A Translators without Borders study found that access to information has improved in the Rohingya refugee response as a result of an increased humanitarian focus on communicating with communities. Yet language barriers still leave many Rohingya refugees without the critical and life-saving information they need. Prioritizing spoken communication in Rohingya and a mixed approach on formats and channels is key to effective communication.
From the outset, language challenges have played a central role in the Rohingya refugee response. There are at least five languages — Rohingya, Bangla, Burmese, Chittagonian, and English — used in the response. Low literacy levels and limited access to media compound the situation.
To find out how humanitarians can effectively communicate with refugees, Translators without Borders assessed language comprehension and support needs among the refugees. We surveyed more than 400 Rohingya men and women living in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. We asked them what languages they spoke, how they preferred to receive information, and we tested their comprehension of simple spoken, visual, and written information.
Here is what we found.
Communication has improved, but not all Rohingya refugees feel informed
Twenty-eight percent of refugees say they do not have enough information to make decisions for themselves and their family. Extrapolated to the whole camp population, this suggests that about 200,000 people feel that they lack the basis to make properly informed decisions. Nevertheless, it is a marked improvement from a year ago when an assessment by Internews found that 79 percent of refugees did not have enough information.
Communication in spoken Rohingya is critical
Rohingya is the only spoken language that all refugees understand and prefer. Our study shows that 36 percent of refugees do not understand a simple sentence in Chittagonian. Women are less likely than men to understand spoken Bangla or Burmese. Refugees prefer to receive information in spoken Rohingya, either by word-of-mouth, loudspeaker, or phone call.
This preference for spoken Rohingya coincides with strong trust levels in imams, family, aid and medical professionals, and majhees (government-appointed community leaders) as sources of information. Radio, TV, and the internet are less trusted by and less familiar to women.
After spoken Rohingya, simple visual messaging is the most widely understood format. Comprehension rates for visual communication are high regardless of gender, age, or education level.
Burmese is the preferred written language, and is relatively well understood
After Rohingya, Burmese is the preferred language for written communication. Although two-thirds of refugees prefer written communication in Rohingya, the language lacks a universally accepted script. Refugees prefer written information to be given in brochure or leaflet form. This allows them to take information away with them and ask a friend or family member to help them understand it.
Sixty-six percent of refugees said that they cannot read or write in any language, and comprehension testing broadly confirmed this. When tested for reading comprehension, 36 percent understood Burmese, a similar rate to Bangla and English.
Investment in language will improve the response
These findings make it clear that there are varied language needs within the Rohingya community. They show that different people understand, prefer, and trust different formats and sources of information. Nonetheless, practical actions for effective humanitarian communication exist.
Using Rohingya for spoken communication, and Burmese for written information is important. Providing information in a mix of formats and channels to account for varied preferences and education levels will also help.
Investing in formal training for field workers and interpreters in the Rohingya language and in humanitarian interpretation techniques is key. Staff should be supported to communicate in the language understood and preferred by the whole community.
As time goes on, communication and language preferences may change. Ongoing assessments on information and language support needs should be coupled with further research to better understand communication issues affecting the Rohingya refugee response. Sustained coordination among humanitarian organizations can help ensure communication is consistent, appropriate, and addresses key community concerns.
View the research brief.
Read the full report.
This study is part of the Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability. Funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) through the International Organization for Migration (IOM
Written by Mahrukh 'Maya' Hasan, Evidence and Impact Consultant for the Rohingya refugee crisis response in Bangladesh.