The Greek refugee crisis: a linguistic stress test

The following is a transcript of the presentation given by PEEMPIP’s President, Ms. Dimitra Stafilia, at the “Status and Recognition of Legal Interpreters and Translators Today” conference, jointly organised by EULITA and the Bulgarian Association of Interpreters & Translators (AIT) in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 16-17 March 2018.


Dear Colleagues,

Before I begin, I would like to thank the Organising Committee for giving myself and my association the opportunity to address this conference and present a topic that is close to our hearts, the refugee crisis and how we, PEEMPIP, as a professional association attempted to contribute and leave our mark on the training of cultural mediators or community interpreters. Our first concern was the human factor, how the beneficiaries of this training could gain skills that would help them integrate in any host country and earn them a decent and respectable living; second, how they could help in bridging the communication deficit created by insufficient numbers of language professionals needed to cover all aspects of reception, registration, asylum, reunification and other procedures and at the same time ensure full and equal access to statutory services (meaning legal, health, education, government, and social services); and third how we could raise the standards of a new, at least in Greece, language profession, that of a cultural mediator or intercultural mediator or community interpreter (the many names used in Greece is indicative of the uncertainty surrounding this area of language services) and at the same time build the necessary capacities of our member trainers to bring forward this change.

But first of all, let’s look at some figures:

According to EU statistics, between 2015 and 2016, Greece experienced an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees fleeing war and deprivation in their home countries in the Middle East and south Asia, or in search of a better and safer life in the EU. Nearly 857,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece in 2015, nearly one tenth of Greece’s native population. According to figures by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), close to 172,000 people came in 2016 to Greece by sea, which meant that language service provision had to be offered onsite in stranded and isolated areas, away from urban centers and under harsh conditions. As of January 2018, over 45,000 refugees and migrants are still stranded in the country.

To give you some idea of the current workload for the asylum applications alone, according to the most recent data of the Greek Asylum Service: there are approximately 39,500 pending asylum applications at first instance with future scheduled interviews after 31.01.2018.

The Greek Asylum Service also offers legal aid to asylum applicants free of charge for the second instance of their application as of the 21st of September 2017 and aims to start offering legal aid also for the first instance, during the first six months of 2018. The legal aid programme is funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (National Programme)

The Greek state was not prepared for this unprecedented migration flow and its organisation lacked in multiple ways. Inability to absorb funding, untrained staff, lack of a holistic approach, changes to the national reception and asylum application procedure (the legislation kept changing), but also the problematic Dublin Regulation, the EU-Turkey Statement, coupled with the lack of support from a number of European countries.

Therefore, support of new languages was just one aspect of a multifaceted problem, a fundamental component nonetheless of effective humanitarian response and ensuring the respect of human rights and access to other social rights, like education and healthcare, and definitely an imperative obligation for the Greek state. Oddly enough, despite my research, it seems that there is no valid dataset as to the linguistic needs out of this crisis. According to Translators Without Borders, no language data is recorded upon reception. EU and UNCHR funding to NGOs covering the language needs at the various stages is offered for around 38 languages, while the Greek Asylum Service translates all asylum related materials into 18 languages, meaning that dialects are not really catered for.

As in any crisis environment, NGOs sprouted out to provide services. When faced with the lack of effective language support, they sought out quick solutions to address immediate needs. But without the budgets to pay for professional interpreters, they would call on migrants or volunteers, often without even checking their criminal records, having some knowledge of the languages they needed to provide interpreting or cultural mediation support, sometimes without distinguishing those tasks and blurring the lines. If paid at all, these people were poorly compensated for their work and were asked to perform a stressful function with little or no training. To make things worse, the award of multimillion contracts for interpreting services to a single NGO led to various side effects, like dubious work practices, abusive contracts, unofficial certification of skills with inadequate training and lack of ethics. It also killed real competition, since the scarce human resources were locked and blocked by contract to provide their services anywhere else. Furthermore, it appears that there is little willingness to invest in better training because of the small retention rates, a direct consequence of the lack of job security and adequate pay. Nonetheless, I should note that the Greek Asylum Service actually opened those contracts to consultation upon invitation, something rare by Greek standards. Our association was asked to provide comments and we replied with a long list of improvements and bringing attention to some of the practices that violated labour law and how these could be avoided.

So in view of dwindling fees, unilateral changes to contract terms, the imposed restraints to professional freedom, the precarious working conditions often with daily contracts and no guarantee of sustained employment, the emerging sector of language services to immigrants and refugees tried to self-organise and professionalise itself in order to overcome these difficulties, and ensure a more powerful voice against labour right abuses, to improve their position in the free market and have a saying in their working conditions and actual rates, and most importantly to have some official recognition that would allow for an education framework, further training and formal certification by the Greek State.

