A second report from Rebecca Petras who is heading up TWB’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis.
The language complexity in the current Rohingya refugee crisis is deep. I had only a faint understanding of it when I landed a few days ago; I have a slightly better sense now. The Rohingya refugees come from Rakhine in Myanmar. They are Muslim; the other dominant population in Rakhine is Buddhist. The political issues between the two groups and the Rakhine as a whole and the government of Myanmar are extremely complicated, and not for my humble explanation. Suffice it to say, on 25 August 2017, a massive and violent event forced thousands of Rohingya to abandon their villages and flee to Bangladesh, through hills, unfriendly areas, and across water. There are still many thousands waiting to cross the river; in total, there are well over 700,000 new arrivals.
In and around Cox’s Bazar, a tourist town (with the world’s longest contiguous beach) in Chittagong division of Bangladesh, there are now official and unofficial camps, sprawling across hills. Because of decades of unrest in Rakhine, there were already approximately 200,000 Rohingya refugees living in either one of two official camps or within the host community, and many have lived there for two decades. They are now witnessing a massive and very uncertain influx from Myanmar, including thousands of orphans, thousands of traumatized and abused women, and many more who need medical attention.
'There really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it'
All of this makes for a very complicated language situation, with an amalgamation of spoken Rohingya from long-term refugees and new arrivals, spoken Chittagong from locals, written Bengali (or Bangla), and, possibly, written Burmese. Add layers of what is allowed by the government (still unclear which languages are being allowed), as well as how to translate complicated English terms into Rohingya, and we have a tricky communications issue. One of the main goals of Translators without Borders’ initial work here is to assess the language needs and then direct the numerous responding aid organizations, with accurate information on language. We will be testing assumptions and testing actual comprehension of material that is given to refugees.
We are beginning that assessment now – I will be working with community health workers and youth this coming week, and our research lead (Eric DeLuca) will be joining me in one week to test agency communications tools with new arrivals. But, at the same time, responding aid organizations want to start communicating right now. The community engagement leader of one of our main international partners said when I first met with him that there really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it. So while we try to put standards in place, train new interpreters, support interpreters with resources, and address the various language needs, we also need to just start communicating now. With seemingly endless rains and very little infrastructure in the camps, there is a very real danger of water-borne diseases, making communications urgent. What I need most at this time is more time in the day to get it all done.
Below are some suggestions of how you can support this response. Stay tuned for more updates this week.
Rebecca Petras, TWB Deputy Director and Head of Innovation