Bridging language gaps empowers people to communicate in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, once famed for its beautiful 120km long beach, is now home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Between 900,000 and one million Rohingya women, men and children, depending on the estimates, now live in the area. Since August 2017, more than 670,000 Rohingya have fled across the border from Myanmar and settled in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar.
Translators without Borders (TWB) first came to Cox’s Bazar in October to assess the communication and information needs of the affected population.
Our team rapidly discovered that language was making communication between the affected communities, humanitarian organizations, and the host population extremely difficult. As reported by our partner organization Internews, more than 70 percent of the refugee population identified themselves as being totally illiterate in any language and more than 60 percent said they were unable to speak to humanitarian providers.
In Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya is often the only language spoken by those most in need. It is an oral language, with no commonly accepted written script.
One of the major communication problems in this humanitarian crisis is the lack of a common language. The humanitarian workers mostly speak English, local NGOs and government officials speak Bengali, many interpreters speak Chittagonian, and the refugees speak Rohingya.
Take a moment to imagine this in the context of a refugee camp. Signs are erected to identify health facilities and safe spaces for women in a language they do not understand. Information can become distorted as it is passed from person to person and humanitarian organizations rely on untrained interpreters to communicate life-saving information as part of their support to the refugees. As summarized by TWB’s sociologist,
“There’s just a lot of crucial information lost in this crisis.”
One of the most urgent needs is to find ways for the refugee population to fully express their needs to humanitarian responders.
With thorough research and community interaction, we are developing a professional training program and tools to help interpreters and humanitarian organizations understand some of the cultural and linguistic specificities of the refugee population.
Shades of meaning
TWB is developing a freely downloadable glossary of key humanitarian terms. This translates technical terminology in English into simple and clear Bengali, Rohingya, Chittagonian, and Burmese terms. The aim is to cover concepts relevant to a range of sectors, making the glossary useful across the humanitarian response.
‘We really deliberated on the meanings and context of the translations,’ says TWB’s sociolinguist. ‘Words can have shades of meaning, so the social and cultural context is important.’
Working as a consortium with Internews and BBC Media Action, TWB is contributing to a regular newsletter distributed to all humanitarian organizations in Cox’s Bazar. This newsletter, entitled What Matters? The Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin, specifically addresses communication and language issues. The first newsletter, distributed in February this year, highlighted the important differences in weather terms between Chittagonian, Bengali, and Rohingya. This is vital when distinguishing between a warning for strong winds or a cyclone, for instance.
Ultimately, bridging these gaps is empowering people to communicate. When people can communicate they can assert their rights and humanitarians can deliver life-saving information.
With the cyclone and monsoon season starting soon, the need for simple and actionable information, in plain and clear language that the refugees can understand, is becoming even more acute. The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 refugees could be in grave danger when the rains begin in April. These are likely to cause major flooding and landslides in the steep hills and unstable terrain where the camps are located and contribute to the spread of disease.
‘This is where translating key Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) messages are critical,’ says our sociolinguist. ‘Community workers need to be able to explain the differences in severe weather systems between here and Myanmar, what services are there to help in a disaster, even how to help prevent the spread of disease. These are not messages you can afford to miscommunicate.’
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Written by TWB’s Program Director for Bangladesh