“You have to understand that no one would put their children in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” –British-Somali poet Warsan Shire.
June 20th marks World Refugee Day as an international holiday celebrating and honoring global refugees, individuals who have been forced to flee their countries due to persecution, war or violence. In today’s day and age, as the world bears witness to the horrors of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, as well as the overwhelming migration crises in Sudan and Afghanistan, this holiday becomes more relevant and important to shed light on than ever. Although escaping one’s war-ridden home territory is no minor feat, refugees face a different kind of battlefield when they arrive at the host country. Foreigners seeking shelter in unfamiliar grounds with little preparation always experience a cultural shock often exacerbated by language barriers. Language access plays a crucial role in breaking down barriers and empowering refugees to rebuild their lives. In this blog, we will highlight eight statistics that shed light on the realities refugees face and discuss six impactful ways in which language access can make a difference, fostering integration, inclusivity, and resilience.
110 million people displaced around the world: get the facts
- Right now, more people have been forced to flee their homes than ever before, with a staggering 110 million individuals displaced worldwide, according to a report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is more than any other time since World War II.
- From the war in Ukraine to ongoing conflict in Syria, to climate shocks and economic turmoil in East Africa and Latin America—global instability is increasing. At the end of 2022, the number was at 108 million, rising to 110 in just the first few months of 2023.
- More than 271,000 Ukrainian refugees have been admitted to the United States since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began over a year ago, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
- As per Statista, around 8.2 million Ukrainian refugees were registered across Europe. (See the figure below)
- Education Disparities: According to the UNHCR, only 63% of refugee children attend primary school, compared to a global average of 91%. Language barriers contribute to educational disparities, limiting refugees’ access to quality education and impeding their long-term prospects.
- Employment Challenges: A study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) reveals that refugees face a higher risk of unemployment compared to non-refugees. Language barriers often prevent refugees from securing gainful employment, leading to economic instability and social exclusion.
- Health Disparities: Language barriers hinder refugees’ access to healthcare services. The inability to communicate effectively with healthcare providers can lead to misdiagnosis, inadequate treatment, and compromised health outcomes.
- Social Isolation: Language barriers create social isolation for refugees, impeding their ability to connect with local communities, form friendships, and build support networks. This isolation exacerbates feelings of loneliness and affects mental wellbeing.
- Legal Challenges: Access to legal aid is crucial for refugees seeking asylum or navigating complex legal systems. Language barriers make it difficult for refugees to understand their rights, access legal services, and effectively advocate for themselves.
Facing The Language Barrier – A Refugee’s Story
“I’ve come a long way from Ukraine to Portland. When we reached Portland, we had so many barriers and challenges to start a new life, with a new world and different environment. My first worry was about the lack of ability to speak the country’s language which is English.
When we came here first, no one of my family members was able to speak and communicate in English. We found it very hard, especially me as I couldn’t enjoy my social life as I was in Ukraine where I used to have an enjoyable environment with family and friends… On the other hand, not knowing the language also meant that I’ve found difficulties completing the essential parts of life, such as employment, shopping, dealing with letters, appointments and communicating with doctors and many more things… IAs a Ukrainian refugee, I was filled with immense joy when I first learned about the online English language course. Without hesitation, I eagerly joined, knowing that it held the potential to positively transform my life. Over time, I realized the true value of this course, as it not only taught me the fundamentals of English but also equipped me with the necessary skills to effectively communicate and converse in daily life. The accessibility of the online platform allowed me to participate in classes from the comfort of my own home, making the learning experience both convenient and enjoyable.
…I would also like to express my heartfelt appreciation to the government for their support and recognition of the importance of language education. Through their efforts, they have enabled me and countless others to change our lives for the better.
In this journey of language acquisition, I have come to understand the vital role of translation and interpreting services. They bridge the gap between languages, allowing individuals from diverse backgrounds to access education and communicate effectively. The presence of such language services in the online English course has been invaluable, ensuring that all participants, regardless of their linguistic background, can fully engage and benefit from the program. With profound gratitude, I extend my thanks to those who have made language access a reality, making it possible for refugees like me to embark on a transformative path towards a brighter future” … Kateryna * (Ukrainian Refugee)
Unfortunately, Kateryna’s story is not unique. It’s important to note that with an unprecedented million people currently displaced from their homes worldwide, nearly 35.3 million refugees, are children. The refugees that have managed to safely start a new life elsewhere face many issues and challenges trying to integrate themselves into their new society. These challenges can range from legal complications to comprehending complex transportation systems or finding a place to live. Despite all of these obstacles, one of the biggest challenges they will encounter will be the fact that they do not speak their new country’s language, which, in turn, affects many other aspects of life, as Kateryna shared with us above.
Recent studies have found that a lack of tailor-made language training, and associated job opportunities, are significant barriers to refugee integration. Research shows that refugees who come to the US with a more proficient ability to speak English experience mood and anxiety disorders at a lower rate than refugees who do not speak English. In honor of Mental Health Awareness last month, Bromberg Blog dedicated an entry to analyzing the mental health struggles that language barriers can imply for immigrants. The blog post highlighted the stress experienced while adapting to new cultural norms and discussed how external factors can influence a refugee’s ability and timeline for learning a new language.
6 Ways Language Access Can Make a Difference
Let’s discuss now what can be done to face these challenges:
Providing language training programs specifically designed for refugees can equip them with the linguistic skills necessary for integration, education, and employment. These programs should be culturally sensitive, accessible, and address the specific needs of different refugee populations.
Access to professional interpreters is essential in healthcare settings, legal proceedings, and community and social services. Collaborating with language service organizations can ensure that refugees have qualified interpreters who facilitate effective communication and help bridge the language gap.
Accurate and timely translation of important documents, such as legal papers, medical records, and educational certificates, is vital for refugees. Ensuring that refugees have translated documents allows them to access services, pursue education, and assert their rights effectively.
4- Community Language Volunteers
Engaging community volunteers who can bridge the language gap within local communities can foster understanding, empathy, and integration. These volunteers can assist refugees with day-to-day interactions, cultural orientation, and language practice.
5- Digital Language Tools
Developing and providing digital language tools, such as translation apps, language learning platforms, and online resources, can enhance language access for refugees. These tools can be easily accessible, user-friendly, and available in multiple languages.
6- Advocacy for Language Access and Language Policies
Language access for refugees should be prioritized in policy discussions and advocacy efforts. Governments, NGOs, and international organizations should work together to create language policies that promote integration, provide resources for language education, and ensure the availability of professional interpreting and translation services.
On World Refugee Day, it is crucial to address the statistics surrounding education, employment, health, social integration, and legal challenges faced by refugees. Language access plays a transformative role in addressing these disparities and empowering refugees to rebuild their lives. By investing in language training, professional interpreting services, translation resources, community engagement, digital tools, and advocacy for language rights, we can make a significant difference in the lives of refugees.
Language access is not just about communication; it is about fostering inclusivity, promoting mental well-being, and creating opportunities for social and economic integration. The statistics presented earlier are a stark reminder of the struggles that refugees face, but they also highlight the potential for positive change.
On this World Refugee Day, let us celebrate the resilience, courage, and strength of refugees worldwide. Let us recognize the power of language access in transforming lives and enabling refugees to rebuild and thrive in their new homes. Together, we can make a difference by providing the necessary tools, support, and opportunities for refugees to overcome language barriers and embrace a brighter future.
Donate to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide life-saving protection to families fleeing conflict in Syria, Bangladesh and around the world or explore additional avenues to offer assistance and support through the International Rescue Committee “How to help” section.
*Name changed for privacy reasons