Crucial communication: language management in Australian asylum interviews

By March 15, 2016Migration

Protest posterAsylum seekers in Australia face a few very public hurdles. Successive governments have used increasingly restrictive refugee policies to gain votes. Meanwhile, the media often focuses on the issue of genuine-ness. Are asylum seekers to be believed? Are they genuine or should we be suspicious of their claims? This makes the process of applying for and being granted protection as a refugee particularly challenging.

In this climate, I interviewed four successful young refugees about navigating the immigration system. In particular, I was interested in the experience they had in their asylum interviews, in which they must present their stories and share their fears, and answer any questions the decision-maker might have. At the same time, I looked at the official government guidelines on conducting asylum interviews, to see how these tried to control the way decision-makers conducted the interviews. Finally, I conducted interviews with three migration agents and lawyers who assist asylum seekers. I share my research findings in a recently published article, “Negotiating narratives, accessing asylum: Evaluating language policy as multi-level practice, beliefs and management.”

Fortunately, my four refugee participants were all successful in obtaining a protection visa (the visa the Australian government offers refugees). However, they each had different experiences in their asylum interview.

While government policy is extensive and appears to aim at controlling decision-makers in such a way as to ensure they all conduct interviews in the same way, the experiences of my participants suggest that there is still plenty of room for variety. Each had decision-makers who used different methods to overcome comprehension issues and develop a sense of ease or rapport.

I discovered that communication in the asylum interviews was also influenced by another set of factors, centring on the beliefs and choices of the asylum seekers, their agents and even their friends. The participants knew other people who had gone through the same process and their expectations of the interview were shaped by their discussions with them. In some cases, this increased their anxiety. Their preparation and even their choice of language was influenced by their experiences and interactions before the interview.

Power dynamics also played a role. One participant who used an interpreter felt unable to intervene despite being aware that the interpreter was making some serious errors. He explained that he deferred to the migration agent to make that decision, and felt that someone who was accredited as an interpreter shouldn’t be challenged:

“…at the time I was thinking alright someone who has a licence, he’s…no one, you know, can complain about him, because he has a licence, so he have a full power.”

Here, it was clear that the guidelines fell short. It was expected that the asylum seeker would speak up if there were any issues with interpreting, but power dynamics meant that this participant stayed quiet. It was only thanks to a perceptive decision-maker, who picked up his concerned facial and body expressions, that the issue was remedied.

Stop_the_boats_-_Operation_Sovereign_BordersIndividual dynamics mean that every interaction is unique. Another participant had no hesitation to interject when he had problems understanding what his decision-maker was asking. He was further motivated by pre-interview encouragement from his migration agent to speak up in such circumstances. Fortunately, the decision-maker responded well to this interruption and adjusted the style of questioning to something more appropriate. Other participants described diverse methods used by the decision-maker to deal with misunderstandings.

In this all-important setting, the participants all noted their nervousness and explained how this impacted their behaviour in the asylum interview. As one said,

“you get a bit upset or maybe nervous, something like that so it’s why very hard, you can’t concentrate on the question sometimes…”

Although not mentioned by the policy guidelines, the research uncovered a number of examples of rapport building strategies adopted by the decision-makers. One decision-maker joked about being disorganised, blaming it on the fact he had a background as a lawyer, the same as the asylum seeker, thus starting the interaction by identifying common ground. A migration agent participant noted similar techniques.

The research made it clear that the asylum interview is very much a setting in which the official refugee narrative is co-constructed by each of the participants who are present – the decision-maker, the asylum seeker, and any other person assisting, such as a migration agent or lawyer. Not only that – communication choices are influenced by the beliefs and past experiences of each of these participants. This means that this interaction and the resulting official narrative are influenced not only by official guidelines (however much they aim at close control), but also by a number of other external influences.

Even in these cases that had positive outcomes, there were moments when the guidelines simply weren’t followed, as in the case of the incompetent interpreter, or in two instances where the participants were given verbal reassurances by their respective decision-makers that they were likely to have a positive outcome.

