27 / 03 / 2024

Lost for Words: Lack of interpreters puts asylum seekers’ lives on hold in Greece

In detention-like facilities, asylum seekers have to wait for sometimes over a year for their asylum interviews due to lack of interpreters. And when the interviews take place, they sometimes blame interpreters’ mistakes for their rejections.





English editor:


For seven months, Foday has been waiting in a refugee camp for his asylum interview. The camp, Ritsona, is wedged between factories, warehouses, and Greece’s only crematorium, about an hour outside of Athens. 

The camp is surrounded with walls and barbed wire fencing. Residents can enter and leave Ritsona at will, but due to limited access most residents have little contact with the outside world.

Foday arrived in Greece in August 2023, having fled threats on his life in his home in Sierra Leone, hoping to find somewhere he could live safely and work. He will wait at least another four months for the interview that will determine if he is granted international protection or not. 

He said his interview has already been postponed twice because the Greek Asylum Service did not have a translator that speaks his native language– Krio. The postponements made him feel desperate, but he is not alone. 

There are “lots of people here that have the same problem, no translator,” said Foday. “I don’t see any of the guys from Sierra Leone doing interviews. Everyone just waits.” Of the around 11,000 refugees recognized in Greece in 2023, around 4 percent of them were from Sierra Leone.

[The asylum seekers who spoke to Solomon for this report are speaking on condition of anonymity due to fears that speaking out would endanger their asylum claim. Their real names have been changed.]

In Greece’s Malakasa and Ritsona refugee camps outside of Athens, people wait for months or sometimes over a year in detention-center conditions for their asylum interviews, often due to a lack of interpreters. 

Asylum seekers and migration lawyers state that when interviews are finally conducted, the interpretation is often flawed, with the chance of endangering the entire asylum claim. Interpretation in Greece’s asylum system is currently furnished almost entirely by one NGO, METAdrasi, which interpreters state does not pay them adequately or on time, overworks them, and provides inadequate training. 

While interpreters at EU institutions require a third level degree in interpreting and must pass stringent tests, the Greek state has no standards or minimum requirements in the recruitment of interpreters within the asylum system. The result is that asylum seekers in Greece wait for interpretation, face improper or inadequate interpretation, and risk having their basic rights denied.

Waiting for the interview

Omar is also waiting in Ritsona refugee camp. Originally from the Gambia, Omar speaks Fula, English, Mantika, Wolof, and is now learning Greek. 

He has declared that he wishes to conduct his asylum interview in English both because he worried about the extended waiting time if he chose one of his other languages, and because he had concerns the interpreter would not accurately convey his story. “This is the best decision I made,” said Omar. “The other guys have interviews in 2025, I will have my interview after four months.” 

Lawyers who work with asylum seekers state that these delays are systemic across Greece. “Because there is not enough interpretation, lots of interviews have been postponed,” said Juliette Malfaisan, the Director of the Equal Legal Aid organization that provides legal counsel to refugees in Thessaloniki. Solomon spoke to other lawyers and independent watchdog groups that similarly stated asylum interviews were systemically delayed and postponed due to lack of interpretation across Greece. 

METAdrasi told Solomon that they employ over 350 interpreters who work in more than 60 languages and dialects throughout Greece. Last year, 37,362 asylum applications were registered across Greece. Of the 17,249 pending asylum applications across the country in 2022, 4,134 were pending for more than a year, while in 8,407 pending cases, the interview had not yet been conducted.

“METAdrasi stopped providing interpretation services to the Asylum Service from the beginning of October 2022 until March 2023, so there may have been delays during this period,” stated the organization when asked about delays. “From the end of March 2023 until today METAdrasi has been consistently providing interpretation to the Asylum Service throughout Greece, covering all requests, with few exceptions, which are covered as soon as possible at a later time.”

Errors in language registration

Malfaisan said that she has seen clients choose to conduct their asylum interview in a language they are not fully comfortable in, to try to end the months of waiting. “When there is no interpreter, the asylum office gives you the option to postpone or do the interview in another language,” said Malfaisan. “But the situation that they are in, most of the time they will accept [changing the language].” 

Asterios Kanavos, the Legal Coordinator of Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid in Athens, said that he has seen clients not only pressured to change their listed language for their interview, but he has had many clients where the language was listed as one contrary to their choosing. “The list on the registration of languages is not always accurate,” said Kanavos. 

He gave examples of clients who spoke for example Fula and French, who stated they wanted to conduct their interview in Fula, but were registered as preferring French. Asylum seekers thus ended up conducting their interview in a language they speak, but perhaps not fully fluently or comfortably.

“This is systematic,” said Kanavos. “I have seen this happening in several cases.” 

The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these allegations. 

The Greek State has been taken to European courts (European Court of Human Rights, Court Justice of the European Union), in part due to its improper interpretation services. In 2011, a court ruled several aspects of the Greek asylum system were unlawful, including gaps in interpretation. A report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles found that, in November 2019 alone, 28 asylum applicants were rejected without any personal interview due to lack of interpretation. 

