Published Monday, 19 November 2012
Just over £2m was spent on translation services last year by health trusts. (© UTV)
There are 354 interpreters working across the region, according to the health trusts, offering 36 minority languages, with Polish, Lithuanian and Portuguese among the most commonly needed in the service.
Services include face-to-face interpretation, telephone interpretation and written translation of documents.
Around £5.7m was spent between April 2009 and January 2012.
Overall costs were highest in the Southern Trust, with £924,135 for supplying interpreting and translation services from February last year to January this year.
The trust covers areas including Craigavon and Dungannon, with large migrant worker populations.
Belfast spent £536,461 and the Northern Trust spent £309,832. South Eastern paid out £115,391 and Western £220,052. The total cost for the period was £2.1m.
SDLP MLA John Dallat said the figures were alarming and need urgent reassessment to ensure the department of health is getting value for money.
While the trusts must ensure people are not disadvantaged due to language difficulties, care should be taken to explore the voluntary and community sector for volunteers who will do this work without charge.
John Dallat, SDLP
But a doctor with surgeries in east and north Belfast insisted it was money well spent.
"This represents a mere fraction of the overall health budget. We are dealing with a very vulnerable, unrepresentative, voiceless group of people who've come here as political immigrants looking for political asylum," he said.
"Many of them have suffered greatly in their own countries - repression, abuse and complicated psychological problems.
"This reflects the humanity in our society and demonstrates a maturity as Northern Ireland moves into a new and inclusive world."
A spokeswoman for Belfast health trust said they were required to ensure equality of access to services and to information for people who are not proficient in English as a first or second language.
"There is a raft of legislation which outlines this statutory duty for designated public authorities, including Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Human Rights Act 1998, Race Relations Order (NI) 2007 and EU Race Directive," she added.
© UTV News