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Without Good Interpreters, Refugees Are Lost in an Information Void

Humanitarian interpreters are in short supply, undermining effective refugee response in countries like Greece, writes Julie Jalloul of Translators without Borders, which is launching a new platform to help connect interpreters and refugee support groups.

Written by Julie Jalloul Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
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Refugees talk to an interpreter in a refugee shelter in Clausnitz, Germany.JAN WOITAS/dpa

I was walking home from work in downtown Athens recently when I saw a young woman pushing a stroller and wandering around crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said that someone had stolen her money and refugee card on the metro.

Because she doesn’t speak Greek, when she went to report the crime to the police she couldn’t understand what the police officers were telling her, and they had no interpreters available. She pleaded with me to go interpret for her. Seeing the panic in her eyes, I couldn’t refuse.

As a project officer for Translators without Borders (TWB) and a humanitarian interpreter in Greece, I have heard dozens of similar stories from refugees throughout Greece and around the world wherever there is a language barrier and lack of quality interpreting.

I learned of a Syrian man who was misdiagnosed by a psychologist because his interpreter was Egyptian and did not understand the Syrian Arabic dialect. A few weeks ago, I witnessed refugees being thrown out of their makeshift camp on the Greek island of Chios. They had no idea what was happening, and there were no interpreters there to explain the situation.

“I feel like a deaf person at a wedding … where you can see people talk and dance but you can’t understand anything they say,” one woman, Um Abdullah, told me of her experience as an Arabic-speaking Syrian refugee in Greece.

Humanitarian interpreters are often in short supply. During the needs assessment I conducted in Greece with TWB, I have seen nonprofit organizations in a continuous search for humanitarian interpreters who speak the languages of refugees. In Greece, that means Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu, Pashto, and the Kurdish dialects of Sorani and Kurmanji.

This language gap is often filled by community interpreters, refugees or bilinguals who speak these languages. Yet informal interpreters may be unaware of the ethical codes and principles of professional interpreting.

A study by TWB this April identified the lack of interpreting services as one of the major barriers to the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance in the refugee crisis in Greece. Nonprofit organizations have a difficult time sourcing qualified interpreters, and there were never enough of them. Even those organizations that had filled their required positions said that testing interpreters’ skills was very difficult, making the quality of the interpreting services unknown.

We are launching TWB Interpreter Connect, a portal that connects humanitarian interpreters with nonprofit organizations needing interpreting resources, to try to bridge these gaps. The platform also aims to improve interpreters’ skills by providing them and their employers with free training materials and resources, such as glossaries, guides and training videos.

The online portal is the only service of its kind for the refugee response in Greece. The rollout is a pilot; over the next few months, TWB hopes to add more services, especially a method for testing interpreters. After modifying and refining TWB Interpreter Connect in Greece, we would like to roll it out to other crisis situations next year.

Language barriers can make a refugee’s long journey and resettlement even harder. Interpreters can be the critical information link for refugees and migrants, from healthcare to food, shelter, immigration procedures or accommodation information. Asylum seekers need access to information that they can trust, in a language that they can understand.

The views in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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