Wanted: Intercultural Mediators

© Nadir Noori

In the 1990’s, the flow of immigrants to Greece from Albania, the Balkan region, and the countries of the former Soviet Union began. On the eve of the 21st Century, new immigrants and refugees from conflict-ridden countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran, began to arrive in Greece. Especially after the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, this flow of refugees began to increase.

The European Union, unprepared to face this situation, created regulations such as the Dublin II in 2003. This regulation requires that third-country nationals must apply for asylum in the first EU country they entered. Only the first countries are allowed to process the asylum applications, and only if the third-country national has also applied for international protection; first countries are also required to prohibit applicants’ transit to other, neighboring countries. The regulation aimed to avoid sending the asylum seekers back and forth from one country to another, but also to prevent the misuse of the system and multiple asylum applications from the same individual in more than one country. Greece, having no prior experience with such circumstances, did not have a particular plan or system in place — nor did it have a kind of independent service solely dedicated to dealing with the flow of refugees coming into the country. The entire process was overseen by the Ministry of Citizen Protection, but run by the Hellenic Police Department — which was not only charged with examining and processing each asylum case, but also with “containing” each applicant. A conflicting and contradictory situation indeed!

The result was that large numbers of asylum seekers began to inundate the Hellenic Police’s Department for Foreign Nationals, to submit petitions for international protection. Due to lack of qualified staff and services (interpreters and intercultural mediators), these petitions were not registered correctly, and without qualified staff to process the (incomplete/incorrect) petitions, the majority of the petitioners were declined and began to flee Greece for other EU countries. However, according to the existing regulations, these petitioners were eventually returned to Greece.

In 2010, delegates of the UNHCR came to Greece to visit the places where asylum seekers were being illegally held. They witnessed and recorded the inhumane conditions in the detention centers, police stations, airports and other places. The UN notified the developed EU countries (Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland) to stop returning asylum seekers to Greece due to the appalling conditions and the failure of the state to regulate the situation. Other countries started to halt the process of returning applicants to Greece and gradually a new process began — where applicants, captive for years in Greece, were relocated to other EU countries.

Today, Greece has not made progress in regards to refugee policy and organization and is expected to implement the rules imposed by the EU, while concurrently Greece must utilize the regulations as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention (regarding human rights and the legal obligation of states).

During the years, Greece unfortunately has proved unable to create frameworks for the integration of the refugees who have remained in the country. Provisions for their incorporation were not made, and most importantly, Greece failed to see them as a valuable human resource, and utilize their skills and abilities. They failed to recognize, for example, the possibility of using vocational training to prepare them as qualified interpreters and cultural mediators. They failed to see and utilize a group of primed and suitable people to aid in processing the next wave of refugees, which were inevitably to arrive in greater numbers given the existing situation.

And so Greece is left with a crucial need for interpreters and mediators, and is unable to utilize the immigrants and refugees already in the country since they don’t possess the necessary skills and knowledge required for these demanding services. The situation also contributes to the already high levels of unemployment.

In order to find qualified personnel, Greece then is forced to hire refugees and immigrants from other EU countries — people who at one time, had already passed through Greece but could not stay due to the inability of the country to process and integrate them. In other words, Greece requests and receives loans from Europe so as to hire interpreters and mediators from outside of Greece, people which, if Greece had utilized them correctly, would have been hired from within and would have received salaries that remained in the country and thus could have boosted the economy. These mediators travel to the borders, undertake a demanding job, but at the end of the day, leave Greece to return to their countries of residency, and Greece remains a mere observer in the perpetuation of the problem.

The interpreters and cultural mediators that are currently working in border regions, were at one time asylum seekers in Greece themselves, and due to the delinquency and the bureaucratic corruption of the country, they were obliged to apply for international protection mainly in Scandinavian and central European countries. These people were chased out, made to suffer, were humiliated and ignored by the Greek authorities. However, they managed to reach countries with better systems in place, countries that gave them identity and immunity; countries that successfully integrated and incorporated them into society.

How can Greece be certain that these interpreters and mediators will be, as their duty calls for, objective in their professional roles? How can Greece be certain that they won’t serve in the better interests of the other EU countries?

An issue that needs to be examined, (in regards to the afore-mentioned questions), is the identification and registration of refugees at the borders. According to the decree, only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis can cross the borders — this can sometimes create various ”errors”. A common example of this is the confusion between Afghans and Iranians. An Afghan registered (intentionally or unintentionally) as an Iranian, cannot pass, according to the decree, through the closed borders. Respectively, an Iranian who has registered as an Afghan in Greece, will be denied passage at the next border control, as his/her false identification is once more verified. And so in this example, only days before the formal announcement of the closing of the borders, both the Afghan and the Iranian are trapped in Greece — all during a time of crisis.

But why is this problem such a huge issue and why are the mediators so necessary?

A cultural mediator facilitates both sides to cooperatively reach a commonly acceptable solution. The mediator is the one who essentially eases the process, contributing to the creation of an agenda, the recognition and coaching of the issues, the effective communication, so as to establish a common ground and a fair negotiation which leads to a final agreement.

In cases where both mediators and interpreters are involved, many times their roles can become confusing. For example, a cultural mediator can also take up the role of interpreter, but the opposite should never occur. The role of the interpreter is only to ease the communication:

To translate directly and not paraphrase, not add anything or leave anything out, and to use proper body language.In fact, the best interpreters are those who seem to not exist, who seem invisible. A cultural mediator needs to be a good listener, patient, cooperative, tolerant; must remain neutral, communicate well, be a skilled diplomat, and above all, articulate. A mediator must be historically and culturally sensitive, constantly keep abreast of new developments, and possess strong interpersonal skills. The mediator’s role is not only useful in situations of great urgency, but is also needed in an overall capacity — in public services, social services, in various organizations and at corporate levels.

The mediator is of great use, wherever there are two parties who don’t speak the same language and come from very different cultural backgrounds, but have a need to communicate effectively. We are referring to, in other words, people who have moved to another country and may face cultural, religious and language barriers that may inadvertently cause serious misunderstandings.

In this time of great political crisis, which has led to the daily arrival of hundreds of thousands of people into Greece, the need for cultural mediators could not be stronger. Better late than never, as the saying goes. It is certainly never too late for Greece to get more involved and improve the situation for the immigrants who are currently residing in the country, and to prepare them for vocational training so they can better assist the latest waves of newcomers who are arriving daily and will most likely remain in Greece.


Written by Nadir Noori | Translated by Danae Alexandridi | Edited by Gigi Papoulias

photo credits: Nadir Noori

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