UK Border officers using 'hand signals' to communicate with detainees

Lizzie Roberts
Border officers at Heathrow Airport have been communicating with detainees using hand signals after Google Translate is banned by Home Office - AFP

Border force officers are resorting to using hand signals to communicate with suspects after being banned from using Google Translate, a watchdog report has revealed.

The Home Office believe Google Translate is “inaccurate” and have ordered officers at Heathrow Airport not to use it to communicate with detainees. 

Google Translate, which was launched in 2006, used transcripts from the United Nations and the European Parliament to gather 'linguistic data' of languages all over the globe.

It now has the capacity to translate 103 languages and is used by over 500 million people everyday.

Since banning the use of translation apps, the Home Office have been trialling a “hand-held translator device”.

But for informal conversations officers “usually resort to hand gestures”, according to a report by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB).

The report added improvements need to be made in how guards communicate with detainees, who are often illegal immigrants with limited English, at the four short-term holding centres in Terminals 2, 3, 4 and 5.

When officers were able to communicate with detainees in their own language they are “more relaxed and better able to cope with a wait of several hours,” the report said.

Telephone interpretation services are used for “holding room inductions” and “formal immigration interviews”, but for informal interactions the IMB recommended translator devices should be made available to “promote personal interaction”. 

The report added: "Many asylum-seekers are vulnerable and include people who have experienced civil war and other extreme privation.

"They may feel isolated, speak limited or no English, and are likely to be fearful of being returned to their country of origin."

It recommended the Home Office should provide each holding room with a translator device so officers can communicate more easily with detainees and “so reduce their feeling of isolation and respond to any urgent needs”.

The report also raised concerns regarding the storage of holy books after a book about cooking sausages was found next to holy books in June 2018.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The health and welfare of those in immigration detention, especially children and other vulnerable people, is of the utmost importance.

"We understand that some detainees have difficulty understanding or cannot speak English which is why the Home Office is considering the introduction of electronic translation devices, to supplement the existing telephone interpreting arrangements already in place.

"We are currently considering the contents of the report and the Independent Monitoring Board's recommendations carefully."