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Anthropology as Necessary Unlearning in Refugee Camps, Courts and Schools

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This talk will explore the mechanisms through which refugees and asylum seekers lose their voice from the moment they are asked to fill in a questionnaire or explain their case to an immigration official. Their spoken sentences are rendered incomprehensible and in some cases apparently untruthful from the outset, in being disconnected from their original context. The stories told by refugees are not recorded in full as delivered but are instead summarized and re-told in terms deemed appropriate by the immigration authorities. Too often, the written interview record conflates what the applicant said with the interpreter's re-telling and the decisoin-maker's summary. Decision-makers allow themselves levels of linguistic flexibility which is not allowed either to translators or to applicants. As a result, indigenous concepts of space, time, religion, vocation, ethnicity, class, morality and justice are too often lost in translation. Effective training of police officers, teachers, translators and court officials is required. This re-education should focus primarily on 'forgetting' - deliberately setting aside culturally prevailing forms of cultural knowledge and expertise as the condition of genuine listening.

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