Communication Gaps in Immigration Detention



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5 Minutes

Post by Andriani Fili, Leverhulme International Network Facilitator, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

For a number of years, I thought that speaking two languages, other than English, would be an asset in job seeking. However, German and Spanish didn’t come in very handy when, as an NGO social worker, I had to communicate with French-speaking detainees at the airport detention facility in Athens, let alone when they spoke only Urdu or Farsi. This led to a number of funny moments when I said some very inappropriate things while I was trying to express myself in languages I had barely ever heard before. However, talking to or interviewing detainees without an interpreter was mostly fraught with frustration on both parts.  

Photo: Human Rights Watch
The lack of effective communication with third country nationals due to the absence of interpretation services in an organized and high-quality fashion, despite clear provisions in Greek legislation, has been recognized over the past twenty years as one of the main problems in the reception and integration of refugees and immigrants in Greece. This issue has been highlighted in numerous reports by international intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and the UNHCR, or by European institutions, such as the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.

For a number of years, police officers were responsible for interviewing asylum seekers in the first instance without the presence of persons capable to ensure the necessary communication. The interviews were superficial and limited to asking the asylum-seeker why s/he came to Greece, with no questions at all about the situation in her/his country of origin. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Greek asylum system, until very recently, had a backlog of around 40,000 cases and that almost all of the asylum requests were declined on the exact same basis and drafted in a stereotyped manner without any details of the reasons for the decisions being given.

Greek law provides that immigration detainees are informed of the reasons for their detention and have access to legal counsel, and that their rights must be communicated to them in a language they understand (Law 3386/2005, article 76(3); Law 3907/2011, article 30(2) and 31(2)). In practice, though, the situation behind bars is no different to the deficiencies of the asylum system. As a result, asylum-seekers and irregular migrants in various detention facilities all over Greece have routinely complained about ‘the lack of information about the grounds for and/or length of their detention, as well as on asylum determination and deportation procedures and reasons for transfer to other immigration detention centres.’ These are all attributed to the limited or non-existent interpretation services and to the failure to explain or translate documents issued in Greek which they are expected to sign. In this context, non-governmental organizations in Greece, mainly due to limited funds and/or the inability to find adequately trained professional interpreters, do not manage to respond to all the demands for communication in detention effectively.

From 2012 to 2014 I was part of a project, funded by the European Refugee Fund, aimed at providing medical and psycho-social support to detainees in Athens. Along with a psychologist and a doctor, I worked at the infamous airport detention facility. Most of the people I encountered came from Africa, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Few had a good command of English, some knew French, while most spoke only their native language or dialect. My role included interviews with detainees in order to identify needs upon arrival, the provision of information about their detention and asylum procedure, and referrals to other social services upon release. In executing these tasks I had no access to interpreters, apart from a Farsi speaking one employed by the NGO, who had to cover the interpretation needs of five detention centres and was hardly ever available. Interpretation services offered by another NGO couldn’t be covered by the available budget.

As a result, the initial healthcare screening, as well as the intake interview and most of our conversations, were mostly conducted in a combination of Greek (with the few words they had learnt while in Greece so far), English, body language, and gestures. This make-do effort inhibited the intimacy and in-depth discussions that could have helped them to disclose sensitive or important information. Medical examinations were often incomplete, leading to inadequate treatment and the level of information I could gather was limited to basic demographic characteristics. As such, the important first contact with most detainees was ultimately a confusing process, carried out as it was when the detainees were already feeling disoriented. In specific cases, we relied upon other detainees to help us with communication. Nevertheless, this strategy has often been criticised. Not only does it raise ethical questions about confidentiality and trust, but those interpreting usually found it boring and offered their own summation of other people’s accounts, rather than their exact words. Our inability to communicate effectively with the detainees was also looked down upon by the staff and was used as an excuse for questioning our presence there.

On its website, the NGO I worked for claims that it has offered medical and psychosocial support to more than 70,000 detainees in Athens over the course of ten years. This figure was mainly based on the forms we completed at the initial intake interview, which more than often offered little substance. In lengthy reports submitted to funders in order to prove impact and attract more funding, the number of beneficiaries was highlighted without evaluating the quality of support offered, while the absence of language services and the way information was collected were silenced. This isn’t to question the number of times we intervened to improve detention conditions; even the mere presence of NGO staff at a detention setting can protect detainees from discriminatory practices. There were also numerous occasions when sharing a common language wasn’t necessary to understand their different emotional needs and trauma. No matter how frustrating it was to have no words to articulate their needs, the detainees always found innovative ways to express themselves by using body language, gestures, and drawing to show their gratitude or even by borrowing dictionaries in order to be able to compile comprehensible sentences in Greek. On our part, the absence of interpreters motivated us to learn the detainees’ languages faster, use Google translate in order to translate documents for them, and sometimes offer to pay interpreters from our own pockets.

Even so, I find myself wondering, after all these years, whether our efforts were sufficient. At the end of a typical work day, I would go home wondering whether I actually helped the detainees or added to their distress for, as has been shown elsewhere, being reliant on interpretation services to communicate while in detention can be extremely depressing. Today, there are obvious reasons for the need for professional interpreters in detention throughout the Greek territory and obvious methods to achieve this. I hope that, in the current context of money flooding into Greece from a variety sources, communication gaps in detention will be bridged so we can finally learn the full stories of the people that get trapped in the immigration detention system in Greece.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Fili, A. (2016) Communication Gaps in Immigration Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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Immigration detention


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