The language lesson: What we've learned about communicating with Rohingya refugees
The results of this assessment make it clear that there are varied language needs within the Rohingya community.
Different people understand, prefer, and trust different formats of communication and sources of information. Nonetheless, solutions for effective humanitarian communication exist. TWB therefore recommends donor governments, the United Nations, and other humanitarian aid organizations involved in the response to take the following practical action:
- Use Rohingya as the spoken language of communication with refugees.
Since Rohingya is the only language that all refugees understand, it is critical that humanitarian agencies prioritize communication in this language. Agencies should also check communication materials for accuracy before sharing with the community.
- Invest in formal training for field workers and interpreters in the Rohingya language and interpretation.
Agencies frequently hire native Chittagonian speakers as fieldworkers or interpreters for the Rohingya response, but their Rohingya skills may vary. Given the importance of face-to-face communication in Rohingya, agencies should assess Rohingya language skills during recruitment. Hiring female staff with the right language skills is key to communicating with Rohingya women. Agencies should also engage Rohingya volunteers for community interactions. Training and support programs should build interpreters’ capacities, including in complex terminology such as health interpreters may require.
This can draw on tools such as TWB’s multilingual glossaries of humanitarian terms. Aid organizations should encourage collaboration between Rohingya volunteers and Chittagonian staff. This maximizes the development of cross-cultural communication skills, and raises awareness of differences between the two languages.
- Use a mix of formats and channels of communication.
Use multiple formats and channels, and consult with the community on those choices. This ensures that everyone has access to information in a format they can understand, through a channel they trust. Develop a mixed approach appropriate to the information being communicated: loudspeakers and majhees may work well for delivering lifesaving information about basic access to services. More complex issues, such as repatriation, are better addressed through face-to-face discussions, community meetings, or long-form radio programming. Key considerations on format and channel include:
• Make audio formats central to communication strategies. In addition to face-to-face communication, agencies should use loudspeakers and radio to relay spoken messages.
• Use visual formats to further aid comprehension. Visual content should be simple and culturally relevant. Develop and pre-test it with Rohingya refugees to confirm that they understand the intended messages. Explore dynamic visual formats such as animation, film, and community theater. Narration or subtitles further expand comprehension.
• Develop illustrated brochures and leaflets as more permanent records. Provide information in formats that refugees can take home for information retention and later reference. This also allows literate refugees to ask friends or family members to help them understand the information. Given both access and privacy concerns, women in particular may benefit from this approach, which can complement mass communication materials such as posters.
• Work with others to get the right message out. Build partnerships with trusted community figures such as imams and women leaders to relay and promote key messages. Use the support and resources of the Communicating With Communities (CWC) Working Group to ensure content is coordinated, appropriate, and addresses key community concerns.
Use Burmese script when sharing written information with refugees. Respect refugees’ preference to receive written information in Burmese over English or Bangla, and cater to that choice until literacy levels improve. To reach the widest possible literate audience, provide all written materials meant for refugees in Burmese, English, and Bangla. If resources are limited, Burmese should take precedence.
Develop a better understanding of communication issues affecting the Rohingya refugee community. Recognize that language and culture are integral to communication, community engagement, and the accountability of humanitarian efforts. Develop a more nuanced understanding of how language and culture can support effective communication. Adapt interventions to the dynamic local context. Areas to consider include: communicating with women; children’s literacy and comprehension; Rohingya script awareness and use; and visual communication.