Application for asylum denied because of wrong language analysis

Application for asylum denied because of wrong language analysis

An asylum seeker who does not speak the language of the country he says he is from, can be sure that his application for asylum will not be recognized. But this is unjust, according to linguistic anthropologist Jan Blommaert, who pleads for a more thorough language analysis in asylum cases.

Jan Blommaert of the Tilburg Faculty of Humanities won the Barbara Metzger Prize with his article Language, Asylum and the National Order in Current Anthropology. The prize was awarded by the Wenner Gren Foundation, the largest provider of funds for anthropological research. In the article, Blommaert shows how an application for asylum of the refugee Joseph Mutingira from Rwanda was denied by the British Home Office because of faulty assumptions about language.

Mutingira spoke poor Kinyarwanda, the language spoken in Rwanda. This was because his family spoke English when he was young. That is not unusual, but the interpreter did not identify him as a native speaker during the application process. This led to doubts about his country of origin.

This is unjust, according to Blommaert, because the link between country of origin and language is not necessarily ‘one-on-one’. Especially, when wars have caused migration flows and a Diaspora. “Using language as a criterion can be a quick and easy way for governments to determine whether the story of an asylum seeker checks out, but in some cases there is no one-on-one relationship between language and the country of origin”, says Blommaert.

“Refugees from Sierra Leone were rejected in a similar way on grounds of their French accent, because English is the official language in that country. What people did not realize, was that Sierra Leone was a rich country before the civil war, and that it attracted many immigrants from the surrounding French speaking countries. If that background knowledge is not present, the assessment usually focuses on language only. And then there are gaps in the credibility of the refugees’ stories.”

Blommaert has previously acted as a language advisor in several applications for asylum. He noticed that many applications were denied on the basis of communication issues. “Unfortunately, the Joseph Mutingira case is one of the few success stories. Most cases with faulty language assumptions fail because there is not enough expertise to give it a strong foundation.” According to Blommaert, governments are reserved to thoroughly investigate the cases.

“The procedures have to be finished faster and stricter, and asylum seekers are seen as a nuisance. A dismal case as it is in conflict with basic human rights.” Blommaert pleads to link not only the used language to a country of origin but also to time, like a personal history, when it comes to applications for asylum. [Lieke Steijvers, translation: Charles Peter]


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