Interpretation: Enabling Access to Justice

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Fundraising, Information Sessions, Interpretation, Legal aid, USM

Posted by Ellen Pucke

A caseworker working with one of our service users

To me, being a social worker means prioritising the well-being and rights of those that are most vulnerable, in everything you do. In my role as Office Manager at Justice Centre, I have the opportunity to do that every day when making decisions about our operations, logistics, security, and policies. I balance the needs of our service users with those of the staff to ensure we are able to serve our community to the best of our availability. One of the most important ways we are able to prioritise the needs of our service users is by providing them access to interpreters for all appointments and information sessions at Justice Centre.

Interpretation is essential because our service users are survivors of war, persecution, and torture that have found themselves in a country and culture foreign to them; a country which does offer a mechanism for seeking protection – but in a language that may, in effect, make it inaccessible.

Many of our service users have some degree of proficiency with English or Cantonese, either because they learned it in their country of origin, or have dedicated extensive time to studying and practicing these languages once they arrived in Hong Kong. A moderate level of English or Cantonese certainly helps someone navigate Hong Kong’s systems, but when it comes to communicating about something traumatic and so critical to your future – could you express yourself completely and accurately in anything but your native tongue? Would you be able to comprehend legal jargon or describe distressing experiences in a second language?

More than 30 interpreters offer their talent and time to interpret for our clients on an ad hoc basis, in over 22 languages. Because of them we are able to provide our service users with support – allowing them to better understand their rights in Hong Kong, the process of applying for protection, and what the status of their case is; empowering our service users to work collaboratively with our caseworkers to prepare their testimony and legal documentation in an accurate way; and enabling them to work through traumatic experiences and acute mental health concerns with the guidance of a psychosocial counsellor.

Interpretation is absolutely critical for ensuring our service users have the best possible chance of accessing justice. One interpreter described her role as the “bridge between the caseworker and the protection claimant”. She said, “It bothers me when people cannot communicate as they are already in a desperate situation when they come here. Without interpretation, legal support would be impossible”.

I love working with our interpreters for many of the same reasons I love working with our service users – they’re from all over the world, they often know three or four different languages, they come from diverse professional backgrounds, they are eager to learn about the legal process and our advocacy work to improve the experience of people seeking protection in Hong Kong, and they are enthusiastic about holding on to their native languages and using it to help others. Many of our interpreters grew up in households in Hong Kong or abroad where they learned one or more language that is not commonly found here – such as Pashtu, Swahili, or Somali. They tell me they enjoy interpreting these languages at Justice Centre because it’s a way for them to stay connected to their roots. When I am privileged to facilitate that connection between an interpreter and a service user, it often reminds me of the strength found in Hong Kong’s diversity.

My heart is full each time a service user meets an interpreter of their native language at our centre; the sense of relief and hope is palpable. I would hope that interpretation services are prioritised and adequately resourced going forward within Hong Kong’s current protection system, in order to facilitate a smoother and fairer system for people seeking protection here. The value of this cannot be underestimated.

Please consider making a donation today: just HK$ 500 enables us to provide legal and psychosocial support to a protection claimant with the assistance of an interpreter. 

At the moment we are in need of interpreters for Amharic, Arabic, Bangla, Somali, and Tigrinya languages.  If you are interested please get in touch with Ellen at for more details.

1416593Ellen Pucke is the Office Manager at Justice Centre Hong Kong. She is also a Hong Kong-registered social worker.

The power of information

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Information Sessions, Refugee, USM

Posted by Aleta Miller

“Information is the currency of democracy”, according to Thomas Jefferson, former president of the United States. This is the currency we deal in at Justice Centre Hong Kong and it is at the heart of our information sessions – run up to four times a week – which are open to all people seeking protection in Hong Kong in their own language.

The implementation of the Unified Screening Mechanism, the new government-led system for assessing protection claims in Hong Kong, has been overshadowed by the massive lack of information, inhibiting refugees and other people seeking protection from accessing it. The government has no information for them, no dedicated telephone number, no website, no public counter, no frontline staff. NGOs have no information from the government either, and many organisations supporting refugees and other people seeking protection have come to Justice Centre to find out information from us about the new system. To me, this appears to be a deliberate ploy by the government to make it as difficult as possible for people seeking protection in Hong Kong to enter the process. The strategy is creating a situation with the most dire of human consequences.

This strategy is not really a surprise, as this is a system that the government didn’t want to implement in the first place. The Hong Kong Government is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and for many years they refused to hear refugee claims, with the UNHCR until recently filling the gap. The government has been forced by the Court of Final Appeal to screen protection claims themselves, implementing the new system at the beginning of March.

In the absence of information about the claim process, we have been holding sessions at our centre, which have been filled to capacity since they started in February with anxious refugees and other people seeking protection. Their uptake shows that we are filling a vital gap. In our seven years of operation, the need and demand for our services has never been so great. Within the past two months, we have run over 35 information sessions, each one attended by up to 20 refugees and people seeking protection from 30 different countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Vietnam, Yemen and Gambia. The sessions detail in the languages of those attending how they can access the USM, what to do once they have filed a claim and their rights as protection claimants. Justice Centre staff are available to provide individual assistance after the sessions. Food, refreshments and transport money are provided by Justice Centre and the sessions are held in a dedicated training space set up to meet the needs of refugees and people seeking protection in a safe and comfortable environment.

Photo Credit: UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
Photo Credit: UNHCR/D.Kashavelov

What we are seeing in our information sessions is extremely concerning. After submitting a letter by mail, some, but not all of those seeking protection, have received an official letter from the Immigration Department telling them what they should do next. The letters are in legal language and in English, difficult even for a lawyer to understand, nevermind someone who speaks a different language. In the letter, they are being advised to write to the Immigration Department outlining their reasons for seeking protection in Hong Kong. They are not being offered any legal assistance from the government to enable them to do this. UNHCR is no longer accepting claims or assisting people entering the new system. In fact there seem to be 4 different versions of letters which protection claimants receive, making the process even more complicated.

The government is doing the bare minimum to meet their obligations under the order from the Court of Final Appeal. Nothing more. For people fleeing human rights abuses such as war, torture and rape, this is wholly inadequate. The decisions the government will make under the new system could mean the difference between life and death for the people we work with and it’s extremely difficult for them to get clear information on how to even make a claim. Their very lives are at stake and the government won’t even show them the respect to tell them how to enter the process of seeking protection.

We are currently gathering information from people attending our information sessions and are compiling a detailed report with analysis of the problems they are experiencing, which we will present to the government. We will continue to empower refugees and other people seeking protection who going through the new system with all the information we can, as well as providing individualised support and legal assistance to the most vulnerable people, those most at risk of falling through the cracks including children, people who are mentally or physically unwell, people who are illiterate in their own language and those who have difficulty recounting the trauma they have experienced. We will continue to demand that the government operate a fair, transparent and efficient system.

Information is power. By denying refugees and people seeking protection access to information, the government is denying them their rights.

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