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Language test for immigrants mired in controversy

Home Office is using controversial language tests to deport refugees. But what happens when they get the dialects mixed up?

india Updated: Dec 29, 2003 12:24 IST
Ruhi Khan
Ruhi Khan

If you want to live in the United Kingdom, pretend to be an Iraqi and apply for an asylum. One in every five asylum claims in the United Kingdom are from Iraqis and more than 75 per cent are even granted asylum. Iraq's political situation could even make it understandable but an astonishing 2500 claims have been from India, according to the Indian High Commissioner Ronen Sen.

India, the largest democracy in the world, has "no reason whatsoever" to have asylum seekers claiming refuge in the UK according to a spokesperson from the High Commission of India in London. He believes that these are "economic migrants looking for greener pastures".

The High Commission of India in London thinks that it could be a good preliminary test but doubts that it is a "sufficient condition to conclusively establish a person's nationality." But both, the British and the Indian Governments, are working to make the process of verification easier for the "Indian" asylum seekers.

A growing number of asylum seekers pretend to come from countries which have high acceptance rates for asylum. Iraq tops the list followed by Zimbabwe. Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia are not too far behind. Then there are cases from countries like India that "by definition have no political prosecution of its people and hence no reason to have asylum seekers". The rising numbers add to the growing anxiety of the Home Office to distinguish between genuine and bogus claims.

Language Tests
To combat these false claims, the Home Office, on March 12, 2003, started "language tests" to determine the nationality of asylum seekers. The Home Office explained that 15 minute taped interviews of applicants claiming to come from certain countries would be played to language experts. The purpose of language analysis is to provide expert evidence, which helps to identify the place of origin of asylum seekers, only when immigration staff had "objective reasons" for doubting their nationality.

Last November when the pilot was announced, Angela Eagle, a minister at the Home Office said: "For the purposes of the pilot, we will be covering asylum seekers of three nationalities [Afghanistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka] where we believe the problem of false nationality claims to be most pronounced." No language tests are performed on any Indian asylum seekers.

The Home office uses two Swedish languages, Taalanalyse from the Netherlands to carry companies Eqvator and Sprakab and a Swiss firm called Lingua and Bureau to carry out language tests.

Since the tests are based on at least 15 minutes of tape-recorded "free speech" of the test person, there is no personal interaction between the test person and the "analyst". The test person is asked to speak freely of things such as his upbringing, eating habits, childhood memories, names of street in his home town, the type of government in his country, and people he particularly likes or dislikes.

According to the head of Lingua, Florentin Lutz: "Experts have developed various methods to get the test persons to say the truth about their origin. They deliberately "emotionalise" the test person concerned as a way to make them say the truth. Asylum seekers who claimed they came from Kosovo were asked to answer questions such as: "What does it smell like in the market in Pristina?" But how reliable are these tests in determining the future of a refugee? And how credible are the companies that carry out these tests? Australia has been using similar tests by the same firms the UK government has selected for carrying out these tests.

Since December, 1999, Eqvator and Sprakab, have analysed the language patterns of about 2500 asylum seekers for the Australian Government. The analysis have cost the Federal Government about $2 million, including $500,000 in 2002. However, the high expense does not guarantee a high degree of success.

In Australia: According to the Federal Government, in 70 per cent of cases it has been found to support the claims of the applicants, in 30 per cent of cases it has cast strong doubts about the claim or proved inconclusive.

In Sweden: In 1998, an internal Swedish Government evaluation found that of 50 asylum seekers deported from Sweden, largely on the basis of language analysis, nine were sent to the wrong country.

Eqvator refused to answer any questions regarding the wrong deportation by Swedish authorities of those 9 asylum seekers. Charlotta Lindkvist, manager and project administrator of language analysis says: "Eqvator has nothing to do with the asylum investigation or the enforcement." She added: "Examinations that has been done by the Swedish Migration Boards together with Eqvator shows that the sureness of aim of Eqvator's language analysis is 96 per cent." Academic linguists have cast doubt on the claims that it is possible to be so sure of a person's origin just from their dialect.

Last year, a family who claimed they had come from Afghanistan were denied asylum in Norway, on the grounds among others that Eqvator tests indicated that they were not Afghanis. The case ended up in court, where the family's lawyer presented two expert opinions regarding the language tests in question. Ruth Schmidt, a linguist and researcher at the Department of Eastern European and Oriental Studies at the University of Oslo, noted that "the transcription [from the recording] of the words in the text analysis is inconsistent, unscientific and unreliable", and that the tests in question were "too defective to permit an evaluation of [the family members'] linguistic affiliations". Eqvator refused to comment on the incident.

John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at the University College of London, said: "The assessment depends on the knowledge of the 'expert' in that particular language". He agrees that it would help the Home Office achieve its purpose of filtering false claims as it is "difficult for a Saudi to sound like a Pashtun without local knowledge."

The Home Office defends its use of Eqvator and Sprakab, saying language analysis is just one of the tools used to help determine asylum status. A spokesman for the Home Office said: "We are confident that the language analysis is vigorous and accurate. It helps to use this sort of specialist information to determine false claims."

Anders Sundquist, an immigration lawyer at Rådgivningsbyrån, a legal office advising asylum seekers, run jointly by a number of Swedish NGOs including Amnesty International and 'Save the Children' points to the fact that no particular professional, let alone academic qualifications are required for becoming a language "analyst" and says that sometimes analysts are not even from the same country as the person subjected to the test. Moreover, the identity of the "analyst" is never revealed, allegedly on security grounds. This makes it impossible for asylum lawyers to check an analyst for possible lack of qualifications or bias.

In response, Charlotta Lindkvist says that "Eqvator operates with language analysts with great experience. In recruiting new linguistic analysts, Eqvator selection criteria includes: Native language and relevant, up-to-date knowledge of country or countries of origin, relevant academic education and experience of language and linguistically oriented work projects. The names are not disclosed for security reasons."

Hayley Booth of the Refugee Council, which is the largest organisation in the UK working with asylum seekers and refugees, says: "We are concerned with language testing as a reliable way of testing for someone's nationality. We believe there is a range of indicators that must be used to properly determine an asylum seeker's nationality which take into account the asylum seeker's case history, their knowledge of their country and information about their parent's background." The Refugee Council does not represent individual cases so are not involved in checking up on individual mistakes that may be made in the tests.

First Published: Dec 25, 2003 21:33 IST