Stories from the field

Day 2015-09-13

Siobhan Davis – Blog Post 1: Language as an Obstacle in Refugee Resettlement

Today was a pretty stressful day at work. I was given the task of organizing the translators/interpreters at the support centre clinic a few weeks ago, and today was the deadline. I’m still quite unsure of myself – knowing  how to efficiently and accurately ensure that all the doctors, counselors, and other health-practitioners will have access to a translator that speaks the right language (Farsi/Arabic/Urdu/Somali) while they are working at the clinic is not something I am familiar with. I also have to take into consideration that the staff have the perfect amount of hours to get a decent salary, all the while staying within the limited budget. I won’t get into the details, but after eight hours on Excel, I did finish creating some sort of schedule, and my supervisor seemed happy with it (we will see tomorrow when the clinic staff get a copy), but I digress.

Interpreters are immensely important to MSRI (the organization I am interning with). I don’t know the exact percentage, but from my observation I estimate that at least 85% of the refugees and asylum seekers I’ve encountered do not speak even the most basic English, the primary language used at MSRI. Without the help of an interpreter, many refugees would not be able to communicate that they require food support, need to see a doctor, or inquire about enrolling their children in school. In the clinic, translators are absolutely essential to ensure that the health practitioners (who are either Malaysians or ‘expats’) are able to comprehend the medical issues plaguing the patients. The counselors and their interpreters probably have the most difficult task. As a result of translating for refugees that have gone through severe trauma, the interpreters, who are mostly refugees themselves, often have to go through counselling sessions at the end of the day. The issue of language barriers that my organization faces on a daily basis made me think of how refugees that had been relocated to a third country would cope if they had very limited language skills.

At MSRI, one of my jobs is to facilitate an English Conversation Class with unaccompanied minor refugees once a week. Without doubt I am very unqualified for this task, considering I have not had any teacher training or even completed an undergraduate degree; however, I have been doing my best and hoping that the students are improving their English skills. In my class, some of the students are quite proficient – some of the others however are finding it very difficult to participate. In fact, some of my students can communicate with me better in Malay as compared English. The reality of being an unaccompanied minor refugee means that it is absolutely essential that the students are able to communicate in the target language (language of the receiving country), if and when they are resettled. Unaccompanied minor refugees are highly vulnerable individuals – they have escaped their place of origin alone and have lost communication with their families. Upon transfer to their destination country, the students in my class will have to learn to cope with the language barrier without support from close relatives.

For my Capstone project, I would like to focus on and investigate the topic of ‘resettlement’ of refugees, which is why I feel that the issue of language and interpreters to be relevant. According to the UNHCR, “Resettlement is the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another State that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement.”[1]Specifically, I would like to learn more about the processes that asylum seekers and refugees undergo in order to be resettled, and the difficulties that they may face in both the asylum and receiving country. This is why my first two podcasts were concerning perceptions of Canada (a receiving country) – I wondered what information and what perceptions the refugee/asylum seekers had about a country they could potentially be resettled to. Four out of the five refugees I interviewed for the first podcast were interpreters, and for them, the language barrier when undertaking resettlement wouldn’t be too much of an issue (as long as they were destined for an English speaking country). But those proficient in target languages appear to be very few.

The language barrier that newly resettled refugees and asylum seekers could potentially create significant trepidations. 28 countries have ‘signed up’ with the UNHCR to become resettlement countries, and they are diverse in terms of languages spoken[2]. From the Czech Republic, to Italy, Sweden, and Australia, refugees may have a difficult time adjusting to and learning these foreign languages in order to gain employment or access higher education. The UNHCR is facilitating language assistance programs in receiving countries in ways such as providing interpreter services and recruiting bilingual settlement support workers.[3] I do wonder though how effective these programs are – I am hoping that when I return to Canada, I will be able to gain some valuable perspectives about this issue from refugees who live in my community or those who work with them to gain a better understanding of the resettlement processes.




[1] (Resettlement: A New Beginning in a Third Country)

[2] (Resettlement Fact Sheet 2014)

[3] (Easing Early Communication: Language Assistance)

Siobhan Davis – Podcast 3: Perspectives on Canada (2)

A continuation from my last podcast, this time I interview members of the Kuala Lumpur community who are not refugees. I wanted to also interview migrants who aren’t ‘expats’ but the issue of language is a limitation as most of them do not feel comfortable conversing in English. As with the last podcast I base my interview on the report from the Reputation Institute that awarded Canada the title of most reputable country in the world. The participants certainly had some interesting observations and opinions.

My main questions for this podcast were the same as before:
1. What the participants thought about Canada winning the title as most reputable country – and whether another country deserves it instead;
2. What images or thoughts come to mind when they think of Canada as a country;
3. Did they think that Canada has some issues when it comes to refugee/migration rights and policies;
4. Would they live or visit Canada.

Thanks for viewing/listening – feedback is very much welcome.


