Eritrean interpreters choose sides

04-11-2015
Author: Sanne Terlingen
Source: OneWorld
Flickr
Investigation – 

Last Tuesday Klaas Dijkhoff, State Secretary for Security and Justice, confirmed that the Dutch immigration service has dismissed two interpreters due to their connections with the Dutch youth organization of the one and only authorized political party in Eritrea. This was done after extensive research conducted by OneWorld. All is well that ends well? Or is the problem with interpreters much more wide-ranging than the government wants us to believe?

Imagine this: you flee from the military regime in Eritrea. The journey to Europe is such a risky and expensive one that you have no choice but to leave your wife, children and the rest of your family behind. If the regime discovers that you have left the country illegally, the people who have stayed behind will bear the consequences. They may be deprived of their home, imprisoned, and even tortured or killed.

Imagine this: you arrive in The Netherlands. One of the conditions for being granted asylum is that you tell the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the IND, the complete story of your escape. Should the service find an inconsistency, your application may be rejected, as well as your request for a family reunification.

your application for asylum in this country will never be reported to the authorities of the country of origin

At the beginning of a hearing (the interrogation of an asylum seeker by the IND, red.) the officer on duty will always point out to the asylum seeker the necessity of providing a detailed answer to all questions. He also emphasizes that it is safe to do so. A literal quote from the transcript of such a hearing: ’Everything that is discussed will be treated confidentially. This means that your application for asylum in this country will never be reported to the authorities of the country of origin.’ The same goes for the contents of the asylum statement.

How can the immigration service make this promise, when the asylum seeker has to tell his story in front of people who are connected to those authorities? The General Director of the immigration service has, at the end of September, confirmed to the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad that, because of this, two interpreters have been ‘dismissed’. ‘I was very sorry about it,’ he says. But also: ‘It usually goes well.’

OneWorld’s research shows that the interpreters who were dismissed are not unnoted supporters of the Eritrean regime, but immediate family members of the chairman of the Dutch youth organization of Eritrea’s only political party, PFDJ. This has been brought to the attention of the IND already a year before, by both the Eritrean community and OneWorld.

Media attention

OneWorld has been writing about the wide range of the Eritrean regime since May 2014. One of the things we reveal on Oneworld.nl is that the Eritrean people who have spoken critically in Dutch media about the reasons that drove their fellow Eritreans to fleeing (‘they don’t flee for political, but for economical reasons’), are supporters of the regime. ‘Fear of prosecution is not something that exists in the Eritrean community’, is what the chairman of YPFDJ Holland (Young PFDJ) told news website Nu.nl.

Neither you, nor your family members in first or second degree shall be or will have been involved in a regime that foreigners report to have had issues with.

We discovered that this chairman also works as an interpreter for the Tolken Vertaalcentrum Nederland (TVcN, Interpreters Translating Centre Holland, red.). TVcN has terminated its collaboration after the appearance of the first news items. The immigration service, however, continues to use the services provided by the brother and sister of the chairman. This way the service acts contrary to their own code of conduct for interpreters, which says: ‘Neither you, nor your family members in first or second degree shall be or will have been involved in a regime that foreigners report to have had issues with’. 

Shortage of interpreters

In the Netherlands, there are zero certificated Tigrinya interpreters. (Tigrinya is the number one language in Eritrea, red.). The ‘list of second choice’, that holds ‘approved interpreters without the official certificate’, contains only one name. The immigration service resolves the shortage by commissioning their own interpreters. This is allowed in the case of so-called exotic languages, which is what Tigrinya is. However, in the spring of 2014 the number of Eritrean asylum seekers is growing at such a fast rate, that the immigration service is forced to recruit more interpreters through ‘both formal and informal means’. This is revealed in a letter sent by the organization in July 2014 to former State Secretary of Security and Justice Fred Teeven. ‘Given the large inflow, too few Tigrinya interpreters are available to the immigration service and chain partners (such as the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers) COA and the Raad voor Rechtsbijstand (Legal Aid Board, red.),’ the immigration service literally writes.

