Chartered Institute
of Linguists

A safe space

By Anna Ware

Why it’s important that LGBTI+ asylum seekers have access to LGBTI+ interpreters.

In 2018-2019, 31,589 people applied for asylum in the UK, seeking refuge. Most of these people have been through unimaginable suffering and trauma, both in their home country and on their journey here. Once they arrive, they have to negotiate the complex asylum process. Language is a crucial part of this process and should not be a barrier to making a claim. The quality of interpreting can have a direct impact on the services provided, from guidance at the asylum contact centre to legal assistance, as well as on the outcome of their asylum claim.

Each year, around 2,000 asylum applications are made by LGBTI+1 people fleeing persecution, abuse and violence due to their sexual or gender identity. Same-sex relations are illegal in 70 countries, with six imposing the death penalty. In many more countries, homosexuality and transsexuality are not accepted culturally, leading to suffering, isolation and cruelty, not aimed solely at the individuals themselves but also at their family and friends.

Last year, only 39% of asylum applications were granted on an initial decision, and this drops to around 20% for people seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation. All asylum seekers must provide evidence to support their claim, and often the only evidence that LGBTI+ people have is their testimonial, based on their experiences and feelings. The most recent Home Office report shows that  LGBTI+ asylum seekers come from 49 countries. For many of them, their story is retold as respectfully and accurately as possible through an interpreter.

Years of abuse and secrecy can lead LGBTI+ asylum seekers to feel shame and fear about their sexual and gender identity, which can make telling their story very difficult. Bringing a third party, such as an interpreter, into the conversation can make it even more challenging, especially if they have had a bad experience in the past. Although bias should not be brought into an interpreting session, unfortunately we have heard of times when an interpreter has brought their religious or cultural prejudice into a conversation with an LGBTI+ asylum seeker, using derogatory language or treating them unkindly. It is devastating for people who have left their home country because of persecution to come across it again in a place where they thought they would be safe.

Persistent fears

This was the experience of Hassan Haddad, an LGBTI+ refugee from Syria, who now interprets between Arabic and English for LGBTI+ asylum seekers as a volunteer. When he first arrived in the UK, he did not understand the asylum process and assumed the interpreter had some authority over his claim. When the interpreter started using street language to describe his situation and swear words to put him down, he became very upset and scared to share his feelings. Of course, this is against professional codes of conduct and steps can be taken to address the unprofessional behaviour of the individual interpreter if it is identified by service providers, but even then it can leave a lasting legacy of mistrust and fear.

Haddad tells us that when interpreting for LGBTI+ asylum seekers, the key thing is to make sure they feel comfortable. This can be done by giving reassurance that they are not there to judge but rather to help the asylum seeker communicate their story, and that everything said in the session is confidential. Interpreters often come from the country that the asylum seeker has fled, which can cause anxiety and an instinct to hold back. The interpreter can continue to encourage them throughout the conversation, reconfirming that it is safe for them to share and that they will not be judged.

Offensive language

Micro Rainbow, an accommodation provider for LGBTI+ asylum seekers, reminds us that misinterpretation may not always be malicious. LGBTI+ asylum seekers have to go into quite personal details about their lives and experiences as part of their claim, which can make some interpreters uncomfortable. Sometimes they downplay words or do not express the language properly. An example Micro Rainbow often hears is when the word ‘relationship’ is interpreted as ‘friendship’, completely changing the context of the story.

In some cases, the terms that the asylum seekers use to describe themselves will be offensive or insulting, as these are the only words they know. Oram International’s guide for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression terminology explains that a Syrian man may refer to himself as ذاش (an Arabic word literally meaning ‘abnormal’), as this is what he understands of homosexuality from his life in Syria. Likewise, an Iranian man might use زابــسنجمه (a Farsi derogatory term) because he does not know any respectful terminology to describe himself. There may be a well-meant impulse to change the terms in English, but if the interpreter alters phrases to be more polite or inclusive, it may create inaccuracies in the asylum seeker’s story.

Watch your genders

Another situation that interpreters often struggle with is using appropriately gendered language when referring to transgender people. This is one of the most common issues faced by clients of the LGBT Foundation charity. They say that often interpreters automatically assume a pronoun rather than using the one the person assigns to themselves. This is particularly common when interpreting over the phone, as there are no visual clues as to how the individual might identify.

Using the wrong gender identity is disrespectful and undermines the individual’s sense of being, which is why LGBT Foundation asks interpreters to be mindful of using the correct terms. Interpreters should follow the same terminology as the person uses to describe themselves and, if in doubt, should ask which pronoun they use.

Finally, it is important for interpreters to watch their tone of voice, remain neutral throughout the conversation and take care not to use a tone that could be construed as judgemental, even if there is something that they find surprising or that makes them feel uncomfortable. Haddad reports that such prejudice and misinterpretation continue, and he hears similar stories to his own from the people he now supports. This is particularly worrying bearing in mind that the communication the interpreter facilitates often determines the life chances of the person they are interpreting for.

Often LGBTI+ asylum seekers, especially those who have been through a traumatic experience, feel naturally more at ease with professional interpreters who are also LGBTI+, as there is more reassurance that there will be no judgement. The relational position of the LGBTI+ interpreter (i.e. in terms of sharing the same sexuality or gender identity as the client) will give the asylum seeker confidence and may make them more open to sharing their story.

Responding to this need, the interpreting agency I direct, Clear Voice, is putting together a list of LGBTI+ interpreters so we can offer this service to vulnerable individuals who have experienced great discrimination and would benefit from using an LGBTI+ interpreter. Everyone deserves to have a safe space where they can tell their story, and interpreters play a key role in helping LGBTI+ asylum seekers be heard.


1 LGBTI+ stands for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex’ with the plus sign referring to terms such as ‘pansexual’ and ‘non-binary’. Other variations include LGBTQ, LGBT+ and LGBTQIA+ (with the Q and A standing for ‘queer/questioning’ and ‘asexual’)