Language inclusion is critical to the Rohingya response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh where 900,000 people are looking for safety.

Globally, there are more than 35 million refugees. And 110 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide.  

It’s alarming. 

This year’s World Refugee Day, under the banner “Hope away from home. A world where refugees are always included” focused on the power and importance of inclusion for those forced to flee to a new country. Now more than ever, refugees need solutions to find safety, flee conflict and start again. The right information in their language can make this possible. 

To truly ensure all refugees are included, humanitarian responders must listen and be empathetic to refugees’ needs. Language inclusion is critical to this.

CLEAR Global’s work aims to shift the power balance in communication. This is essential for ensuring that refugees can make informed decisions and engage in meaningful two-way communication with humanitarian service providers.

Clear Global translators working in Bangladesh

In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, more than 900,000 Rohingya are looking for safety. Aid agencies predict that cuts caused by a massive shortfall in funding could raise malnutrition and child deaths in the world’s largest refugee settlement. Over 7,000 cases of dengue fever have also been reported (WHO). As the risk of dengue infections climbs in densely populated areas, Rohingya need accessible public health information in their language to stay safe. Effective communication and language solutions are now more crucial than ever for humanitarian efforts. 

Yet, language inclusion is not a priority in humanitarian action. Recent research from CLEAR Global shines a spotlight on the critical impact of language awareness, and the work still left to do, to ensure effective communication between humanitarians and Rohingya refugees.

Rohingya, Chittagonian, or Bangla? Humanitarian communication still does not prioritize the Rohingya language

Rohingya remains the most effective language to communicate with Rohingya refugees. Yet humanitarian responders still overestimate the number of Rohingya refugees able to communicate effectively in Chittagonian, the local language of Cox’s Bazar, or Bangla. Using Rohingya is especially vital when talking about sensitive issues like sexual health, which require cultural nuance and linguistic precision. Rohingya refugees stress that failing to respect their language preferences limits access to critical information services, perpetuating the vulnerability of an already marginalized community.

“We are only fluent in Rohingya. Although we understand the importance of learning the local language and have been living here for six years, our circumstances have made it difficult for us to learn the local language. Additionally, we are not motivated to learn other languages as our ultimate goal is to return to our home country as soon as possible.”

“Critical terminologies cannot be explained well by the Chittagonian dialect. Sometimes the community responds as if they understand what is said by a staff though they didn’t understand the matter well.”

Male FGD participant, Camp 3

“Critical terminologies cannot be explained well by the Chittagonian dialect. Sometimes the community responds as if they understand what is said by a staff though they didn’t understand the matter well.”

– Survey Respondent, Site Management and Site Development

Inadequate language provision threatens the effectiveness of the response

Lack of information in the right language compounds existing challenges, such as a lack of accessible channels or spaces to find information or communicate with aid workers.

“When we share about our problems with newly joined medical practitioners, they say they don’t understand things such as: fet horani (stomachache), gaalamani (diarrhoea), boiyar (acidity), besuit (paralysed), tecchul (conjunctivitis), utani (scabies). We have an easy time with communication when there are Rohingya volunteers in the health sector. Because it’s difficult for an ill person to take a lot of time and talk to non-Rohingya speakers.”

– Female FGD participant, Camp 11

Rohingya refugees with disabilities struggle to communicate with humanitarians in a range of sectors, including WASH, nutrition and health. Refugees with disabilities currently have to rely on support from family or neighbors to get resources and communicate their concerns. Specialized training on disability-aware communication and support to use the right terminology in Rohingya would go a long way to facilitate information exchange.

“Accessing information is even more challenging for people with disabilities. For example, as someone who is physically impaired and unable to walk, I often struggle to obtain the information I need.”

– Male FGD participant, Camp 3

Humanitarian feedback mechanisms are not aligned with community preferences in providing feedback. Low literacy rates, low access to mobile phones, and lack of availability in the Rohingya language mean that conventional humanitarian mechanisms such as hotlines and suggestion boxes are underutilized. Rohingya participants in the research stressed that they prefer to channel feedback through local community leaders. Refugees also expressed that raising a complaint is perceived as rude in the Rohingya culture. Understanding and addressing these language and cultural barriers is essential for humanitarians to implement feedback mechanisms that work.

“We do not provide any feedback or complain anywhere. If we have any issues, we inform our Majhis and they deal with issues. Majhi has informed us that they do not provide any feedback or complain anymore because those are not responded to. Before we could ask questions or provide feedback.”