‘In the process of recruiting interpreters, first of all a personal acquaintance interview is conducted with the future interpreter by a Coordinator Interpreters,’ a spokesman of the immigration service  says. ‘They are asked to hand over a Certificate of Good Conduct, red. with a so-called ‘weighted profile 80’. This means that reviewers will go back ten years into the registers of Justice.’

Surveillance and intimidation by the Eritrean regime, in the country itself as well as abroad, are being extensively discussed in an ‘Official Message Eritrea’, composed by the Dutch government.

Warnings ignored

The immigration service thus checks whether or not an interpreter has been convicted for a legal offense. However, this process will not unveil any political involvement, even though the immigration service  has since the beginning of 2014 been told more than once that this could cause problems.

‘When the number of Eritrean asylum seekers rose exponentially, we frequently were in contact with the immigration service’, a spokesman of VluchtelingenWerk (Refugees Work, red.), an interest organization for refugees and asylum seekers, says. ‘In those conversations VluchtelingenWerk repeatedly brought up its concerns regarding doubts about the reliability of the swiftly recruited and barely trained interpreters.’

Also in Germany and Denmark

 

Other countries with Eritrean refugees applying for asylum have problems with interpreters as well. On account of the news coverage by OneWorld, the Swiss broadcasting station SRF is investigating whether any interpreters with ties to the regime are currently operative in Switzerland.

 

 

In December, the Grüne Partei der Schweiz is asking the Nationalrat questions. Moreover, the Danish newspaper Politiken reports in December that Eritrean interpreters have been pressuring asylum seekers to not mention the circumstances in their country of origin.

 

 

In July of this year Die Deutsche Welle (the German world broadcasting service) writes an article on ‘bewusste Falschübersetzungen’ by Eritrean interpreters. 

Surveillance and intimidation by the Eritrean regime, in the country itself as well as abroad, are being extensively discussed in an ‘Official Message Eritrea’, composed by the Dutch government. This report formed the foundation for choices made by the government regarding the asylum policy. The report also states that relatives of refugees remaining in Eritrea ‘may face punishments (such as detention)’. 

 

Furthermore, the immigration service has received three complaints in 2014 about Eritrean interpreters from the asylum lawyer, as is proven in documents obtained by OneWorld through the Wet Openbaarheid Bestuur (WOB, the Dutch equivalent of a request under the United States’ Freedom of Information Act. red.). An interpreter asked ‘indiscrete questions, and some questions and answers cannot be retrieved in the hearing’.

The identity of asylum seekers and other information might fall into the hands of the regime, with all the consequences this entails.

The alarm is also being raised by the Eritrean community. The Dutch Eritrean Association for Change (DEAfC, an umbrella organization for different opposition parties, red.) has, in July 2014, sent out a letter in which they point out to the IND the fact that ‘several members or the Eritrean regime (PFDJ) are currently operative as an interpreter within your organization’. According to the authors of these letters these interpreters have been nuancing the reasons that drove the Eritrean asylum seekers to fleeing. ‘In addition to that, secrecy cannot be guaranteed. The identity of asylum seekers and other information might fall into the hands of the regime, with all the consequences this entails.’

DEAfC has handed out to the immigration service a document containing six names of ‘hardcore supporters’ of the Eritrean regime, who are currently appointed as an interpreter (for the immigration service or for other companies supplying interpreters for governmental agencies, red.). The siblings of the chairman of Young PFDJ Holland are also on this list.

Secretary of State: ‘No arrangements’

On account of the letter from the DEAfC and an article on Oneworld.nl, the immigration service has asked the Bureau Veiligheid en Integriteit (Office Safety and Integrety, red.) to investigate the reliability of certain interpreters. A spokesman then promises OneWorld that we will be informed of the results. This is in August 2014. Four months later, still no definitive answer has been given concerning the findings. Therefore, we have asked for the results of the inquiry through the WOB.

We obtained the documents in May, nine months after our first publication on the interpreters. The conclusions drawn by the inquiring agency have been removed from the documents, as well as the description of the way in which the inquiry was conducted. As we have learned from various sources, the people on the list of DEAfC are still being deployed as an interpreter. The same goes for the brother and sister of the YPFDJ-chairman. We have brought forth this news in a new article. Linda Voortman, who is a Member of the Dutch Parliament for GroenLinks (the green party, red.), has asked questions in parliament.