This is a violation of both Greek and European Asylum law, which dictate that an asylum seeker has the right to seek asylum and conduct an interview in a language they understand.

Poor Quality Interpretation

Asylum seekers, refugees, and asylum lawyers told Solomon that there were frequent problems with quality in interpretation in the asylum system, particularly in asylum interviews. Additionally, they said interpreters assigned to asylum seekers sometimes speak a different dialect to the asylum seeker, or are imprecise in their interpretation. 

 Several of Omar’s friends have told him that they believe interpreters made mistakes in their interviews. “I decided to use English so the person will speak directly to me,” said Omar, “because I know it would be easier, and there are so many dialects of Fula.”

Hamid, also a resident of Ritsona, is certain that the assigned interpreters made mistakes both in his asylum registration and in his asylum interview. Hamid speaks Farsi, Dari, and English. He declared that he wanted to conduct his interview in Farsi as it would be the most comfortable for him to fully express the details and nuances of why he fled his home country.

Ritsona refugee camp, June 2021. Solomon’s Archive. Picture: Thodoris Nikolaou.

He did not mention that he speaks English because he was worried the Asylum Service would push him to conduct his interview in English. However, when the interview was conducted he could understand that the interpreter was mis-interpreting several things. “I heard mistakes in the English, big mistakes with the dates,” said Hamid. “But I couldn’t say anything because I told them I cannot speak English.”

Hamid said during his registration process the interpreter similarly made a mistake with the dates, and his date of birth was listed incorrectly. He said he went to the asylum office inside the camp every day for weeks before he was finally able to fix it. 

Internal inconsistencies within an asylum seeker’s claim or interview can be grounds for denying the claim. “Credibility is very important in an asylum interview, there cannot be inconsistencies,” explained attorney Malfaisan. “When the credibility of the asylum seeker is in doubt, it can have a high impact on their case. But if the interpretation is incorrect, it is not their fault, it’s out of their control.” 

Hamid worried for months about his asylum interview, and about the interpretation. “If you say anything wrong, it goes like you are lying,” said Hamid. “So it’s a big problem if during your interview the translator makes a mistake. It can change the decision. You cannot eat, you cannot sleep, you cannot think.”

Leyla lives in Malakasa refugee camp, set between mountains and a highway, in a container without heat in the winter or working air conditioning in the summer. Her request for asylum has been rejected, and she is waiting to try to appeal the decision. Leyla, who speaks Kurmanji and a bit of Arabic, believes that improper interpretation during her initial registration process cost her her asylum. “The guy who interpreted, he was not good,” she said. “We didn’t know that we should explain what happened to us. The interpreter didn’t tell us. We were rejected. We understood later but it was too late.”

When asked about this incident, METAdrasi stated that they were not aware of it, and that “first registration is carried out by Frontex, whose interpretation needs are not covered by METAdrasi, but by a company.” The NGO however does provide interpretation in Reception and Identification Service, and noted: “We would like to point out that it is not the interpreter’s responsibility to inform the asylum seeker about the asylum procedures, but the responsibility of the officer in charge of the asylum registration.” 

Greek law necessitates that asylum applicants undergoing reception and identification

procedures must be informed of their rights and the obligations of the asylum procedure during their initial registration process. And that “​​the information provided during the screening shall be given in a language which the third-country national understands or is reasonably supposed to understand.”

Asylum Service-Central Offices, Athens, November 2022. Solomon’s Archive. Picture: Stavros Malichudis.

However, a briefing by independent monitoring organizations Mobile Info Team and the Border Violence Monitoring Network found that 19 of the 19 asylum seekers they surveyed who had undergone the registration and screening process in mainland Reception and Identification centers reported “lack of access to information, appropriately translated information or legal support, significantly impacting their ability to navigate the asylum procedure.”

This report similarly found several asylum seekers received information only in a Greek-language document which they did not understand.

Leyla was also further stressed during her asylum interview–in which she was meant to explain her reasons for fleeing ongoing violence in Afrin, Syria– because the interpreter was not physically present, but rather interpreting via video call. “Unfortunately we didn’t see the interpreter because they were on a laptop,” said Leyla. “To be honest I hated the interview, it was difficult to bring back all those memories.” 

METAdrasi told Solomon that on average they cover 25% of interpretation requests from Regional Asylum Offices throughout Greece (not only interviews) remotely.

Kanavos, a lawyer, said that he has also seen instances where asylum seekers were interpreted through two different people. One interpreter translated from say Somali to English, another English to Greek. “This double interpretation, it’s a game of broken telephone,” said Kanavos. “It’s logical things will become complicated.”

Lack of Training and Poor Working Conditions

Interpreters who have worked for METAdrasi told Solomon that they received inadequate training, are often overworked, and have faced chronic delays in payment. 

The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum does not require interpreters in the asylum system to complete a state-standardized training in interpretation to work in the asylum system. 

METAdrasi requires various levels of training as provided by the organization. 

The first level of training certifies them to work as interpreters in the reception procedure, the second is within the refugee camps, and the third level is interpretation within the asylum interview.