Reputation Institute:\\media\\media\\documents\\press-release-for-country-reptrak-final-071415_1.pdf&hash=56facd015838f38cf93e783366d75d512a556bb8d7956511770a2d102c4cf6d1


Yasmine El-Hamamsy – Blog 1: The Privilege of Legality

In my first blog post I begin to discuss my own position as a legal body in Malaysia and some of the inconsistencies that come with categorizing humans in abstract terms of legality.

As a visitor to the state of Malaysia, I am required to leave the country after the three month visa stamped into my passport expires. I can then return to the state’s borders and renew my visa with an identical stamp. Upon entrance, I might be questioned on my intentions within the borders, although this has yet to happen either time I’ve interacted with border control. In general, my experience at the border has been a smooth process. Additionally, if something was to prevent me from entering, returning to my country of origin does not pose any risk to me and so is still a possibility. Validating visas is not such a simple process for individuals who may not have the option to return to their own origins.

Malaysia did not sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. For this reason, the state has no legal requirement to recognize individuals fleeing war or persecution as refugees. The state is not obligated to support them. Despite this, Malaysia non-discriminately allows anyone to acquire three month visas and enter the country in the first place. In ways, this is a good thing; it temporarily gives displaced individuals land, albeit without any conditions to ensure livability. For example, there is no access to government healthcare, education or formal work. On top of this, individuals seeking refuge and asylum have to find a way to remain legal.

There are limited options, for example, individuals can apply for a UNHCR card and relocation. Relocation most often takes years though, for those who are accepted, and for many others the process becomes a cycle of rejection and reapplication. The initial three month visa will therefore inevitably expire. At this point, exiting and reentering to renew it becomes a risk, outstaying the visitor visa becomes a risk, existing “illegally” (according to the authorities) becomes a risk. Any of these may result in an individual’s detention and deportation. Individuals are forced to choose between being undocumented or “illegal” as it is often referred to, and being in their state of origin.

The existence of the “illegal,” entails the existence of the “legal,” and through no action of my own, I’ve been granted the privilege of assuming such a complex title. Wielding an American passport, there seems to be a common assumption that I am a temporary tourist with no particular reason to outstay my welcome. There is the assumption that I have every intention to return to my country of origin. Through this simultaneously necessary and possible action of being stamped by some authority figure, I am legal. For some, this process could be considered an inconvenience. In reality, the simple action of validating my existence and residence within a border is a privilege allowed by my citizenship, my circumstance, as well as by any other preconceived notions a border control official may have about me.

This unquestioned positionality, again, assumed without any effort of my own, simply by being born in the United States of America and living for an extended time in Canada, grants me these assumptions by others and I am therefore given the freedom of mobility. I am privilege to this freedom for various possible reasons. These reasons may include that neither country that I have ever known to be home is in a state of war (although continue to take part in combat abroad including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan to name a few – They may include that I am not of a persecuted group. They may include that the countries I have resided in are perceived to be relatively economically stable, livable and socially-conscious. Whether these perceptions are true is another matter. This repetitive validation though, the ability to continuously enter and re-enter Malaysia for legalizing myself, is not available to just anyone. The fact that these perceptions exist, are completely outside of my control and donate to me the freedom of mobility entail that for others; those coming from states experiencing conflicts, economic instability, environmental hazards, the result can be the opposite. Others’ circumstances, similarly outside their control, and the perceptions that might follow, deprive them of their freedom of mobility and with that their legality.

Legality, then, exists as a standard of circumstance; your circumstances and the circumstances of your home-state enable or disable your individual legality. If legality of a human is assumed to be necessary, then the circumstantially legal body in their circumstantially livable state must holds the perception that because their own body has occupied a certain corporeal space for their lifetime, they have the right to continue to occupy this space. By extension, because another is new to this space, this new body should be labeled “illegal” if it tries to share this space. But why should this be necessary? The legalities of both space occupiers are circumstantial, an inconveniently inflexible and uncontrollable criterion to have on a human. The necessity of discriminating between the legal and illegal, something based on chance, is unclear.

In the discussion of someone’s identity, legality is typically not discussed, nor is it something the “legal” actively consider. Through the creation of legal and illegal lines, those who are legal and deny others the right of this position impose illegality on others. They are required to accept and identify with this position, and legality has to be actively considered. The ability for a state to declare particular persons legal or illegal creates a factor for discrimination that is controlled by those who establish legal lines. It is a discrimination that is generally irrelevant to those deemed “legal” and uncontrollable to those subjected to the “illegal” identity. All the while, whether you are relegated to either category is a matter of what space your body has existed in over a period of time.

This then raises questions over whether the space is livable, and whether it will remain reliable in its livability. The combination and unpredictability of conflict and climate change, two predominantly human-induced issues, are only examples of reasons that, more likely than not, it is not possible to ensure the livability of land. So even if the temporarily “legal” persons self-centeredly establish legal and illegal categories of humans, we cannot ensure the maintenance of our own legality. These lines fail to serve whatever purpose we had for establishing human illegality in the first place. Legality reliant on circumstance is a line that anyone may be forced to cross at any time.


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