‘The inquiry that was conducted on these interpreters has not shown that they themselves can be associated with the Eritrean regime,’ State Secretary Dijkhoff of Security and Justice has answered in June. ‘That is why the collaboration with the concerning interpreters has not been terminated, nor have other arrangements been made.’ ‘The State Secretary was very determined,’ Voortman says in the Dutch public radio program Argos. ‘I thought: it’s OneWorld’s word against the State Secretary’s. That makes it very difficult to take action as a Member of Parliament.’ In September, the General Director of the immigration service confirms in an interview with newspaper NRC that two interpreters have been dismissed after all. Voortman: ‘Either the statement that the State Secretary made is incorrect, or an unsound inquiry has been conducted. This will not be the final debate on this subject.’

We found a picture of one of the interpreters on Facebook. She was posing in a yellow youth party shirt.

On Facebook wearing a YPFDJ-shirt

The dismissal of the siblings of the YPFDJ-chairman by the immigration service was the result of the article titled ‘Why Secretary of State Dijkhoff is wrong about the issue of the Eritrean interpreters’, published by Oneworld.nl in June, showing a picture of the sister in a yellow youth party t-shirt. A second picture shows her demonstrating in favor of Eritrean president Afewerki. She is holding up a sign with his portrait on it. The pictures were not hard to find, as they were posted on the public Facebook page of YPFDJ Holland. How is it possible the immigration service’s research agency missed such a clear signal?

Threatening tweets and police reports

The supporters of the Eritrean regime in the Netherlands are unhappy about the inquiries conducted by OneWorld. Responses vary from angry tweets (‘racists behind a human rights mask!’, ‘do a James Foley’ - the journalist who was beheaded by IS -) to police reports (by the chairman of YPFDJ). The brother and sister of the chairman have ordered OneWorld to rectify the article posted on the 17th of June and to pay 111.000 euros (for sake of immaterial damage and missed out interpreters’ incomes). They pose that the YPFDJ solemnly exists to facilitate ‘social activities’, and that the organization is not affiliated to the regime.

 

 

OneWorld has decided to neither rectify nor pay.

We have asked the lawyer of the siblings additional questions, informed him and gave him the opportunity to comment.

 

 

In response to this the lawyer has sent out a new letter ordering us to (also) revise a (previous) article from May 21st and to once more pay 111.000 euros. His order was accompanied by the message that ‘clients have indicated not to be willing to cooperate on a new article’. 

In May, a spokesman of the immigration service told OneWorld that ‘the selecting procedure has been modified. A new subject now being discussed is the demeanor on social media.’

During the writing of this article OneWorld received multiple tips about supporters of the regime still employed by the immigration service for interpreting assignments in confidential conversations with asylum seekers. ‘They actually make political statements in the interpreting room!’, one tipster said. ‘But when I myself sound the alarm, that may have consequences for my own family in Eritrea.’

‘It usually goes well,’ as the General Director of the IND says in NRC. Really?

YPFDJ Holland removed all pictures from their Facebook page early October, after the dismissal of the two interpreters affiliated with the regime. OneWorld posed questions regarding the testimony of the General Director of the IND. Up until now, no response has been given.

The immigration service has, however, adjusted their code of conduct for interpreters. The agreements on having ties with the regime have been reviewed.

Update 24th of February, 2016: The two interpreters mentioned in this article have taken legal proceedings against the immigration service. Amongst other things they required a rectification regarding the statement that they ‘are claimed to have ties with the regime’. The judge has declined their request, but does find the remark by the General Director of the immigration service infringing. According to the available evidence, the judge regards it incorrect to assert that the two interpreters 'have ties with the regime', however, it can be said that 'there is a strong semblance of involvement’. The verdict is published on the website of the Council for the Judiciary.

 

Sanne Terlingen

Sanne Terlingen is investigative journalists. In 2013, she won the Dutch...

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