No service provider means to exclude refugees due to the languages they speak. However, in practice, language barriers limit refugees’ access to services, with the greatest impact likely falling on less-educated refugees. To overcome this, more funding and more attention is needed.
What’s at stake?
Communication is essential to accessing services: if a refugee does not know what services an organisation provides, or if they are unable to communicate with the service providers, they can be excluded from services to which they are eligible. In community consultations held in December 2021, refugees noted that when they try to call the service providers, communication is sometimes impossible or very difficult: the phones are busy or interpreters for the language(s) they speak aren’t available. This leaves refugees with unsatisfactory choices, including whether to try again another time, to give up, or to seek out a community member who speaks Thai or English, as it is easier to communicate with service providers in those languages.
Thailand hosts refugees from a wide range of places, with dozens of languages spoken. Organisations generally are unable to ensure that interpreters are available on all days. Even UNHCR, which has 40 interpreters working every day, may be unable to answer an unscheduled interaction with a refugee if the interpreters for that language are in interviews when the refugee calls. When service providers do not have an interpreter available, they typically will try to get the gist of the reason for calling and then call back when possible. If the matter is very urgent, e.g., arrest, they try to respond immediately. Language barriers also appear when refugees seek to access general service providers, such as hospitals.
It can be hard for refugees to keep track of which organisations provide which services and what the criteria are. To try to address this, the Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons has sought to centralise the information in a pinned post on their Facebook page and several organisations work with community focal persons to raise awareness in refugee communities about their services. Nonetheless, ensuring that all the information is up-to-date, detailed, and available in the main languages can be challenging.
Further, divergent communication platforms can create barriers. For example, whereas Khmer refugees typically prefer to use Facebook, UNHCR is more comfortable with people contacting them using email— regardless of the language—rather than reaching out over Facebook.
Because it is easier for Thai-speakers and English-speakers to communicate with service providers, refugees who do not speak these languages will sometimes approach people from their community who speak Thai or English to help them communicate with service providers. While this is an example of refugees helping refugees, it (1) can lead to considerable unpaid work for refugees; (2) can create security risks if multiple refugees are coming every day for help, as neighbours, landlords, or police can get suspicious; (3) excludes people who have weak community connections; and (4) can discourage people from seeking assistance if they have an issue that they do not want a community member to know about their issue.
1. While several organisations already share information with refugee communities through community focal points, it may be worth strengthening and funding community interpretation services, including for hospitals and schools in areas populated by refugees. If done right, this could create paid work for refugees while also increasing access to services and reducing the workload of the service providers.
2. Considering the interpreter’s key function in effective and accurate communication, it is essential that community interpreters in refugee settings receive thorough training on interpreting skills, linguistic analysis, translation strategies, ethics, professional role boundaries and appropriate self-care for their work in the field. More organisations should consider partnering together and with relevant interpreting programs to provide regular access to professional interpreting training for the refugees who serve as community interpreters.
3. More organisations should consider adopting and publicizing a schedule that indicates which days interpreters for different languages will be available. For example, if Cambodia refugees know that there will be Khmer interpreters available on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, they can try to call on those days.
4. Trust is essential to effective service provision and can be a particular concern for refugees from neighbouring countries due to fears of spies. Interpreters should therefore be carefully screened before being hired.
5. In implementing the National Screening Mechanism, the implementing committee should pay careful attention to the languages in which information can be submitted, in which interviews are conducted, and in which information is shared with applicants. To reduce barriers to sharing important information, applicants should have the opportunity to indicate whether they prefer that the interviewer and interpreter be of a certain gender.
6. Further research needs to be conducted and shared to establish which refugees in particular experience language barriers and where refugees from different communities access information. This could help organisations to refine their response and information-sharing.