Why Information Matters: The need for accurate, useable and comprehensible information in mother-tongue languages

Last week saw the first of six informal thematic consultations take place in Geneva under the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Over the next six months, the Mixed Migration Platform’s (MMP) seven partners will produce blog posts to coincide with the consultations due to take place in Geneva, New York and Vienna. The first thematic session sought to tackle the centrality of a human rights-based approach to migration policy, inviting UN delegations, civil society and the private sector to discuss its integration within the Compact consultation process. The second of three panels raised questions of social integration and cohesion of migrants, which this blog addresses, particularly regarding the importance of accurate and comprehensible information for those on the move – not only for protection but also for successful integration and inclusion from places of origin, to transit, and to countries of destination.

The migration situation in Greece illustrates how needs in a humanitarian crisis go far beyond food, water or accommodation. When migrants and refugees first arrive on the Greek shores, they often find themselves in an information vacuum.

Since mid-2015, access to information for refugees and migrants has been identified as an overarching gap in the response in Greece, a barrier that increases vulnerability, stress, and risk for those seeking protection. The needs have changed over time; since March 2016, the response has shifted from being an emergency to a protracted crisis. Many people have now been stuck in Greece for more than a year. Their information needs have changed but still remain acute, and many barriers still impede their access to the vital information they need.

Making decisions in a complex information environment where poor and confusing communications and inadequate provision of information in migrants’ languages is the norm

“The main problem here in Greece is the lack of information, nobody explains enough, many people lie, how can we get trustful information?” – Iranian man, 49, Athens.

Feedback from migrants and refugees clearly indicates that language and comprehension barriers are amongst the main obstacles to accessing vital information or services. The majority of the migrants and refugees interviewed by MMP partner Translators Without Borders said that they prefer to receive information in their mother tongue. However, this rarely occurs. Often the information is not translated into a language people can understand. For example, information is rarely translated into Kurmanji and Sorani, making it inaccessible to many Kurdish migrants and refugees. Furthermore, information is provided in formats that are not always readable and/or comprehensible. Some people do not know how to read, and therefore cannot access any of the written information provided to them. Sometimes, even if someone can read the information, it is presented in such a complex way (e.g. legal information on asylum procedures) that it is not easy to understand.

The main information needs of people involve clarity around registration and asylum procedures, and an ongoing, every day desire for improved information about access to services and options for accommodation or relocation.

In terms of uncertain and shifting registration and asylum procedures, migrants and refugees face long waits for decisions on their asylum or relocation cases, often not even knowing what steps or processes they need to take. This lack of control aggravates the situation and makes them restless and highly frustrated.

“We have no information here because nobody speaks French or our own local languages. So we have no clue about the different procedures” – Congolese man (26-35 yrs), Lesvos.

Meanwhile, as they wait, migrants and refugees navigating this context grow frustrated that humanitarian organisations are not communicating with them or are giving them confusing information, such as how long the asylum process will take, what the procedural delays are likely to be, and the eligibility criteria. This is made worse by language and comprehension barriers to accessing and understanding what little information is available. Poor or no internet access in some sites and the high price of data (for mobile phones) can exacerbate this, as accessing online information then becomes even more difficult.

The knock-on detrimental consequences for migrants and refugees

“Please help us! We have no information on anything here, we have to depend on things we hear from others” – Afghan woman (18-25 yrs), Malakasa.

Access to reliable and accurate legal information is a prerequisite for people to cope with the uncertainty of their situation and to make informed decisions on next steps. Due to this shortage of reliable, easy-to-understand information, people tend to rely on word of mouth. The information gap is sometimes filled by other, less trustworthy sources, such as smugglers providing dubious information on migration routes, putting people at further risk.

The barrier is not just with official information, but also advice on day-to-day needs; miscommunication due to language barriers has many negative knock-on effects. Another major concern reported was the difficulty in communicating with medical staff at hospitals. An interpreter may be needed for doctor appointments, but it can take days or even weeks to find one. Some migrants and refugees have reported this, which leads to delays in necessary treatment, with significant health consequences.

“The doctors only speak Greek and English and many of us only speak Arabic. This lack of communication hinders proper treatment and full understanding” – Syrian Kurdish man (36- 49 yrs), Ritsona.

In other interactions with the host community, such as with staff at public institutions, teachers in schools or civil servants at the Greek Asylum Service, there is often misunderstanding or misconceptions. Language barriers can exacerbate the sense of being treated disrespectfully, whether this is intentional or not. The lack of local language learning opportunities also affects a sense of acceptance from the host community, with negative consequences for social inclusion and prospects for better integration into Greek society.

What to do? Encouraging policy makers to recognise the need for better communication with communities and the use of comprehensible information as an integration enabler

Overall, people reported that a sense of uncertainty is preventing them from moving ahead with their lives. The lack of communication and information on the procedures and duration of the asylum application process is seen as a huge source of frustration and desperation for migrants and refugees. To address this problem, MMP partners Internews and Translators without Borders produce daily, fact-based, useful, migrant and refugee-focused information for the affected populations, which is translated into at least four languages and made available both on and offline.

As there is uncertainty around the future of the response and the continued presence of INGOs in Greece, considering the information and communication needs of migrants and refugees is vitally important. Greater efforts must be placed by all actors in recognising the multiplicity of these information needs, including a demand for both face-to-face and online channels for communication. Policy makers, in particular, must further recognise the importance of easily-accessible and comprehensible information for supporting the well-being and aiding the integration of both migrants and refugees. If we are to ensure modern humanitarian response for migrants and refugees remains effective and relevant to current-day communication trends and patterns of movement, it must place the diverse information needs of people on the move at its centre.

Note: This article originally appeared on the Mixed Migration Platform website.