Interpreter Grossly Distorted Asylum Seekers' Stories

  • By Kwon Soon-wan

    July 18, 2018 13:44

    An Arabic interpreter for the Justice Ministry has been found to have invented stories of asylum seekers, often making them appear in an unfavorable light that may have damaged their chances of staying.

    The Seoul High Court on Tuesday said the interpreter, identified by his surname Chang, would habitually misrepresent what the asylum seekers told him.

    In one instance, a review showed that an asylum seeker told the court in Arabic that he suffered political repression in his home country, but Chang rendered it as, "I came here to make money."

    The court said Chang had no professional qualifications but was a student of business administration with Arabic as a minor subject. It is unclear whether he was simply incompetent or motivated by malice.

    Yemeni asylum seekers fill out an application form at an immigration office on Jeju Island on June 26.

    The court recently ruled in favor of a Sudanese asylum seeker in an appeal against the Justice Ministry's decision to turn down his 2015 application for refugee status.

    In an interview with the ministry, the applicant testified that he was considered a dissident and was tortured in Sudan after he accused officials at a university of corruption. But the Korean translation told a vastly different story.

    According to the ministry’s files, the applicant said he came here to stay and earn money, which resulted in him being classified as an economic migrant.

    "In many other cases where Chang translated, ministry reports also state that asylum seekers said they came to Korea to make money," the court said. "The fact that the same statement is found in many interview transcripts involving Chang means that there was a serious problem with his translations."

    Chang translated in more than 100 asylum application cases over the past two years. As a result of an internal investigation, the ministry voided 55 of its own decisions against asylum seekers where he was involved, and has already reversed two and granted the applicants asylum.

    Professional translators blame the ministry for employing undergraduates or other non-professionals to save money. A qualified professional interpreter is paid W150,000 per hour (US$1=W1,126). But the ministry pays just W50,000.

    Even among contract or regular translators in government offices, only a handful have the proper qualifications from a graduate school of interpretation and translation.

    The problem came into focus amid a recent influx of Yemenis to Jeju Island, who fled the civil war in their country taking advantage of a tourist visa waiver for the resort island. Currently, none of the ministry's Korean-Arabic translators on Jeju has the proper qualifications.

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