about implementing recommendation 19, that ‘The Home Office and Ministry of Justice should conduct a review of the quality of interpreter services in IRCs’, the basis must be the identification of what ‘quality’ means in interpreting provision in such a setting, as well as restricting the use of other detainees, IRC staff and telephone interpreting in favour of professional and accredited interpreters. 

In response to Stephen Shaw’s follow-up report, the Home Secretary announced four priorities, which include ‘staff training and support to make sure that people working in our immigration system are well equipped to work with vulnerable detainees’; this must include training on working with professional interpreters. With respect to the need for greater transparency, this must include data on interpreter use and language needs. 

This is an edited version of Aisha Maniar’s blog, ‘Can you hear us? Interpreters and Detainee Welfare in Immigration Removal Centres’, on one small window.  

Related Links

Read the Shaw progress report here.  

Read Shaw’s first report here.  


[1] My in-depth review of the issues and findings of Shaw’s 2016 report vis-à-vis the use of interpreters, language practices and the consequences thereof can be read here and here. 

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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