– Male FGD participant, Camp 24

Previous negative experiences and perceptions of shrinking space to provide feedback raises serious concerns. Some participants shared that they had previously been able to give feedback, but now they felt staff did not reply to their comments. Concerningly, male participants in Camp 24 perceived that the lack of action on their feedback had lasting implications for families in the camp. They said that a new condition imposed a year ago meant that women had to receive a contraceptive implant to be able to register newborns. Clear communication between community members and camp management staff is needed to understand and address these perceptions.

“Before we could ask questions or provide feedback. Now it is not possible at all and staff do not respond even if we give [feedback]. For example, we used to register our newborn babies without any legal complications. But it has been more than one year since the current CIC imposed a condition on it. To register newborn babies, every woman has to get a contraceptive implant that lasts up to five years. If they do not take it, the newborn babies will not be registered on the family card. Now there are lots of unregistered new babies whose parents expressed unwillingness to get implanted. After the imposition of this condition, there are so many cases of abortions. Parents are willingly committing random abortion after knowing that they have conceived babies or when the fetus is 4/6/7 months old.”

– Male FGD participant, Camp 24

These perceptions amongst community members warrant further exploration to understand the context of the issue, which seems to include a wider disagreement between the Camp in Charge (CiC) and community members. This is concerning as it’s perceived as ‘truth’ because of poor information relay, compounded by language barriers. 

Good practices in communication pave the way forward

Data collection for monitoring, evaluation, accountability, and learning (MEAL) sets a good example of how to manage language challenges. Key informants working in the nutrition sector shared that they had translated data collection tools into Rohingya, piloted them, and addressed confusion with the data collection team before rollout helped mitigate some of the most fundamental language challenges. They also shared that they had selected enumerators based on language skills and knowledge of the local context. WASH sector staff held face-to-face meetings with community members about the construction of new drainage systems and washrooms. These good practices offer a blueprint that should be implemented response-wide.

“One of the most successful things we did was working intensely and very closely with a small group of data collectors (four) on the purpose, meaning, translation, and implementation of a qualitative assessment which included a kind of PRA approach. This was time-consuming, and it was only for a very small sample but we thought the quality of the information was good.”

– Survey Respondent, Data Analysis

Aid workers acknowledge that local staff, Rohingya volunteers and audiovisual material are crucial to facilitating communication. They also emphasize that providing language and communication training and prioritizing in-person engagement for critical discussion is essential. To reach a wider audience, especially the elderly and those with limited literacy, loudspeakers are considered valuable for disseminating basic information. Community members also recommend creating information hubs with Rohingya-speaking staff available 24/7 to provide comprehensive support.

“Their good practice is they appoint Rohingya volunteers which helps us to communicate at service centers. If it takes a lot of time to make them understand our problems, it becomes a burden to us to sit patiently because we can’t stay there for so long in weaker physical condition.”

– Older female FGD participant, Camp 11

Cultural sensitivity and respect drive effective communication

Failure to localize communication material risks disengagement. Comprehension testing workshops revealed key issues with some materials. In one poster, from the nutrition sector, women were not wearing any kind of scarf or hijab. In a WASH sector video, a grandmother character was wearing a sari and blouse with short sleeves, whereas full sleeves would have been more culturally appropriate.
Tone and attitude are as important as language choice. Rohingya community members shared experiences where humanitarians had used a  rude tone or language. When asked what good communication would look like, they said they wanted to leave the conversation feeling respected. The Health Sector Strategic Plan recognizes the cultural importance of respectful communication by emphasizing that healthcare workers should use “friendly language and tone”. But, in the context of strained resources and low language awareness, aid workers need training and practical support to embed these recommendations in their day-to-day communication practices.

“Some staff are really very good and help us to understand the language. For example, one staff member asked if we were okay. One time we were waiting and our kids were crying. The staff helped us to be more comfortable and even gave us space for breastfeeding.” 

– Female FGD participant, Camp 1E

To achieve language inclusion, investment in language and communication training for humanitarian responders becomes imperative

Equipping responders with the linguistic skills and cultural awareness needed to engage effectively with the Rohingya community will not only enhance the delivery of aid but also build trust and foster a sense of shared humanity. By valuing and incorporating Rohingya language and communication practices into the response framework, we can harness their strengths to create a more inclusive and empowering environment for Rohingya refugees.

Let us strive to close the language gap, champion the Rohingya language as a vital tool for effective communication, and ensure that empathy and respect underpin all interactions within the humanitarian response.

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