Case study 2

Translating Vulnerability and Silence into the Legal Process

What happens when language is replaced by silence in legal processes such as refugee status determination procedures? What forms of silence exist, how are they translated and interpreted, and what implications do they have for decision making in asylum cases? How do interpreters, legal practitioners, decision makers – and researchers – address the issue of silence (and ‘the untranslatable’) in this field, where claims to a form of international protection on the part of extremely vulnerable people are often at stake? Applicants are usually required to provide a written and/or oral narrative describing their fears of persecution on grounds consistent with the terms of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Decision-making frameworks tend to treat an applicant’s silence negatively, as a sign of prevarication or an attempt at concealment or deception. However, recent research has drawn attention to the way in which women’s and children’s claims, in particular, can be ‘silenced’ by forms of institutional power and by the inadequate provision or poor quality of interpreters at asylum interviews or appeals hearings.

Building on this work, the case study aims to conduct in-depth research on how the other side of language – silence – is (and is not) translated, interpreted and evaluated by a range of actors involved in refugee status determination procedures in the UK and The Netherlands. The asylum systems in both countries include ‘accelerated’ procedures for applicants in detention that are intended to promote the speedy processing of claims. These procedures arguably intensify pressure on the applicant not to remain silent, but instead to speak and to do so often within a very short period of time. The case study will examine the translation, interpretation and evaluation of silence in British and Dutch refugee status determination procedures through a combination of the following methods:

  1. Desk-based research of legal measures and administrative procedures relating to silence (including deemed withdrawal, non-compliance, in-detention and accelerated procedures);
  2. Semi-structured interviews with a range of actors and stakeholders in the two countries; and
  3. Observation of asylum interviews and appeal hearing.

Guide to Supporting Detainees in Immigration Bail Hearings in Scotland

The research will be conducted by Sarah Craig and Karin Zwaan.