Why Migration Matters for Interpreters

Why Migration Matters for Interpreters

I was thinking on why we do the things we do and why we end up doing them.  Looking back at interpreting; what has moved our field? Why is there a need?  No surprise, for me the answer was migration. Early human migration across continents began 1.8 million years ago. Migration has never stopped since then and so the need for communication between groups has never stopped either. Perhaps interpretation is in fact the oldest profession.

But the sad thing is, when you look further at the causes of migrations, then and now, they are the same. It’s the need for a better life, it’s fleeing from harsh conditions. We know that thousands of migrants cross the U.S. border every year (many documented and a number without papers).  People from every path of life come to the United States. They are refugees, asylum seekers, students, workers, spouses, family members, unaccompanied minors, rich, poor and in between.

Migration is not exclusive to this country: it happens to other countries every day. We just don’t get to see it until it hits the news, as we just saw with vessel from Libya that capsized in the Mediterranean. How many people die in these treacherous journeys? How many are scarred for life because of them?

The New York Times recently reported that over 900 people died in Mediterranean crossings in the first quarter of 2015. Then there is the United States: how many people die crossing the border? The U.S.-Mexican border is 1954 miles long. In 2000, the Border Patrol reported capturing over 1.6 million Mexicans crossing the border illegally. How many of them die in the journey?

It has been reported that the number of deaths near the U.S. border has increased significantly since the mid 1990’s. These statistics are never accurate because they report only those who are found, but so many more go missing. Many will die, never to be found, and so many others will become victims of human trafficking and exploitation. It is never a simple fact or a matter of where: it’s a matter of why… Why people need to put their lives at risk while seeking a better life.

My point with all this is not a discourse about immigration.  The gruesome statistics and reports are deeply connected to our profession. Our reality. We are in the middle of it and we interpret for it every day.  Migration is the engine behind the need for interpreters. Forced or voluntary migrations are the reality that we face every day and they are the people we interpret for. When the stories of “why” are told through us, their trauma becomes our own.

We need to know about migration to be prepared for it, to know what to expect. The trauma of forced migration will continue as it has for millions of years.  Our profession will evolve along with it and become more relevant every day. We must be ready: we need to catch up with our times, take care of ourselves and be prepared.

Shaula Lover is Program Director of Spirit of Hope, a long term recovery disaster management program for Catholic Charities of New Orleans.

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