How language barriers reduce access to humanitarian services for Rohingya communities

14 Oktober 2019
Source: Translators without Borders
Country: Bangladesh, Myanmar
Monolingual Rohingya in Bangladesh and Myanmar are unable to access information, voice their needs and wishes, or engage with decision-makers except through other people.

Part I: Cross-border trends, September 2019

Executive summary

The Rohingya are marginalized in Myanmar society, as reflected in their lack of legal status and recognition as citizens. Across the border in Bangladesh, they are also unable to fully participate in society due to their lack of legal status and recognition as refugees.

One consequence of this is to reduce their opportunities to learn other languages such as Myanmar or Bangla. This locks in their exclusion through language.

Monolingual Rohingya in both countries are unable to access information, voice their needs and wishes, or engage with decision-makers except through other people. The groups that are most commonly monolingual are also disadvantaged in other ways. This language dependency reinforces their relative lack of power and agency.

Forced displacement increases reliance on others from outside the Rohingya community for support. This makes it even more essential for them to communicate across languages and cultures. The role of intermediaries becomes more important and the risk of exclusion for monolinguals even greater.

Effective two-way communication is a key component of user-centered, equitable service provision and accountable humanitarian action. In the linguistically diverse humanitarian response in both countries, organizations struggle to get that communication right. The result is reduced access to quality services, further exclusion, and missed opportunities to help improve intercommunal relations.

Humanitarian organizations can improve communication effectiveness by increasing staff language capacity, cultural awareness, and knowledge of interpreting principles.

More fundamentally, language and cultural awareness should inform every aspect of program design, resourcing, and implementation. That is how we ensure that under-served Rohingya can understand their options, make their needs and wishes heard, and build better relations with neighboring communities.


This assessment highlights ways in which humanitarian organizations can communicate more effectively with the affected population.

1. Apply plain language principles

Develop information, education and communication materials in plain language, especially those intended for the Rohingya community. Explain concepts using familiar words and clear sentence structure. Avoid or explain technical jargon and words that are not commonly used. Ensure content is field-tested, appropriate for the intended audience, and addresses key community concerns. (For an overview of plain language principles, see https://translatorswithoutborders. org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/ Basic-plain-language-principles-forhumanitarians.pdf.)

2. Invest in formal training for interpreters and field staff in language and cultural skills

Assess Rohingya language skills as part of staff recruitment, and engage Rohingya staff and volunteers to support community engagement. Training and support programs can build interpreters’ and field workers’ capacity, including in complex terminology such as health interpreters may require. This can draw on tools like TWB’s multilingual glossaries of humanitarian terms. Humanitarian organizations can foster cross-cultural communication skills by encouraging collaboration between Rohingya staff and volunteers and those from other backgrounds.

3. Test comprehension of critical messages

Develop and test message banks to see which messages are best understood, convey the intended meaning, and resonate with target groups. Whenever possible, co-design or co-redesign messages with community members. This will also help to track progress and raise awareness of the importance of clear messaging. Ultimately this should increase the effectiveness of humanitarian communication practices over time.

4. Promote and support empathy with service users and understanding of their needs

Train and brief service providers in language and cultural awareness. Enable them to apply that learning by designing programs to allow adequate time for communication. In health clinics, for instance, this means organizations should plan for doctors to spend longer with patients, especially new patients. It is common for interpreting into an unstandardized language to take a few minutes longer. Plan for any interpreted meeting or gathering, such as focus groups, to take at least twice as long. As far as possible, don’t rush interactions with Rohingya community members: it can readily be taken as rude and disrespectful.

5. Design a bridging strategy from Rohingya to the other languages of instruction (Myanmar in Rakhine State, Myanmar and English in Cox’s Bazar)

Expanding the use of the Rohingya language in education will improve children’s learning across the curriculum, including learning additional languages. This is especially important for disadvantaged groups such as girls, children with disabilities, and those who have missed years of schooling. Starting immediately, provide stronger guidance for the use of Rohingya in teaching and learning, teacher training, management, and assessment. Consider developing an approach to teaching Myanmar as a second language and progressively using it as a language of instruction as students become more confident. In the long term, work with the Rohingya community to explore scope for standardizing Rohingya as a language of instruction.

6. Develop social cohesion programming that addresses language-based exclusion and does not perpetuate it

Design social cohesion and peacebuilding programs to be accessible to monolingual Rohingya, as well as to other groups. This should inform everything from activity planning to staff recruitment and training, to communication. Model and promote intercommunal respect by referring to social groups by the names they prefer: call Rohingya, Rohingya. Explore the role of language intermediaries and shared problems like gender-based violence as entry points for promoting intercommunal understanding.