Fortunately for my participants, their experiences ended happily, although in some cases this relied on interventions that were not foreseen by the policy. If the participants had made different choices or had different capabilities, the outcomes could have been very different. What is clear is that this dynamic, interactional communicative setting could benefit from closer attention. Where official policy appears to ensure complete control, but actually leaves room for variation, this should be something that is institutionally acknowledged, with appropriate supplementary measures taken to ensure that the process is truly fair for all those seeking protection. This is all the more important in an environment in which asylum seekers are publicly demonised and potential subconscious prejudices held by decision-makers – if not kept in check – could threaten fair procedures and outcomes. Smith-Khan, L. (2016). Negotiating narratives, accessing asylum: Evaluating language policy as multi-level practice, beliefs and management Multilingua DOI: 10.1515/multi-2015-0072

Author Laura Smith-Khan

Laura is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University. She is admitted as a lawyer in NSW and has conducted fieldwork with refugees across four continents and focused on the inclusion of refugees with disabilities. Her current research focuses on language policy and language ideology in Australian asylum procedures. She loves learning new languages and speaking about anything language or communication related.

More posts by Laura Smith-Khan
  • Diana Eades

    Thanks Laura for letting us glimpse into that seemingly inaccessible world of communication between asylum seekers and the government officers who make the (initial) decision about their claim. The language management framework works well in your analysis of the policy-interactions interface and highlights some important language issues for asylum seekers to access their rights. In the full article (linked at the bottom of the blog piece) I found the experience of Ali participating in the interview with an interpreter to be an important one — not just in terms of the interpreter’s failings, but also because of what it shows about the realities of people with reasonably good English proficiency nevertheless needing an interpreter in contexts such as a bureaucratic interview. And how refreshing that the immigration officer seemed to understand that — which is not always the case in police interviews and criminal courts.

    • LauraSK

      Thanks very much for your comments, Diana. I agree about Ali’s experience. But how different the outcome may have been if he did not understand English, or if the officer had been less inclined to follow up on his concerned facial expressions (as I imagine may often be the case in those situations you refer to.

  • Donna Butorac

    Great blog, Laura! Reading what you describe of the interview process makes me think of it as a performance, including the performance of power. How much can applicants be prepped for this staged interaction, perhaps by an advisor, in order to react, as some of your participants did, when they sensed they were being misrepresented by an interpreter?

    BTW, the Aus govt advert is so awful, so chilling, that at first I mistook it for a spoof on an Aus Gov ad. I’m feeling a dispiriting sense of alienation…

    • Thanks, Donna! My sense exactly! And the multilingual trouble they’ve taken with the ad, too … I first saw it in a Persian-language community newspaper, and it’s available in 18 languages (see Quite a bit more than most other public service announcements in this country …

      • LauraSK

        Very true! It reminds me of an early campaign by the Australian government, with the same end. There was horribly tragic irony when a billboard with a similar deterrent message from the Australian government featured in the background of a targeted bombing in Quetta, Pakistan in 2011. No doubt the billboard was aimed at dissuading those in Quetta from attempting to seek asylum in Australia. Meanwhile, the sad truth of the harm they faced presents itself in the foreground of the photo – the bombing targeted the Hazara-Shia minority living in Quetta. see (warning: the photo is quite graphic)

    • LauraSK

      Thanks Donna! Yes, it definitely has the feel of a performance – and a very important one at that. Considering the case officer follows a script (the interview proforma), you could say it really is a performance from that side of things too! And when we start to look at the way credibility is scrutinised in these interactions, it becomes clear that it is a situation where the applicants need to follow very specific ways of communicating and interacting, but at the same time “act natural” so as to be believable. Quite a challenge, in some cases!!

  • Sana Bharadwaj

    Amazing work, Laura. I completely agree, so much more needs to be done to ensure that this conversation continues at the institutional level to ensure fairer practices – this is a fantastic start!