United Nations (UN) member states will soon have a critical opportunity to make systematic improvements to how the world assists and protects refugees and migrants. Three promising developments — on language data, multilingual information provision, and translation and interpreting support — show momentum is building towards ensuring all migrants, including those facing language barriers, can access assistance and protection, and claim their rights.
This fall, the 193 members of the UN will adopt the Global Compacts for Migration and on Refugees. Many remain understandably skeptical that these two compacts will ultimately lead to the kind of change demanded by the global displacement crisis.
However, there are cautious signs that the process is headed in the right direction. The Global Compacts identify the need to uphold the right to information, a goal in itself and a vital means for allowing all migrants to claim their rights.
In September 2016, the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants was adopted to improve planning for and response to large movements of refugees and migrants. The declaration triggered over a year of negotiations and consultations between governments, international organizations, and civil society (see TWB’s main recommendations here).
The final draft focused on migrants, entitled the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), includes commitments to ensure that migrants get information in a language they understand. This will help them know their rights and obligations, access appropriate support and counselling services, and realize full social inclusion. Unfortunately, similar commitments are not made in the final draft focused on refugees, entitled the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). However, information in the right language is needed to support other GCR commitments to ensure free and informed consent, protection, participation and empowerment of refugees.
The current lack of language services has severe consequences
At the same time, since the adoption of the New York Declaration, the total number of people displaced from their homes due to conflict, disaster, poverty or hunger has continued to grow. Reports continue to highlight the risks when refugees and migrants lack information and support in a language they understand. They make high-risk choices, including dropping out of the formal reception system. The lack of interpreting and translation support compounds situations of distress. Without access to language support, they are often unable to access medical, educational and other services, or denied appropriate care in violation of their rights.
Ensuring people have access to information they need and are able to communicate in a language they understand should be a priority for well-planned and managed migration policies and refugee responses.
There are three promising developments – if taken forward effectively
With that in mind, there are some reasons to be hopeful. Three key developments emerged from the Global Compacts process so far. If taken forward effectively, these can make a real, positive difference in people’s capacity to receive information and communicate their needs in the right language.
First, both compacts emphasize the importance of collecting and using better data, calling for a comprehensive data set on migration. Language data — information on the languages people speak and understand, and on their communication needs (channels and formats) — should be included in this initiative. This data gap can be filled through existing processes such as needs assessments and registration. For example, the IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix has been collecting language data in northeast Nigeria as a basis for improved communication strategies with internally displaced people. The language-related questions they are asking can easily be adapted and included in other data efforts, including the newly established UNHCR-World Bank Group Joint Data Center. This would ensure a strong evidence base for all communications with refugees and migrants.
Second, policies about providing multilingual information for refugees and migrants appear to be gaining traction in practice, which reflects commitments in the Compacts. Since 2016, many governments and humanitarian organizations have developed websites and other materials to facilitate access to information in several languages and for different audiences, including children. The GCM echoes this with a strong commitment to people’s right to information at all stages of migration. In practice, the implementation of both Compacts must result in careful consideration of language barriers. This will help reduce the incidence of irregular migration and enable people to make informed decisions about their journeys and claim protection when needed.
Third, there is a growing recognition of the need for national institutions and service providers to give translation and interpreting support for those who need it. This recognition is seen both in the Compacts and in practice. Often humanitarian organizations fill in the gaps in language services, not without challenges. But some countries, such as Greece and Turkey, have stepped up their efforts to provide language support in hospitals, schools and other social services. This has allowed existing national structures to extend essential services to cater to the needs of migrants and refugees. Implementing the Global Compacts is an opportunity to solidify commitments to reduce the language barriers to effective access to services for all migrants.
The Global Compacts for Migration and on Refugees are not going to fix the global displacement crisis by remaining on paper. Resources — including language resources — will have to be mobilized to achieve the aims of the Global Compacts. Effective communication with affected people must be the default position of migration policies and refugee responses.
Language should not be a barrier for refugees and migrants to realize their rights, and make free and informed choices about their future.
Written by Mia Marzotto, TWB's Senior Advocacy Officer.