Language & Comprehension Barriers in Greece’s Migration Crisis: A Study on the Multitude of Languages and Comprehension of Material Provided to Refugees and Migrants in Greece
This study analyzes the language and communication barriers that exist in the context of the ongoing humanitarian migration crisis in Greece. It explores whether the information provided to refugees and migrants in Greece is effective when measured against four key criteria: accessibility, readability, comprehensibility, and usefulness. This research also documents the wide range of languages and ethnicities involved and reports on language and communication preferences amongst the refugee and migrant population.
This study was conducted in April 2017 at 11 sites in Greece, and combined quantitative and qualitative research methods. The findings are based on 202 surveys with refugees and migrants, and 22 interviews with humanitarian aid workers. The surveys and interviews were conducted in Arabic, Kurmanji, Sorani, Farsi, Dari, Greek and English.
Summary of findings
The language in which information is provided is of critical importance. The vast majority of respondents (88 percent) would prefer to receive information in their mother tongue; English is not seen as an adequate alternative in most cases. Speakers of “minority” languages such as Sorani, Baluchi, and Lingala do not receive sufficient information in Greece, as there are not enough interpreters or cultural mediators for these languages.
Findings show that comprehension testing can aid communication by clarifying levels of understanding between some of the main languages of refugees and migrants in Greece. Interviews and background research conducted for this study highlighted that a significant number of Farsi and Dari speakers can understand each other, although Farsi speakers might understand less Dari. Native speakers of the Kurdish dialects Kurmanji and Sorani are less likely to understand each other’s languages, but more likely to understand a third language, such as Arabic. Some Kurmanji and Sorani speakers would prefer to receive written information in Arabic, as they were not taught to read or write in their mother tongue. This information had not previously been available to the majority of the humanitarian aid workers interviewed.
Literacy and education levels, which vary across the refugee and migrant population, are a significant factor in comprehension. Of the 202 participants interviewed, 24 percent had received no schooling at all; 47 percent had some schooling, but no diploma and 29 percent had obtained a high school diploma or more. Ninety-three percent of the respondents claimed to understand written information in their language; but only 44 percent of them were able to answer basic questions on the information they were given. This implies that written information in the right language is comprehended by fewer than half of the target audience; to reach the majority, verbal, graphic and audio-visual content is needed.
Almost two-thirds of refugees and migrants surveyed wanted more information than they were currently receiving, with a strong preference for written documents (even given literacy challenges). This finding is in contrast to the fact that most information within the surveyed sites is shared by word of mouth. Furthermore, 64 percent of respondents voiced a need for more information on a range of topics, including general information about their stay in Greece, asylum procedures, medical and healthcare, housing options outside camps, education for children, language lessons for both children and adults, and family reunification procedures. The one-third of respondents who did not want more information also often reported feeling a lack of trust towards aid organizations and government authorities.
Issues identified by humanitarian aid workers interviewed indicate that language presents one of the main obstacles to effectiveness in their work with refugees and migrants. Humanitarian aid workers rely heavily on the assistance of an interpreter or cultural mediator to communicate with refugees and migrants, yet they frequently lack a trained language professional with the right language combination to support them in their daily work and at times fall back on asking a child to interpret. Moreover, the majority of the humanitarian aid workers interviewed were not sufficiently informed about the origin of and the nuances between certain languages, limiting their ability to seek the appropriate support for communicating with the refugees and migrants, they aim to assist.