Here on Lesbos, I tend to disappoint people at first meeting, when they hear about the TWB translation support. My introductory conversations go something like this:
Me: “Hi, I’m Lali, Communications Manager for Translators without Borders’ European Refugee Response.”
Them: “Hi!” (very excited) “A translator! That’s great! We desperately need Arabic…”
Me: “No, I’m not a translator…”
Them: “But I thought you said you worked for…?” (perplexed)
Me: “I’m coordinating partnerships and communicating about our work…”
Them: “Oh.” (profoundly disappointed)
The immediate need of translation support
In this crisis response, everyone needs translation support – and needs it immediately. The demand for translation and interpretation is so urgent and so widespread that I’ve had that introductory conversation (or one very similar to it) with refugees, aid workers and volunteers alike. At registration centres, in meetings, outside tents, in cafes and on the beaches: I’ve disappointed people all over the island of Lesbos.
Spend a day (or an hour) working as part of any international humanitarian response, and you’ll understand the disappointment. There are obvious life-saving moments (understanding that someone needs a doctor, telling a child that the water is not safe to drink) when a common language is key. And then there are more complex situations (explaining rules and regulations, mediating between parties) which are extremely difficult even without a language barrier. All this is true of any humanitarian crisis.
But everyone working on the ground here agrees that communication needs during this, the European refugee crisis response, are special. What’s more, communication is central to this crisis response in a way that is entirely new to the international humanitarian community. I’d been told this, I’d read about this, but for me, it took actually seeing (and hearing) the crisis myself to understand why exactly this is the case. I’m still feeling out the dimensions of the enormous communication challenges we all face here and, as part of my role within TWB’s Words of Relief project, I’ll continue doing so. Right now though, to me, the challenges look something like this:
The refugee population is linguistically diverse
As an independent volunteer working at a clothing distribution point, I was trying to help a newly arrived Iraqi woman, shivering with cold, to find the clothes she needed. The woman was miming what looked to me to be a pair of trousers, so off I went to get trousers. Wrong. She tried again…now it looked like underwear. I went to get underwear. Wrong again. There was an Arabic interpreter nearby so I dragged him over to help, but he soon found out the woman didn’t speak Arabic. “She only speaks Kurdish,” he said.
This is not unusual: almost 80 percent of the refugees coming across the waters are Arabic or Farsi speaking. The Arabic speakers from Syria tend to be more educated with someone in their group able to communicate in English, whereas the Farsi (or Dari) speakers from Afghanistan often do not understand English at all. The other 20 percent of refugees do not speak or read in either of these languages. TWB has had requests from our partners for translation support in languages as various as Kurdish, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Tigrinya and French. Time- consuming and disempowering interaction is all too common in this crisis because those working on the ground simply don’t have access to these languages.
Host community and refugee population don’t share a common language
A group of local volunteers express shyness in communicating with refugees; an NGO partner in Serbia finds it incredibly difficult to recruit local Arabic speakers; TWB can’t draw on the local community for interpretation and translation support; partners request the most basic traveller’s information for refugees (such as how to use an ATM). These and many other communication challenges arise from the unusual geography of this crisis: refugees do not typically speak the languages of the host communities they encounter on their route.
It is further testament to the enormously hospitable response of the Lesbos’ local population that they rarely understand the languages of the refugees they assist. But when it comes to more complex interactions, between government officials and refugees, for instance, language barriers can exacerbate or generate tensions. The fact that the many international volunteers and aid workers speak neither the language of the hosts nor the refugees, is another complicating factor.
TWB is currently working with partners to include communication with host communities in all their programmes. This means (on Lesbos, for example), that every sign, pamphlet or website disseminated in Arabic, Farsi or English, has a Greek translation. This should be replicated in Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia. We do this in the hope that equally informing communities leads to greater trust between them.
Refugees are mobile
Late one night, a man arrives at Moria registration centre soaked to the bone. It’s dark, cold and raining and we volunteers want to get him to the clothes distribution point urgently. He shakes his head: “No clothes, no clothes. Where do I register? How do I get to the port?” he asks. At that moment, getting the papers that will allow him to transit through Greece, and finding out how to get the ferry to Athens, are much more necessary than dry clothes, warmth or food. The urgent need to move on is typical of all refugees here. No one comes to Lesbos, or any other transit point, to stay.
The fact that refugees are on the move (and moving very fast in many cases) presents a major communication challenge. Unlike in other refugee crises where time is spent building trust and establishing routines at temporary resettlement sites, this crisis only allows for brief interactions with aid workers and fleeting opportunities to disseminate information. Then, with the next boatload of refugee arrivals, the information needs to be disseminated all over again. For this reason, high-quality concise translation and interpretation is even more crucial in this crisis to ensure refugees keep themselves and their families safe.
Refugees need constantly changing information
Most people know an anxious traveller. Maybe you are one yourself! Now just imagine that you actually have a reason to be seriously anxious (rather than just missing your train): you’re seeking asylum. On top of this, you’re in a country where you can’t read transport timetables, you’ve heard there’s a ferry strike but you’re not sure, you know that there are some countries who have closed their borders to people from your country, and you’ve heard there are people stranded in freezing temperatures further up the route. Oh and you have four children travelling with you. All is rumour, nothing is confirmed: now that’s anxious travelling.
Crisis-affected and displaced populations typically need information about health, shelter and emergency facilities. They also need information on their families and what is happening back home. In this crisis, information on travel (When is the next ferry? How much does it cost to take the bus? What is the weather forecast tomorrow?), or information on asylum procedures (Can I apply for asylum in Sweden? Can I register for a transit visa in Macedonia? Where should I say I’m heading on my registration paper?) is desperately needed by refugees. But this information is constantly changing – often by the minute. TWB is working closely with our partners to make sure information disseminated online and throughout humanitarian networks is rapidly translated so that refugees can make informed choices.
Fortunately, my conversations on Lesbos don’t end in disappointment. The immediate need for language skills that makes both me and the person I’m talking to wish I was indeed a translator, is only the most obvious manifestation of the communication challenges of this crisis. When I explain what Translators without Borders is doing to take the pressure off interpreters on the ground, to supply diverse language skills, to communicate with host communities, to produce professional, high-quality content, and provide rapid translation in a constantly changing environment – the disappointment invariably turns to comprehension and then, cooperation. In this crisis, the immediate demand will remain, but a more context-specific and sustainable response will best meet the communication challenges of a crisis that shows no sign of ending any time soon. And that’s how we provide the best possible translation support.
By Lali Foster, former Communications Manger for the European refugee crisis response