WASLI Report Refugee Crisis in Europe Interpreting

1st WASLI Report Refugee Crisis in Europe Interpreting

As we know Europe is supporting refugees from Ukraine. Thanks to our European Regional Representative dr. Prof. Christian Rathmann we can share first hand information on the current situation.


English translation by Ramas McRae and Rebecca Ladd

Ukrainian Translation by Igor Chavrot

Spanish Translation by Sergio Zurita

Russian Translation by Ekaterina Golovanova 

Hello, my name is Christian Rathmann and I’m the regional representative for Europe of WASLI (World Association of Sign Language Interpreters). This video update focuses on how European interpreters have been working with the deaf people who have fled from the Ukraine and are seeking protection in other European countries.

I will provide a summary of consultations which I have undertaken with countries in close proximity to the Ukraine including Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria as some examples of Eastern European countries with whom I have had discussions about the interpreting situation in relation to deaf refugees. 

Four questions were asked as the basis of the consultation:

1. From your perspective, was everything well organised, including communication and interpreting processes and what were the difficulties experienced? 

2.  What language was used for communication with the deaf refugees, was it International Sign, Ukrainian Sign Language or Russian Sign Language and were any problems encountered? 

3. When a deaf refugee arrived in a particular country, were there guidelines and a register of interpreters established to enable deaf refugees to gain quick access to an interpreter upon their entry to a foreign country and was the interpreting process seamless or what challenges occurred? 

4. Were government written materials translated specifically for Ukrainian deaf refugees either in the Ukrainian, Russian or English languages also provided in Ukrainian Sign Language? 

This information was collected and collated over the past two weeks. This is not a comprehensive account but is just a summary of what I found over this short period with more extensive information to be provided at a later date. 

The interpreters highlighted the importance of:

1. ensuring clear communication in sign language for deaf refugees at the entry point to the countries they were seeking refuge with someone taking responsibility to ensure connections were made between deaf individuals and interpreters. The deaf individuals could then be assured of clear communication and be then assisted to navigate the system. 

2. interpreters being available during the initial period at central entry points so that the deaf refugees had access to interpreters who were working with deaf leaders and deaf supports to ensure a co-ordinated approach specifically complementing the needs of deaf refugees to make sure they were privy to all the relevant information. 

3. being available to facilitate communication for deaf refugees at hospitals as many new arrivals were in ill-health and needed to be hospitalised. 

4. clear communication when details were conveyed about the plans as to where a deaf refugee would settle in future, whether in the country in which they were currently or another country and information about interpreting services in the other countries. 

5. deaf refugees needing information about the national regulations such as visa requirements and how to register their personal details when they were seeking asylum in a country. 

The interpreters were key to ensuring clear communication and streamlined co-ordination. It was a very onerous job, making sure that deaf people were linked with local deaf associations and relevant agencies. There were many interpreters involved, all working on a voluntary basis. 

In terms of the interpreters that were utilised, there were two groups; both qualified and unqualified interpreters. Within the latter group, there were many interpreters who were deaf, a few of whom had formal interpreting qualifications, others who were bilingual, in both Ukrainian or Russian Sign Language as well as the sign language of their adopted country. These people were frequently Ukrainians or Russians who had previously migrated to the countries which were now receiving the deaf refugees. These people were particularly helpful relaying communication and interpreting. The second group were deaf people who acted as communication supports relaying information using international gestures to convey information;  these groups worked collaboratively and as a united team. 

Initially the deaf refugees may have experienced confusion upon arrival into a new country and although issues were quickly resolved, there were some challenges. Challenges included the following:

1. language – when the deaf refuges arrived, it was important to establish their preferred means of communication. If they were not familiar with International Sign, then Ukrainian or Russian Sign Languages were used interchangeably due to the similarity of both sign languages. Naturally not many people who were assisting were fluent in both Ukrainian or Russian Sign Language and the local sign language of the country in which the evacuees were seeking refuge so those that did possess that skill were in very high demand and worked countless hours. Particular gratitude is expressed to these people, even more so, because they were working without recompense. In some cases, some of the refugees acted as interpreters for other Ukrainian refugees who were not familiar with International Sign. This would mean that the Ukrainian refugee, fluent in Ukrainian Sign Language would work with an International Sign interpreter who would then work with the local interpreter when interpreting for the newly arrived refugee. 

3. deaf refugees needed clear information about what to expect in the countries in which they were seeking asylum. This information could be supplied by deaf people resident in the countries. It helped if there was a comprehensive register of interpreters available in each of the affected countries, highlighting their ability in the relevant languages, their willingness to work voluntarily and their contact details so they could be easily contacted and the connections made between the deaf refugee and interpreters. One effective way was the establishment of What’s App groups to ensure seamless communication. 

4. the availability of government information which may have been available in the Ukrainian and Russian languages but was rarely translated into sign language. As an initial step, this information could be summarised and posted on social media channels, particularly using Instagram. Ideally the information would be shared via social media using the national local sign language and simultaneously made available in Russian or Ukrainian Sign Language. At a later date, the goal should be that full versions of official government endorsed written information would be made available as signed translations.

That provides a summary of what has occurred over the past two weeks with further updates to be provided in coming weeks which will be targeted highlights of what is occurring in specific countries, including challenges experienced, in relation to these issues.

Thank you.