Your Phone Is Now a Refugee’s Phone
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Your Phone Is Now a Refugee’s Phone

Your Phone Is Now a Refugee’s Phone


Imagine not being able to use your smartphone all day, either because there’s no coverage or because the battery has run out. And this is not just one day, but for days or weeks on end. Now imagine you’re in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, fleeing Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, headed to a temporary safe haven somewhere in Europe. This is how most people from these countries start their lives, once they flee home.

But it’s not just on sea or when their phone dies out that they feel lost, isolated, or confused. The situation is not much better on terra firma or when they have a fully functioning mobile phone, because of two key missing factors: information and translation.

BBC Media recently released a report titled Voices of Refugees, in which refugees list information in their own language as being critical for them to find asylum and keep themselves and their families safe while on the move. We take this opportunity to not only write about BBC Media’s report, but also highlight the life-saving work being done by Translators without Borders.

The report is based on interviews with 66 refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in camps in Greece and 13 more interviews in Germany with those who had completed the journey. Staff of humanitarian agencies also participated.

What information is needed most?

More than a million refugees have been on the move since 2015, but it’s not just they who direly need information; it’s also the staff of humanitarian agencies and residents in host countries. However, even the right information will be deemed useless when presented in a foreign language.

When researchers asked refugees about their most critical information needs, they listed three priorities:

  • What next? Irrespective of which stage the refugees found themselves in — whether in transit or already at their desired destination — they most needed to know what would happen to them next. Where were they supposed to go now?
  • Clarity on status and rights. Often, refugees didn’t know the status of their asylum application. The BBC report says, “They pulled out crumpled papers in languages they did not understand.” Documents in foreign languages confused them, whether about who qualified for asylum or family reunification programs.
  • Basic health and sanitation information. The long and painful journey through Europe on foot meant that, for some, getting health care became more important than seeking asylum. Refugees and agencies were concerned that warm weather and deteriorating sanitation in some of the camps would accelerate the spread of disease.

What helped, even if a little?

Internet connectivity and social networks provided some relief. While a meager resource, it sufficed to reassure people and keep them connected.

Refugees said they used WhatsApp and Facebook among others “[for] … information and advice. There were stories about people informing a Facebook group when they were about to … [make a crossing] and updating it when they were safely on the other side.” But social media would be helpful only if they had a good network online. Afghans usually didn’t, whereas Syrians did.

People who were connected felt less vulnerable. “Many [research] participants with mobile access explained that direct contact with other refugees who had already made the journey gave them access to a trusted network.”

This information was always in their native language, as they were talking to their friends and family. Also, the apps they used are localized, which had made them popular with the refugee population in the first place.

No translation, no information

Communication is critical in any humanitarian crisis, but the situation in refugee camps all over Europe now is distinct for four reasons, says Lali Foster, communications manager for TWB’s European Refugee Response.

Firstly, the refugee population is very diverse linguistically. They speak among them Arabic, Kurdish, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Tigrinya, and French. Secondly, the host community and the refugees don’t speak common languages, which makes recruiting volunteers among the local population difficult. Thirdly, refugees are very mobile. This means that there is no time to build trust and information has to be given quickly. Lastly, the information that refugees need keeps changing.

All this has made translation critical but also very difficult to provide. A lack of translation presents refugees with many problems in finding their way forward and accessing health, travel, and other basic services.

  • No one to trust, no one to talk to. A common language is a thread of hope — a reason, however fragile, to trust. Refugees complained that interpreters were hard to come by in their camps. In some camps, community leaders were appointed to be these mediators.
  • Humanitarian agencies were hindered. Agency staff and volunteers were often limited in what they could do, either because of their inability to understand the refugees’ languages or because they needed training to meet the specific information and communication needs of refugees. Before the border closures, some agencies were able to provide Arabic and Farsi leaflets that had basic medical and transport information. They also provided audio messages on buses. However, all this changed for the worse when borders closed in March 2015.
  • As bad as things were, they were worse for some. Afghan and Iraqi refugees complained that Syrians took priority over them for asylum status, language courses, and other services, even in Germany. Pashto and Dari are the long-tail languages, if you will, of the refugee crisis.

How refugees think their needs can be met

Among three solutions put forth by the refugees to meet their information needs, two had to do with translation, unsurprisingly. Humanitarian agencies also agreed on the need to share information in relevant languages. They not only stressed the need for translated documents, but also for interpreters who could enable face-to-face communication in the camps. The latter would especially be important for illiterate refugees for whom a conversation or an audio message would be the only way to receive information.

We need someone to translate for us, to communicate our needs and answer our questions.

Have more legal advisors in the camps (with translators) …

What Translators without Borders has been doing and how we can help

Since November 2015, TWB has translated over 100,000 words of critical information into refugee languages. It has reached tens of thousands of people on their journey from the Greek islands and along the Balkan route with the help of over 100 professional and volunteer translators and interpreters.

Below are TWB’s achievements in detail:

  • Collaborated with more than 20 grassroots groups and humanitarian organizations, including the Danish Refugee Council, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, the Red Cross, and UNHCR.
  • Trained 85 staff and volunteers of partner agencies on crisis translation and interpreting.
  • Worked with partners to develop machine translation tools such as translation cards to help aid workers communicate basic, necessary questions such as: “What’s your name?” and “Do you understand this language?”
  • Mobilized a team of 274 professional translators acting as rapid responders.
  • Translated 172,000 words of rapidly changing information into key languages. This information was about reception centers and ferry strikes, signage for the centers, and where to get health assistance.
  • Translated 15,000 words of longer-term and asylum information into key languages.
  • Translated 5,500 words of critical health information into Arabic, Farsi, Greek, Urdu, and Kurdish languages.
  • Developed terminology databases in Arabic and Farsi with over 1,000 commonly used medical, legal, and media terms as well as location names along the route.
  • Launched Words of Relief Digital Exchange, an open repository of information in languages of the affected populations.

If you’re a translator or interpreter and want to contribute with your skills, you can sign up here. There are many other ways to help. Find out more on the Translators without Borders website.