Applying for asylum in a foreign country: is it as easy as it sounds?
How would you feel if someone throws legal jargons and concepts—which already sound esoteric even in your native language—at you in a language that you barely speak and read? Would you be able to give a full, detailed account of why you fled your country in a language that you are not familiar with? Because all asylum applicants need assistance of professional interpreters who can help them understand what legal process they are in and what options they have, both the Refugee Act and the Refugee Convention clearly stipulate that the asylum applicant has the right to a translator.
However, not all asylum applicants in Korea have access to professional translation and interpretation services. What’s more, asylum applicants often suffer because they have no such access. Let’s review the case of Hannah (alias) and see what happens to asylum applicants who receive no language assistance.
Hannah’s First Asylum Application: Her First Asylum Interview Was in English
Hannah’s native language is Hakha Chin. During her first asylum interview, the interviewer asked Hannah whether she is fine with “an interview in English.” Although she did not feel comfortable with speaking in English, she could not ask for a translator. Because she applied for asylum immediately after she arrived in Korea, not only did she not know she had the right to a translator, but also she was afraid that her ‘no’ would annoy the interviewer and lower her chance of obtaining asylum.
She had learned English before coming to Korea—but only for a few months. She was therefore not fluent enough in English to conduct the whole of the asylum interview in the language. Unsurprisingly, she was unable to recount her past experience in a coherent manner and was later denied asylum. Her administrative appeal was also turned down for the same reason. Although she was provided with professional translation services during judicial review, it was too late: this time, the court challenged her credibility citing inconsistencies between her first interview and her testimony in court proceedings.
Hannah’s Second Asylum Application: Incomprehensible Notices
Her case got closed, but she was unable to return to her home country. She came across the story of Eugene (alias), who came to Korea from the same country as she for the same reason, that was killed after returning home. Even if it was formally announced that he had committed suicide, there was circumstantial evidence indicating that he was in fact murdered. After hearing Eugene’s story, Hannah got scared and re-applied for asylum in Korea. Even her family entreated that she never come home; they told her that “the police and the military frequented their house and asked for her whereabouts.” But, yet again, the Ministry of Justice denied her new asylum application. This time, the Ministry opined that Hannah faced no credible fear of persecution in her home country.
Hannah appealed, but she received the exact same decision—and this time again, everything was explained in English and Korean only. There were neither English translators nor minority language interpreters at the Immigration Office who were responsible for assisting asylum applicants with submitting applications, obtaining decision letters, and responding to other related inquiries. Without any clear explanation, Hannah had to sign a form that indicated that she had received her denial letter; she was even asked in Korean to sign the form. No further information was provided to Hannah.
This is what a lot of asylum applicants in Korea have to go through. The ordeal is tremendous: it is no longer unusual that an asylum applicant is coerced to sign a form without any explanation, only to realize later that she granted consent to administrative appeal by signing the form. It is not the applicant’s fault to sign a form without knowing what the signature is for. At the immigration office where yelling and cursing by the civil servants are commonplace, it requires an enormous amount of courage for asylum applicants to “not do what they are told to do.” In many instances, applicants have to “do what they are told to do” by the officers. So did Hannah.
Failed Second Attempt: Only If She Had Received Basic Information and Interpretation Services!
“The appeal denial letter” that Hannah received at the immigration office contained the most essential information regarding administrative litigation. This letter stated that Hannah had 90 days from the date she received the letter to appeal to court for judicial review, but it was written in only English and Korean. When she asked one of the officers for help, the officer raised three fingers, said “three months,” and told her to go.
Hannah desperately looked for a lawyer through NANCEN, but because she thought the appeals period was three months, not 90 days, she filed her appeal two days after the deadline. NANCEN and Hannah’s lawyers asked the court to take into account the fact that her appeal denial letter was written in languages that she could barely speak and read. They also emphasized the danger that Hannah would face if returned to her home country using credible evidence and country conditions reports. However, the court rejected her claims at the end.
Hannah was finally put in a situation where she had no choice but to re-apply. Fortunately, this time, she was designated a humanitarian status holder. Hannah had to live in fear and anxiety until she received the status.
How Should the Korean Refugee Determination Procedures be Changed?
The Refugee Rights Center’s legal assistance starts from providing basic information regarding the refugee determination procedures and offering translation/interpretation services. Many asylum applicants would not have had to go through the great ordeal if the government had provided them with the information and access to translators/interpreters from the first place. It is not easy for the asylum applicant to ask questions to the officers at the immigration office, even if what she has just received is a copy of her removal order. Their apparent hostility and authoritarian attitudes towards asylum applicants make it even more difficult.
Applying for asylum is a matter of life or death for all asylum-seekers. For this reason, they must be provided with detailed information on the refugee determination procedures as well as professional translation and interpretation services from the outset, so that applicants themselves can apply pro se if they want to. In particular, all asylum interviews must be conducted in a collegial, relaxed environment, and any testimony elicited during the interview must be accurately recorded. Why? Because each asylum applicant gets only one interview, and that is what matters the most for them to obtain asylum. In order to make this happen, translation/interpretation assistance in the applicant’s native language is crucial. Furthermore, each asylum applicant should be provided with an explanation of the reasons for their refugee determination so that they can prepare for their next steps. Most importantly, everything—whether it be a decision or information on future procedures—has to be translated into the applicant’s native language. There also must be separate procedures to ensure that the applicant has understood any communications that they received.
The Justice Ministry is planning to amend its policies to grant the right to re-apply to only a selected few applicants, in order to prevent people from abusing the Refugee Act. However, before they do that, the Justice Ministry has the responsibility to ensure that quality translation/interpretation services are provided to all asylum-seekers and correct the flawed system which inevitably creates re-applicants.
We urge the Ministry of Justice to: 1) provide native language assistance to all asylum applicants during asylum interviews; 2) guarantee that all asylum applicants have access to native language assistance at the time of notification of their decisions; and 3) ensure that the asylum denial letter is translated into the applicant’s native language.
Written by Lee Hyun-ju, Translated by Song Yong-ho
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