In violation of international law and its own guidelines, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has told asylum seekers to bring an interpreter, at their own expense, to their asylum hearing. If that’s not possible, they were told, the interview will be held in English or a different language in which they are not fluent. In a few cases asylum requests were denied outright for “failure to cooperate” when applicants did not bring an interpreter.
Haaretz has obtained statements from 15 asylum seekers who were told to find an interpreter, six of whom had their applications denied for “noncooperation.”
According to international law and the agency’s own protocol, the immigration authority must provide a suitable interpreter during interviews with applications. “The interview will be held in the official language of the applicant’s country of origin or any other language he understands. If needed, the interview will be conducted through an interpreter,” the agency’s rules stipulate.
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants has petitioned the Central District Court, asking it to instruct the immigration authority to desist from making this demand and to reopen cases that were closed on these grounds. Most of the asylum seekers who’ve encountered this difficulty come from Sri Lanka and speak Sinhalese.
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A. is a Sri Lankan woman seeking asylum due to her opposition to the ruling party there, which has persecuted her. She filed her papers last March, assisted by her attorney Nofar Bar. The next day Bar received a summons for an interview, saying it would be held in English. If the petitioner wanted it held in Sinhalese she’d need to provide the interpreter. The attorney protested this demand, presented to other clients she had. Receiving no reply, A. came without an interpreter. Her friends were afraid to appear, worried about losing their residence permits or about confronting agency officials. The interview was stopped after Bar stated that A. could not follow. Instead of setting up another interview, the Authority sent A. a letter indicating that her file was closed due to noncooperation. This happened to another Sri Lankan asylum seeker who appeared without an interpreter.
“The Interior Ministry’s demand that the asylum seeker provide an interpreter denies his or her basic right to have their request reviewed,” said Bar.
In a formal letter sent to the Hotline by Chaim Ephraim, the head of the unit that deals with asylum seekers, he admits that this is the policy, stating that when they cannot find a suitable interpreter the claimant must find one. “In recent weeks great efforts have been made to find interpreters in Telugu and Sinhalese but to no avail. In order to process requests it was decided to ask petitioners to find interpreters on their own. English is commonly used in India and Sri Lanka. In filling out forms, asylum seekers are helped by community members in Israel. In order to process their requests I consider it right that they use similar sources of help in their interviews.”
Another attorney helping asylum seekers, Stav Paskay, said that “this is another link in the long chain of failures by the Authority, which repeatedly proves that it has no intention of fulfilling the role it was meant to fulfill and truly examine refugee claims. The objective is to remove the maximal number of asylum seekers from Israel while showing contempt for the Supreme Court and for international law. We call on the authority to immediately desist from making these demands.”
The authority has not denied the policy, responding to Haaretz questions by stating that it generally provides interpreter services for asylum seekers in many languages. However, when an interpreter cannot be found the obligation falls on the asylum seeker. “We’ve located one Sinhalese interpreter but he is often unavailable and the demand cannot be met. This is why some applicants have been asked to find their own interpreters. In any case, how did these applicants communicate with their lawyers or fill out the required forms in English? These forms are very detailed and require comprehension, so we assume they used interpreters who could also help them in these interviews.”