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The Perils of AI Translation in Asylum-Seeking Contexts

Refugees find themselves in a singularly precarious, frustrating, frightening situation. They’ve been displaced from their home and are forced to try to gain admission into a foreign country. A country whose first language is very often different from their own. It is a situation which most people have the luxury of avoiding. This life changing event is entirely out of the control of refugees. And so, the recent trend among some government agencies and organizations of effectively denying these individuals access to skilled translators when filling out crucial documents—instead leaving them to the faulty aid of machine translation software—comes as a shock.

Although machine translation has come a long way in the past decade, it still falls short, and this inadequacy has no place in the life-or-death situation refugees might find themselves in. The forms asylum seekers are required to fill out demand accuracy. And accuracy in this case demands qualified professionals.

Translators and Refugees

When applying for asylum in a number of countries, a refugee is likely to face these circumstances with little to no knowledge of the country’s language. This is to be expected. After all, this wasn’t a planned excursion. Refugees have no say in the matter. By working alongside them, translators can help these refugees navigate a complex immigration system, which includes putting together various immigration forms such as the asylum applications.

Without this assistance, it’s difficult to imagine how a refugee might make clear sense of what’s being requested of them, let alone how to respond.

Uma Mirkhail, a crisis translator working with Respond Crisis Translation, recounted to Rest of the World a situation in which such a lack of assistance had catastrophic consequences. In 2020, Mirkhail worked with a Pashto-speaking refugee who had fled to the U.S. from Afghanistan, only to have her asylum bid denied on the grounds that her application differed from the initial interview response.

The reason was simple: an automated translation tool had swapped the “I” pronouns in the woman’s statement to “we,” creating a discrepancy between her initial interview and what was written in her asylum application. This discrepancy was cause enough for rejection.

As Leila Lorenzo, policy director at Respond Crisis Translation, said in an interview with Rest of the World, not only is the rise in machine translation and apps costing translators their jobs, but it’s also throwing already precarious asylum cases into jeopardy.

In the UK, a leaked Home Office document exposed by The Guardian in February indicated new plans to try and clear the backlog of asylum claims. These plans include a questionnaire of 50+ questions that would replace in-person interviews under the Streamlined Asylum Processing. The official advice for those with limited English proficiency: ask family, friends, or use “online translation tools.”

Ensuring Proper Support

Ensuring that asylum seekers have a fair chance means ensuring support for them. Genuine support in the form of translation experts who can avoid the sort of mistakes made by translation tools and software readily available. Governments—or the contractors they hire—and aid organizations working with asylum seekers cannot continue to rely on inefficient technology if their aim is to give those asylum seekers a fair chance.

Of course, machine translation and AI continue to be exciting developments, but translating from one language to another, and back again, is a difficult process. It goes far beyond simply exchanging one word for another. The entire context of a sentence can influence the actual meaning of a word in ways that technology fails to recognize, leading to simple mistakes. As in the case outlined by Mirkhail. A human translator can navigate these intricacies. As well as the intricacies introduced by the metaphors and idioms which might appear in a refugee’s personal statement.

Damian Harris-Hernandez, co-founder of the Refugee Translation Project, highlights these issues, also pointing out that, at bottom, “the person might just not be perfect at writing.”

Two of Refugee Translation Project’s most requested languages are Dari and Pashto. Languages which have fallen behind more common languages like English when it comes to machine translation tools. The reason for this lag is that, broadly speaking, English or Mandarin are more “high priority.”

For the sake of those in need of their services, it is well worth the cost of hiring translators. They can ensure that individuals seeking asylum know what it is that they’re communicating, be it through questionnaires, documents, or statements. Trusted Translations offers the services of language professionals from all over the globe, working in a wide range of languages. These are crucial services.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay