Millions of people are being forced from their homes by conflict, violence, disaster, or poverty. From those fleeing the war in Syria or climate change-induced droughts, to those stranded in inadequate conditions in Europe, these vulnerable individuals vary widely in terms of nationalities, languages, dialects, educational levels, income, social status, and access to technology. What they share is the overwhelming need for information in a language they understand in order to make decisions about their next steps, remain safe, and access available assistance.
Yet they often lack access to the timely and reliable information they need due to language barriers. Their ability to communicate with service providers and legal advisers about their situation is further limited by a consistent shortage of competent and impartial interpreters.
The Global Compacts aim to save lives, reduce unsafe movement, and combat trafficking and exploitation. These aims will not be achieved without practical action to improve access to information and language support for refugees and migrants.
Reports by REACH, Internews and others have highlighted the risks when refugees and migrants do not receive information in a language they understand. It can lead them to make high-risk choices, including dropping out of the formal reception system and not accessing the education options available. Faced with lack of access to comprehensible information or low confidence in sources they view as unreliable, they rely heavily on social media and word of mouth for decisions, making them potentially more vulnerable to misinformation and rumor.
In a recent study, Translators without Borders (TWB) found serious communication gaps between service providers and migrants and refugees in Greece, Italy, and Turkey. In the absence of specific data on the languages and communication needs of migrants and refugees, many service providers were ill-equipped to provide adequate language support and to communicate with the people they aimed to help. Migrants and refugees we spoke to consistently said language barriers prevented them from voicing their concerns or asking questions of aid providers or government officials.
UNICEF estimates that about two-thirds of refugees live in areas where none of the official languages are the official language of the refugees’ country of origin.
A similar situation was also found in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Exhausted Rohingya refugees told TWB how they needed basic information about the logistics of daily living in the camps, including how to stay safe and where to find healthcare, but often had no common language to communicate with service providers.
Regrettably, the importance of information access and effective two-way communication for migrants and refugees at all stages of their journey has not been adequately reflected in the zero drafts of the Global Compacts.
While the current draft of the Global Compact on Migration includes the commitment to “provide adequate and timely information at all stages of migration,” a particular focus on addressing known practical barriers, including language, is missing. More emphasis is needed on collecting and disseminating data on the languages of migrants as a basis for communicating effectively with them. The GCM should also explicitly recognize that multilingual information campaigns should be aimed at protecting human rights and promoting safe migration routes, not mainly at preventing movement.
At the same time, the zero draft of the Global Compact for Refugees does not address upholding refugees’ right to information. The Programme of Action must acknowledge the importance of targeted and accessible communication materials and language support, to ensure that all refugees have access to the information they need and are able to communicate in languages they speak and understand. This is vital to reinforce refugee protection and self-reliance.
UNICEF estimates that about two-thirds of refugees live in areas where none of the official languages are the official language of the refugees’ country of origin. There is a clear case for the Programme of Action to meaningfully address the language and communication needs of refugees. The good news is that solutions exist.
Overcoming these obstacles entails collecting and sharing the data needed to develop evidence-based communications strategies and plan for language support. It also entails resourcing that support appropriately, with adequate budgeting for translation, interpreting, and cultural mediation in relevant languages. The data gap can be filled through existing processes such as needs assessments and registration. Improved tracking of the languages migrants and refugees speak and understand can enable more effective communication with vulnerable individuals and better planning for receiving new arrivals. Limited resources can be better used through systematic research on the most effective languages, formats, and channels for listening to and informing migrants and refugees from various language groups.
This means that it is time for governments and other stakeholders, including UNHCR, to make communicating, listening, and engaging with affected people in their languages the explicit default position of migration management and refugee response.
If we neglect to recognize access to information in the right language and format as a necessary component of ensuring effective protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of migrants and refugees, the planned and well managed migration policies that the Global Compacts aim for will never become a reality.
Mia Marzotto is Advocacy Officer at Translators without Borders. She is pursuing a Master’s degree in international affairs and human rights at The New School.