Refugee crises and the role of interpreters | Stillman Translations
Refugee crises and the role of interpreters

Communication, the quest for connection with others, is a basic human instinct. And more so in critical situations, where empathy and compassion need to play a dominant role.

Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash 

Communication, the quest for connection with others, is a basic human instinct. And more so in critical situations, where empathy and compassion need to play a dominant role.  

Refugee crises are in upheaval, the Mediterranean is now not a vacation spot, but an alarming setting that evidences the need to protect human rights. There is a desperate demand for asylum, a new home, for recognition in strange lands where communicating seems impossible. 

Refugees are entitled to interpreting services for more than one matter. The utmost important one is their declaration to receive their status as legal refugees, and therefore medical care, legal care and meet their basic needs.  


Language interpretation is an essential component link between refugees and organizations providing legal and other types of assistance. Which is why miscommunication can have devastating outcomes since their recognition as legal refugees who qualify for proper asylum depends on it.  

More than one incorrect decision has been made, unintended misdiagnoses in health care treatments have taken place, and the need for qualified interpreters is blunt. To avoid breaching any ethical boundary and sustain neutrality, experts are needed. 

Communication may be negatively affected by various factors: emotions such as anger, insecurity, or fatigue which are, at the very least, expected in such adverse situations can undermine the person explaining their background.  

When under distress, recounting a personal experience is infuriating and challenging. Staff members need to train their ability to listen actively and act respectfully, to portray the message as faithful as possible to the intentions and facts, and not to the emotional framework taking place.  

Pre-existing prejudices are also a risk, the power struggles and imbalances that can be felt when entering such unknown conversations limit the openness of communication. We must recall that all refugees run away from endangered and threatening environments, and even if the intentions are in the right place, the atmosphere is hostile. 

Also, there is a time variable. Messages must be accurately deciphered, together with their connotations and meanings, in a very short time frame. 


There is more than one role, at least three actors are involved in these conversations: an interviewer, an interpreter, and the “client”. An interpreter does not replace the interviewer. The interviewer is in charge of making the right questions, and guiding the conversation. While the interpreter is an enabler.  

Both should be worthy of trust so the “client” feels safe enough to open up. For these reasons, certified interpreters are a must and their interpreting skills should be sharp. If possible, even age, gender, country of origin should be considered, to empathize more with the refugee. 


The refugee definition as contained in the 1951 Convention, and UNHCR’s Statute provides that an applicant for refugee status must meet four main criteria: 

1. To be outside the country of origin 

2. To suffer from well-founded fear 

3. To be undergoing some sort of persecution 

4. To represent a reason, be it race, religion, nationality, or being a member of a particular social group, or political opinion that has caused the refugee to emigrate. 


According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) guide to interviews with refugees, there are four main types of interpretation in these scenarios: 

1. Consecutive Interpretation 

This is the most common type of interpretation and the type of interpretation we have mostly spoken about in this article. It consists of listening to a segment of the speech and then repeating the message to the interviewer’s language.  

2. Summary Interpretation 

Very similar to consecutive interpretation, the main difference is that the speaker will expose a lengthier speech before the interpreter provides a faithful summary of the essence of the statement.  

In some senses, it is riskier, since the use of a better judgment comes into play. What is relevant and what isn’t? What is important for evaluating the person’s legal status and what isn’t?   

Most times, consecutive interpretation will be chosen and summary interpretation left aside, for in these cases detailed information should not be deemed unnecessary. But when there is a discussion between two or more people, which cannot be interrupted, it may come in handy.  

3. Verbatim Interpretation 

On the other side of the spectrum, verbatim interpretation implies a word-for-word extract of each phrase or sentence. In this case, precision is more important than meaning. Which is why it is mainly used in court settings, definitions, or factual statements. 

4. Simultaneous Interpretation 

In this typology, the interpreter translates simultaneously to the speaker. Many times it requires equipment such as soundproof booths, microphones, and headsets, as well as technical support staff. Very commonly used in conferences and multilingual conference settings, but not so much for interviews. 

It can also be done with no technical equipment whatsoever, and that would be called “Whispering”, due to how close the interpreter must be to the speaker to listen and rapidly translate without that person stopping.  

5. Phone interpreters 

We said four, but outside the UNHCR manual, there is more. For example, people working with refugees in Australia can also get an interpreter over the phone to help them. 

TIS National is funded by the Australian government to provide interpreters for people who do not speak English and need to communicate with medicare, businesses, government representatives, and so on. 

If you know someone who needs help, interpretation or is in a vulnerable situation such as before mentioned, don’t hesitate in contacting us at Stillman. We can take care.