Interpreters who have worked for METAdrasi told Solomon that the training they received by the organization addressed issues of neutrality and equality, professional conduct, and the legal rights of asylum seekers, but only addressed issues of trauma or specific cultural or dialectical differences that can impact interpretation in passing. Interpreters of all languages participate in the training together, such that language-specific issues are not addressed in the training. 

“Trauma was mentioned, but it wasn’t a quality discussion for me,” said one interpreter who wished to remain anonymous. He said the one-week training provided by METAdrasi didn’t cover cultural or dialectical differences. 

“METAdrasi’s interpreters are trained not only in the above-mentioned, i.e. in the principles of neutrality, legality, but also in diversity and respect for the other person, but also in many other subjects, which are crucial and essential, so that they have the skills to interpret with maximum accuracy and to understand the context in which they are required to interpret,” stated the organization.

Amgad Barakat has worked as an interpreter for over eight years in various positions, and was working as an interpreter with METAdrasi this past year. He felt that his team was professional, but that the issue of interpreting for people with heavy trauma, and ways to handle this trauma himself, was not addressed by METAdrasi on an institutional level. 

“Trauma and suffering is the only thing we can see these days. It’s not something any human being, even an interpreter, can work with,” said Barakat. “Whenever you go out you have to put a block of cement between those ideas and yourself so you can live your life. Otherwise you will be consumed. You can imagine what stories we are hearing.” 

Barakat was interpreting in the reception procedures and in a camp in the north of Greece. He would interpret for up to 24 registration processes in one day, as well as for appointments with doctors or social workers. He said handling the trauma of the stories he was interpreting day in and day out was the hardest part of the job. In a previous job with a medical organization, he said interpreters were offered regular meetings with psychologists, but at METAdrasi there was no such support offered. Other interpreters who spoke to Solomon said they were not aware of any psychological support offered by the organization. 

“METAdrasi’s interpreters have known since the beginning of their cooperation with METAdrasi that they have the right to request psychological support, when required, which METAdrasi covers with its own resources, knowing exactly that it is important for the interpreters, for the applicants and for the refugees,” METAdrasi told Solomon. 

Kanavos said in his current work he has seen that some interpreters working with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum are not informed on historical and political contexts of different countries or regions, and are far overworked. “Since 2020 the number of interviews they conduct has increased from one to three per day,” he said. “It’s exhausting. It’s hampered their work.”  

One interpreter said that the workload fluctuates vastly depending on the number of arrivals and location: “It really depends, in some small periods I was about to die,” he said. “Because for four hours a day you will speak, it was very difficult. Generally it’s ok, it’s not too much work for me. But I know some people who are really busy every day.”

In regards to the workload for interpreters the organization stated: “METAdrasi’s interpreters are aware that they have to take a 15-minute break every hour and a half during their working hours, in order to ensure the provision of quality interpretation. Finally, they receive vacation days, in accordance with the provisions of the Greek labor legislation.” 

Barakat left his position at METAdrasi due to ongoing issues with regular payment of his salary. He and other interpreters, who wish to remain anonymous to protect their positions, told Solomon that their salaries have chronically been delayed for weeks or up to two months at a time.

In mid-January METAdrasi released a public statement that the Ministry of Migration and Asylum had not transferred their earmarked funds, already paid by the European Commission to the Greek Ministry of Finance, for over eight months. In October, when they were at six months of non-payment the organization threatened that they were going to have to reduce interpretation by 80 percent. By January the organization stated they were again looking at having to severely reduce interpretation. 

“Several times in the past we have faced delays of several months, but this is the first time that we have been providing interpretation for eight consecutive months and have not received a single euro,” stated the organization. “We are on the front line every day and we should not be concerned with whether the state’s accounting system is closed and when it will be reopened, whether the Ministry of Finance has paid or not the European funds to the Ministry of Migration, whether the designated officials are on leave or sick and cannot be paid the amounts due to METAdrasi.”

When asked about delays in payments to workers, METAdrasi told Solomon: “It is a fact that in December and January there was indeed a two-week delay in the payment of the monthly salary, due to the long delay in the payment of arrears by the Ministry. Since then, the payment of the payroll has been paid regularly.”

The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding the lack of payment to METAdrasi.

In Ritsona, as in Malakasa, people wait for their asylum interviews or the response to their application, they languish without interpretation for their most basic needs. Any request for medical assistance, for information, or for baby nappies, is left untranslated. 

In Malakasa, Nadia, six months pregnant, is worried how she will get basic supplies for her baby. “If we had an interpreter in the camp it would be better,” she said. “They don’t understand us, we don’t understand them.” 

In Ritsona, Mohammad is often asked to do ad hoc translation for friends or anyone who speaks one of the languages he speaks. He feels he can’t say no, he can’t leave people with unaddressed medical problems or questions. “It’s not easy to translate someone, it has challenges,” he said. “In general Greece has a poor system. It needs a lot of work.”

This investigation was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe as part of a cross-border project with Alice Chambers for Noteworthy in Ireland.

More to read

Before you go, can you chip in?

Quality journalism is not of no cost. If you think what we do is important, please consider donating and becoming a reader who makes our work possible.