Feeling threatened, established Greek professional translators and interpreters associations reacted in a schizophrenic fashion: one condemned the lack of skills fearing an erosion of their image, another one was shooting allegations of elitism and exclusionism because the new association created by and for these practitioners included membership terms. Academics even commented that the new self-governing association was deliberately isolating itself by adding the description “Rare Languages” to its title (the full name of the new association is «GREEK UNION OF INTERPRETERS TRANSLATORS – RARE LANGUAGES», rare languages refer to languages and dialects spoken beyond the European Union such as Arabic, Persian (Farsi), Chinese, Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Swahili, and not to demographics). Right from the start, PEEMPIP supported the right to professional self-determination, sharing hard-gained knowledge and experience and contributing to the preparation and execution of a well-rounded training programme that also allowed for capacity building. PEEMPIP understands that becoming a profession follows a specific formula, among which specialised education, recognition and ethics, and that sometimes well-respected professions, like conference interpreting, are used as a guide. We also understand that training and support programmes can build capacity in languages where the pool of professionals is insufficient. Being actively involved in this process ensures that a correct professionalisation path is followed, that relations between the sectors and different types of practioners are honest and collaborative, and that PEEMPIP establishes itself as a potential stakeholder once transitioning to a government-run response.

Hearing these calls for more training and acceptance, PEEMPIP and the NGO SolidarityNow, with the support of the Guerrilla Foundation and in collaboration with the Society for the Care of Minors in Athens, held a comprehensive training programme from 2016 to 2018 for community interpreters/cultural mediators in Athens and Thessaloniki. The idea behind joining forces is that the empowerment and acquisition of professional skills is the first step towards inclusion in the labor market, as well as social integration.

The programme included training sessions in which the basic practices and methodologies of community interpreting and intercultural mediation were taught. All courses were provided exclusively by professionals and academics in the field of translation and interpreting studies. The total duration of training was 96 hours (around 2 months) and dealt with topics such as intercultural mediation techniques, translation techniques and interpreting, Greek language courses, and interpreting/mediation in specific settings, namely health interpreting, asylum procedures, court interpreting, and of course ethics.

Participation was free of charge for all participants. There were 73 participants in total, of which only 7 women. Around 40 trainees passed the final examinations successfully.

The program’s objectives were to:

enhance participants’ skills,

– prepare in the best possible way the participants for the provision of community interpreting services in various fields, and

– link participants with labor market needs.

Having received feedback from the main trainer, Mrs Maria Petrocheilou, who is our member and the President of the Hellenic Association of Conference Interpreters, we are confident that the new skills will allow participants to provide support to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Greece, in a range of procedures towards social inclusion or on the way to their preparation for relocation to another European country.

Following the successful completion of the seminar and the relevant examinations, the participants received a certificate from PEEMPIP.

[The shortage of female interpreters is noticeable. Recruiting and retaining female interpreters is more difficult in less desirable working environments. The trainers and the female trainees were also invited to attend the two-day conference ORAMMA (Operational Refugee and Migrant Maternal Approach) project funded by the EU’s Health Programme (2014-2020), which is developing an integrated, mother and woman centered, culturally oriented and evidence based approach for all phases of the migrant and refugee women perinatal healthcare].

Since this conference concerns the status of legal LIT’s lets try to put things in perspective. We have to consider that legal translation and interpreting are only one component of a wider package, a branch of a tree. If we do not take care of the tree it cannot be expected to be viable and sprout new branches. In this case, the tree is the translation and interpreting profession as a whole. Is it fair to judge and condemn while we sit back and do nothing to ensure adequate training and recognition?

Before passing judgment as to the linguistic skills of people working on the field, usually themselves migrants and refugees from different waves, we have to empathize and consider their circumstances: what are they fleeing from, what they left behind, their usually young age, the shock of changing realities and having to adapt abruptly to new environments, even to learn new languages at minimal time. We have to allow them some breathing space and not being negative and unconstructive.

And then we need to ask ourselves what we, as professionals, did to help them better their skills and status, when everyone else seems to have forsaken them, namely the state and official education institutions, even the legislator, rather than worrying about our image and the erosion of our finances.

In times of grave need, it cannot be expected that the path to professionalisation will follow the lengthy path of established professions. It took us more than 70 years to get to where we are today. Full interpreter training programs are required, based on the respect of international professional standards and relevant ethics and the respect for human dignity. The already experienced and trained interpreters and translators, their associations and university interpreter and translator training institutions can contribute to this. The issue must be addressed with respect to refugees, respect to the interpreters of refugee and migrant languages who perform a very difficult task while respecting the profession itself.

At the end of the day, whether we come from the left or the right, let’s meet at the middle.


Here you can find the presentation from the conference and have a peek into the facts and numbers of the refugee crisis’s linguistic side in Greece.

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