LGBTIQA+ refugees and asylum seekers: considerations for interpreters


Researcher: Elizabeth Schmidt

MRes supervisors: Kerry Robinson and Nichole Georgeou

Institution: Western Sydney University

The importance of trust … cannot be overstated.

Interactions with interpreters can make the difference between a refugee or asylum seeker getting what they need or falling through the cracks in a service institution, and systematic approaches to both supporting interpreters and holding them accountable are necessary to ensure positive outcomes.

My research examined policy to practice connections that impact LGBTIQA+ refugees and asylum seekers. To do so I conducted a policy review, and also interviewed service providers (case management, mental health, interpreting, legal, health, advocacy and community support). My aim was to identify challenges that members of this cohort face in navigating policy (and how they cope with these challenges).

Several participants in the research reported having observed negative interactions between interpreters and LGBTIQA+ clients. These include breaches of confidentiality, hostile non-verbal behaviour towards a client, refusing to use a client’s correct name or gender identity, and even intentionally changing what the client has said.

Although these behaviours clearly contravene AUSIT’s Code of Ethics, one interpreter participating in the study explained that when a colleague violates the Code, there are few consequences.

The importance of trust in working with LGBTIQA+ clients cannot be overstated. It can be very difficult to build trust with traumatised clients such as refugees and asylum seekers, and negative interactions with interpreters can erode trust in both interpreters and end service providers.

However, trust can often be established with intentional practices for conveying safety. One guide for practitioners working with traumatised clients points out that according to polyvagal theory, trauma can change a person’s perception of others’ behaviour, making neutral behaviour appear hostile, as the traumatised person constantly tries to evaluate their own safety when interacting with the other.* In such circumstances, explicitly warm, welcoming communication is critical to ensuring a client feels safe. 

The research found that some interpreters are putting these ideas into practice. Another participating interpreter described a commitment to making clients feel safe. She ensures she does so by interpreting their words accurately, conveying warmth in the way she speaks, and also taking time – if she senses that a client is nervous – to explain that she will keep their information confidential. She said:

It’s important to make sure that I say exactly what they are saying and show the same emotions they are showing, for them to feel safe to talk and to get things out. Because when they get things out, it makes a big difference for them.

These tactics exemplify how even small changes can reduce both technical and emotional challenges in interpreting. 

The research concludes that many of the challenges described relate to a lack of systematic guidance and accountability for service providers working with LGBTIQA+ refugees and asylum seekers. The successful tactics described were often choices made by individual interpreters, based on their own experiences and commitment to clients’ wellbeing, rather than outcomes of standardised training.

To institutionalise these practices it may be necessary to depart from contracted service models, which offer few opportunities for training or accountability. While this will be a slow process, it is possible to overcome many barriers with trauma-informed care and a commitment to making sure clients are fully supported, no matter who they are.

Some of this summary comes from Elizabeth’s research report ‘Making Space: Policy and Practice to Support LGBTQIA+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers.’ You can find the full report here.

* TIP Advisory Committee (2013). Trauma-Informed Practice Guide, BC Provincial Mental Health and Substance Use Planning Council, Canada. 

Submission form

for court interpreters to report incidents or issues that occur in court interpreting assignments.

Purpose and function of this information submission form.

This form enables you to report issues or problems that you encounter in the course of court interpreting assignments. These issues and problems will be collected by AUSIT to report to the JCCD (the Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity) to monitor the implementation of the Recommended National Standards. The reporting of these issues and problems enables AUSIT to work with the JCCD to suggest steps to address these issues and to avoid the repetition of these problems in the future.

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