Lithuania's migration authorities are struggling to find enough translators and interpreters fluent in Arabic and Kurdish dialects to help process the current rush of asylum applications.
One of them is Hicham Ibrahim who came to Lithuania from Lebanon 25 years ago to study engineering. Until recently, he would only do translation gigs occasionally after work, but today he hardly has time for anything else.
The Migration Department is engaging him to help with asylum applications and the Border Guard Service hire Ibrahim when interviewing Arabic-speaking migrants.
“The workload is huge,” he tells LRT TV. “How many people are there in Lithuania who are full-time translators [from Arabic]? I'll tell you, probably just me.”
Most of the over 4,000 irregular migrants who have recently crossed into Lithuania come from Iraq. According to the Migration Department, authorities struggle with finding not just Arabic translators, but also those who can speak Kurdish dialects.
“In order for us to process their asylum requests, to communicate with them in camps, discuss health issues, we need to be able to talk with them – few can speak English or French,” says Evelina Gudzinskaitė, head of the Migration Department. “We need to talk with them in their dialects.”
The Department currently conducts between 10 and 20 interviews per day, but it will need to ramp it up to 40 in order to deal with all the asylum requests, according to her.
“So far, we have enough translators for formal procedures, but we're most short on interpreters for informal conversations,” Gudzinskaitė says, adding that several institutions are using the services of the same people.
Maritana Larbi, of Vilnius University's Asian Studies Department, says she cannot think of any of her students who know Arabic well enough to assist the Migration Department.
Mastering the language, which is very different from most European dialects, she says, is impossible during a four-year undergraduate course.
Also because there are many variations of spoken Arabic, notes Larbi, who also assists authorities as translator.
“I always demand that they [migrants] speak standard Arabic. If they want to communicate, they can very well understand me and make themselves understood,” she tells LRT TV. “But I've had experience in courts where people, if they want to drag on the process, do everything to impede communication.”
She says Lithuania should look for Kurdish and Arabic-speaking people who have lived in Lithuania long enough and have learnt Lithuanian.
In the short term, Gundzisnkaitė says the Migration Department has asked Frontex, the European border guard service, to send translators and interpreters to Lithuania.