Blog: English language and the ‘streamlined asylum process’ – response from The Bell Foundation

In this latest blog, Diana Sutton, Director of The Bell Foundation discusses the use of English-only application forms in the ‘streamlined asylum process’ recently announced by the Home Office.

Key sections in this article:


Last month, the Government announced a new ‘streamlined asylum process’, following the pledge made by the Prime Minister to reduce the backlog in asylum applications, which now stands at more than 160,000 claims awaiting an initial decision.

Through the new process roughly 12,000 people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, so-called ‘high grant countries’ because of their high asylum acceptance rate, are being asked to complete a questionnaire, instead of attending the usual official interview. Claimants are required to respond in English within 20 working days, or risk having their asylum claim withdrawn.

Like many others, The Bell Foundation welcomes the Government’s recognition that action must be taken to reduce the backlog. However, we also share concerns that the use of an English language-only questionnaire risks creating additional hurdles for applicants who speak English as a second or additional language (ESL), potentially undermining the aim of the new process. We joined over 170 organisations in signing a letter to the Home Secretary detailing some of these concerns.

In this blog, we look in depth at the concerns relating to the language requirements of the new questionnaire and the language barriers that the ‘streamlined’ process may create for speakers of ESL.

Language barriers must be recognised and addressed

Under this new process, individuals are facing a situation where they must complete a long and complex form, in a language they may have limited or no proficiency in, or face having their asylum claim withdrawn.

We know from the wealth of available evidence the impact that language barriers, like these, can have on the ability of speakers of ESL to access the services and support they are entitled to. Last year, the Foundation published a research series entitled “Language Barriers in the Criminal Justice System”, which, whilst focused on the justice system, shows how language barriers can limit an individual’s access to both general help and information, and more specific support, in this instance access to legal advice, especially in relation to immigration issues.

It is crucial that the asylum process appropriately recognises and addresses language barriers. We urge the Home Office to reconsider the use of an English language-only questionnaire and to ensure that appropriate translation and interpretation support is made available to those who need it. A copy of the questionnaire and accompanying guidance should also be made available in plain English, and where individuals may be unable to read and write in their first language, questions should be made available in audio form.

Online translation tools are inappropriate for complex and sensitive information

The requirement to produce written evidence in the questionnaire requires a competent level of written English. This evidence may determine whether an individual qualifies for protection status or not, and so individuals need to be certain that the information written in English is accurate. However, for those not yet able to produce text at the necessary level of proficiency, this may mean either procuring the paid-for professional services of a translator, which may be unaffordable, or resorting to machine translation technology.

Online translation tools are useful for day-to-day translations of simple information, but they are not appropriate for information that is complex, of a legal nature and sensitive. Languages also vary hugely in the quality of automatic translations, as the most widely used languages have higher levels of translation accuracy than lesser used languages, with less content available online.

This is shown clearly in this case study, taken from the Foundation’s research:

“So only in the first police interview I did not have an interpreter or translator with me – it was the computer program, Google translation. But as of the next interview, so second interview, after that I always had an interpreter with me... I was very nervous, and I was very stressed... But the second time when I was interviewed, in the presence of an interpreter all my statements, my previous statements, were corrected....” - Victim, human trafficking

Formal or technical language may be difficult to understand

The language of the questionnaire is both formal and complex. Technical language relating to the law and asylum processes, like ‘country of origin’, ‘intelligence services’, or ‘parties’ (as in political parties), are unlikely to be understood by someone with limited English proficiency.

Similarly, an individual who has limited proficiency may be unlikely to understand a number of the instructions. Take, for example, the sentence that if they ‘cannot return the questionnaire within 20 working days of the date of this letter, you can contact us at xx to request an extension’. This is a vital piece of information, but an individual who is not yet proficient in English may miss it and not take the necessary action.

The asylum process is in place to ensure that who have a genuine claim for asylum, for example fleeing persecution or war, can seek safety and security elsewhere, but for speakers of ESL, the use of an English-only questionnaire risks undermining this. In summary, we recommend that the Government reconsider the use of an English-only form. We also urge that translation and interpretation services are made available, that the form is simplified and written in plain English and that it is made available in a requested language and accessible to those with limited language and literacy.

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