Language barrier plays havoc at refugee hearings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2008, 12:00am

Xin Pinxian, a refugee claimant from Guangzhou, has won a second chance at staying in Canada, thanks to a slip of the tongue by an immigration official reviewing her case.

Ms Xin says she arranged for a snakehead to smuggle her to Canada in 2005, fearing that Chinese authorities would persecute her for her membership in an underground Protestant church and that they would discover she was pregnant with a second child.

Leaving her husband and first-born behind, she applied for refugee status soon after arriving in Canada, and gave birth to a daughter. Now living in the Toronto area, Ms Xin, 32, is defending the legitimacy of her claims, after Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board determined she failed to prove she was a genuine Christian because she didn't know what a 'parabola' was.

At her hearing, an adjudicator had meant to ask Ms Xin about biblical 'parables', or stories, to determine her knowledge of Christian beliefs. Instead, according to transcripts of the hearing, the adjudicator repeatedly asked her about 'parabolas'.

A Federal Court judge ruled this month that since 'a parabola is a mathematical curve and not a biblical story ... the applicant cannot be faulted for the confusion'.

Judge Leonard Mandamin overturned the adjudicator's verdict and decided that Ms Xin should be allowed a new hearing.

Although Ms Xin's is an extreme case, it calls attention to the frequent confusion over vocabulary and expressions used in refugee cases, especially when claimants don't understand English, Ms Xin's lawyer, Marvin Moses, says.

Mr Moses, who has practised immigration law for 20 years and has studied both Mandarin and Cantonese, says he has seen numerous examples of clients' honesty being called into question because of poor translation or perplexing terminology.

In one recent case, he said, a Putonghua-speaking client told the refugee board that Chinese authorities had visited her once. But since the Putonghua word for one, yi, sounds very much like the Cantonese word for two (also yi, but with a different tone), her native Cantonese translator gave the wrong answer, causing board officials to doubt her sincerity when her subsequent testimony contradicted the mistranslated answer.

In another case, an interpreter erroneously translated the Mandarin term xin jiao, or Protestant, into the literal English 'new religion', which also created confusion. Mistakes like these can cost refugee claimants their right to remain in the country, Mr Moses says. He was present at Ms Xin's hearing and was perplexed himself at the adjudicator's use of the term 'parabola', but didn't think to challenge it, since the line of questioning didn't appear to be going anywhere. According to a transcript of the exchange, the adjudicator asked Ms Xin what her 'favourite parabola' was.

'I beg your pardon?' Ms Xin asked through a Cantonese translator. 'What is your favourite parabola?' the adjudicator repeated. 'There are parabolas in the Bible. Have you read them?'

'Yes,' Ms Xin replied, though she did not seem to understand. 'I'm so confused. May I write it down in Chinese? I have not learned that.'

The adjudicator then provided an example: 'OK, the shepherd and the lost sheep would be a parabola. Do you know what the message is from that story? Do you know the story, first of all?'

Ms Xin answered: 'That a shepherd has 100 sheep and one lamb got lost, and the Sheppard [sic] tried his hardest to find the lost lamb. That means God prefers that 99 lambs be his children, but he would feel very sad losing one.'

In his decision, Judge Mandamin said that despite the confusion, Ms Xin readily displayed knowledge of this Bible story. 'I find the board's decision on credibility to be patently unreasonable,' Judge Mandamin wrote. He ruled that a new hearing be scheduled for her.