The language lesson: what we’ve learned about communicating with Rohingya refugees

A Translators without Borders study found that access to information has improved in the Rohingya refugee response as a result of an increased humanitarian focus on communicating with communities. Yet language barriers still leave many Rohingya refugees without the critical and life-saving information they need. Prioritizing spoken communication in Rohingya and a mixed approach on formats and channels is key to effective communication.

Our assessment of comprehension and support needs among Rohingya refugees tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.

From the outset, language challenges have played a central role in the Rohingya refugee response. There are at least five languages — Rohingya, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and English — used in the response. Low literacy levels and limited access to media compound the situation.

To find out how humanitarians can effectively communicate with refugees, Translators without Borders assessed language comprehension and support needs among the refugees. We surveyed more than 400 Rohingya men and women living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. We asked them what languages they spoke, how they preferred to receive information, and we tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.

Here is what we found.    

Communication has improved, but not all Rohingya refugees feel informed

Twenty-eight percent of refugees say they do not have enough information to make decisions for themselves and their family. Extrapolated to the whole camp population, this suggests that about 200,000 people feel that they lack the basis to make properly informed decisions.  Nevertheless, it is a marked improvement from a year ago when an assessment by Internews found that 79 percent of refugees did not have enough information.

Communication in spoken Rohingya is critical

Rohingya is the only spoken language that all refugees understand and prefer. Our study shows that 36 percent of refugees do not understand a simple sentence in Chittagonian. Women are less likely than men to understand spoken Bangla or Burmese. Refugees prefer to receive information in spoken Rohingya, either by word-of-mouth, loudspeaker, or phone call.

This preference for spoken Rohingya coincides with strong trust levels in imams, family, aid and medical professionals, and majhees (government-appointed community leaders) as sources of information. Radio, TV, and the internet are less trusted by and less familiar to women.

After spoken Rohingya, simple visual messaging is the most widely understood format. Comprehension rates for visual communication are high regardless of gender, age, or education level.

These Rohingya participants helped us assess language comprehension and support needs among the refugees living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
These Rohingya participants helped us assess language comprehension and support needs among the refugees living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Burmese is the preferred written language, and is relatively well understood

After Rohingya, Burmese is the preferred language for written communication. Although two-thirds of refugees prefer written communication in Rohingya, the language lacks a universally accepted script. Refugees prefer written information to be given in brochure or leaflet form. This allows them to take information away with them and ask a friend or family member to help them understand it.

Sixty-six percent of refugees said that they cannot read or write in any language, and comprehension testing broadly confirmed this. When tested for reading comprehension, 36 percent understood Burmese, a similar rate to Bangla and English.

Investment in language will improve the response

These findings make it clear that there are varied language needs within the Rohingya community. They show that different people understand, prefer, and trust different formats and sources of information. Nonetheless, practical actions for effective humanitarian communication exist.

Using Rohingya for spoken communication, and Burmese for written information is important. Providing information in a mix of formats and channels to account for varied preferences and education levels will also help.

Investing in formal training for field workers and interpreters in the Rohingya language and in humanitarian interpretation techniques is key. Staff should be supported to communicate in the language understood and preferred by the whole community.

This enumerator is tests a Rohingya man’s comprehension of simple spoken information.

As time goes on, communication and language preferences may change. Ongoing assessments on information and language support needs should be coupled with further research to better understand communication issues affecting the Rohingya refugee response. Sustained coordination among humanitarian organizations can help ensure communication is consistent, appropriate, and addresses key community concerns.

View the research brief.

Read the full report.

This study is part of the Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability. Funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and by European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO). It was conducted in partnership with IOM Needs and Population Monitoring and REACH Initiative. Translators without Borders has been working in Bangladesh in support of the Rohingya refugee response since 2017, conducting research on language barriers and communication needs, advocating for local language and cross-cultural competence, providing translation and localization support, and training humanitarian staff on the Rohingya language and culture.

Written by Mahrukh 'Maya' Hasan, Evidence and Impact Consultant for the Rohingya refugee crisis response in Bangladesh.

The TWB 2017 Annual Report

At Translators without Borders, thanks to the support of our volunteer translators, partners and donors, we are continuing to grow. This report for the 2017 financial year will give you some examples of that growth, but just to recap a few highlights… During the reporting period, we recruited over 700 new translators and delivered an outstanding 10.9 million translated words to our non-profit partners! We were able to improve the capacity of our rapid response teams, train new teams of translators and interpreters, and add more underserved languages to our working translations.


We know that language support is an essential part of relief efforts in a humanitarian crisis. In 2016-17 our teams contributed to aid efforts around the world, delivering over 800,000 words for the European refugee response, monitoring local-language media in the aftermath of the earthquake in Ecuador, and translating cholera prevention messages after Haiti was ravaged by Hurricane Matthew. Our work in these communities often extends far beyond translation, with a special focus on the simplification of the language used in a response and providing language solutions that are appropriate to the situation. For example, we have translated paper signs in Greece and we have established a simplified, culturally-appropriate terminology for health in more than 40 languages.

Even before disaster strikes, we are constantly working to bridge language and communication gaps, so that we can build capacity across more affected communities. Our technology partners helped us expand and enhance Kató, our online translation platform. This platform now integrates computer-assisted translation; subtitling and audio translation capabilities; and specialized glossaries. Kató plays a critical role in serving languages where there has traditionally been little-to-no translation capacity, connecting non-profit partners and aid organizations with our community of qualified language professionals who now work in more than 250 language pairs.Since 2014, Words of Relief, TWB’s crisis response translation network, has been facilitating communication between people affected by crises and humanitarian workers on the ground. In 2017, we received grant funding from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. This funding is being used to expand Words of Relief to include voice and interpreting capabilities.  


words of relief




As you will see in this annual report, we spent 2016-2017 tirelessly advocating the importance of translation in the crisis relief process. We want to make sure translation stays at the top of the agenda and we could not have achieved any of this without the support of our in-kind partners, our generous donors, our technology partners and, our fantastic volunteers.

Click here to read the full report.

Written by Lauren Elwin, Volunteer for Translators without Borders.