A woman with blonde hair and a blue UNICEF cap, white shirt and blue jeans is leaning down and talking to a young boy and girl. Behind them are women in head scarves and men, with soldiers in uniform and guns standing in front of them.
Arabic translator Valentina Mahmalata speaks to two children on a rainy day, near the town of Gevgelija, Macedonia, on the border with Greece. Others who have fled their homes amid the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis stand nearby.

Interpreters and cultural mediators

Before we move on from the subject of cooperation between those responsible for supporting unaccompanied and separated children on the move, let us think about two other groups of professional we have not mentioned yet - interpreters and cultural mediators.

Use of good interpreters

When we were developing this course, we asked unaccompanied and separated children and young people what was important to them. We also asked front-line workers about challenges they faced. Something they both identified was the need for very good quality interpreters. Children want to make sure that information they share is accurately recorded, and mistakes are not made that could jeopardise their situation either at that time, or in the future. It is also important that the interpreter can speak to the child in their language so they know what is happening, give them information they need, and let them know what decisions are being taken. Inaccurate translation might result in what a child says being inaccurately recorded. This can greatly impact on subsequent decisions made on the basis of poor, incomplete, or inaccurate information.

For example, it may mean that the child does not get access to the services they need urgently. It can result in a child being placed in a type of alternative care that is not suitable for them. When a child applies for asylum, interpreters can influence the information that is considered by immigration officials or a court. It can impact on how the information provided by the child is understood by officials and even whether a child is granted asylum or not.

This highlights the importance of using professional interpreters, and if they do not have all the necessary skills, the need to provide them with appropriate training. What can also help is the development of standard procedures with proper consideration of quality and ethical standards of interpretation and confidentiality. An example of helpful safeguards was developed for a handbook produced by UNICEF in Kosovo. The handbook recommends the following:

  • Make sure that the interpreter has no control or influence over the child
  • The interpreter should understand that they must translate what the child actually says, adding nothing, and leaving nothing out
  • The interpreter should not change the child’s answer in the interpretation, for example to improve grammar or to add detail
  • The interpreter should not be allowed to take over the interview and to ask questions themselves: their role should be neutral
  • They should be taught not to show shock, fear, or other strong emotional reactions which may influence the child
  • Interpreters should remain calm and professional. They should be warm, non-judgmental and open in their attitude to the child

You might also want to consider whether it is more appropriate to use a female or a male interpreter, depending on the child they are interpreting for.

Cultural mediators

Some organisations working with unaccompanied and separated children also employ cultural mediators. A cultural mediator is someone who can facilitate successful communication between people of different cultural backgrounds. They can help a child understand the differences between the social, cultural, legal and other features of the background they come from and the one they have arrived in. They can also help child protection staff or other officials understand information provided by a child from a different background as well as help them understand aspects and perspectives of where the child has come from. It is important, however, that those working as cultural mediators really do have a full and sensitive understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of the cultural background of the child they are working with.

Earlier this week we discussed the importance of a friendly and caring attitude by all those working with children. Interpreters and cultural mediators must also possess these qualities. They must not only abide by rules of confidentiality, but also show respect for children and be sensitive to information they are sharing.

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This article is from the free online course:

Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

University of Strathclyde