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You are what you speak — how Europe is using language analysis to designate refugees

Syrian refugee Ghassan Aleid displays his Syrian passport at a terminal at the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

In order to be granted asylum, migrants need to prove that they’re facing danger or serious persecution if they return to their homes. Specifically in Germany, migrants can’t be from a list of ‘safe’ countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia. They’re not taking any more economic migrants.

The conventional wisdom at this point is that if you’re from Syria, there’s a good chance you’ll be allowed to stay. Some reports say refugees are trying to pass as Syrians to better their chances.

And so, European governments have come up with a problematic system to identify real refugees. And it has to do with the way they speak.

Reporter Aamna Mohdin wrote for Quartz about these “language analysis” screenings. The basic test has two steps:

First, a native speaker of the country a migrant claims to be from interviews the asylum seeker. These talks are around 20 minutes each, and are meant to be a time for the native speaker to use their “over-all intuition.”

After that, a trained analyst will compile a report about the complicated aspects of the language. Eventually, the expert comes to a conclusion about whether or not the asylum seeker is truly from where they say they are.

But in such a linguistically complex region, where specific dialects have centuries of historical context, how can these linguists know the intricate differences between these regions?

“They can’t possibly know all of that information. We don’t have all of these linguists on line to come in and know that different parts of Syria say things differently so they’re going to make human error” Mohdin says. “It’s quite a big problem, I think, if you don’t have enough information, you can get someone deported.”

Therein lies another complicating factor.

“Language doesn’t follow manmade borders,” says Mohdin. “It makes absolutely no sense to try and analyze someone’s language to decide they’re from Kenya or Somalia. Linguists disagree with each other a lot about which words actually come from which area. There have been several cases where an asylum seeker will challenge the conclusion of a report and they get a second linguist to analyze it and the second linguist completely disagrees with the first.”

However she says this practice doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

"The problem really is that deporting someone or rejecting someone's asylum is a very political decision to make. I think they're trying to make it as objective as possible and using the language of science through these language analyses to justify the decisions they're making," Mohdin says.

And with a seemingly neverending tide of refugees coming in, many without any formal documentation about their country of origin, she says it's only likely to get more diluted and less regulated.

via PRI's The World

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