The linguistics of refugee response

Katie Botkin

Kutupalong in Bangladesh. Source: TWB.

Katie Botkin is a freelance writer and the managing editor of MultiLingual. She has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on linguistics and has taught English on three continents.

Irene Scott of Translators without Borders (TWB) speaks via Skype from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She describes the area outside the city as rolling hills where wild elephants once roamed — now home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world, tent cities housing around 600,000 Rohingya people who have fled across the border from Myanmar.

The typically-Muslim Rohingya consider themselves native to Northwestern Myanmar’s Rakhine state — a strip of coastline that culturally blends upwards into Bangladesh along the Bay of Bengal. However, laws such as the 1982 Myanmar nationality law ban the Rohingya from obtaining citizenship, and as a people group they have historically experienced persecution from Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. Recent conflict between government forces and Rohingya insurgents have led to attacks against Rohingya civilians. These attacks have been carried out by Myanmar’s military, as well as the local Buddhist population, in some cases.

A number of humanitarian organizations are on the ground working with the refugees in Bangladesh, providing necessities and in some cases, gathering information. For example, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known in English as Doctors Without Borders, recently conducted surveys on the violence refugees had witnessed. Results estimated that at least 9,000 Rohingya died in Rakhine state between August 25 and September 24, 2017, during the height of a crackdown on Rohingya civilians. At least 730 children younger than five years old were estimated to have been killed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the killings as ethnic cleansing.

Hundreds of thousands escaped this violence to Bangladesh, joining a smaller, more established Rohingya population that had left decades previously. All told, by official count there are now 904,056 Rohingya living in Bangladesh. Some live with host families, and some are spread out in various other camps, but the majority are waiting in Kutupalong, the camp outside Cox’s Bazar, for the opportunity to return home. The Bangladeshi government understands that it is unsafe for them to go home currently, so for now they’re given shelter — not exactly permanent asylum, but a temporary protected status.

Having their plight recognized requires communication and some amount of data-gathering. TWB, in its capacity as a linguistic nonprofit, has been working with a number of humanitarian organizations conducting surveys to translate questions into Rohingya. Without this assistance, says Scott, the surveys are often written and approved in English and then translated into Bangla, the official language of Bangladesh.

The enumerator then has to translate on the fly into Chittagonian, a Bangladeshi language related to Rohingya (or dialect, depending on who you ask). The answer will be in Rohingya — if the person has understood the initial question at all.

Thus, communicating with refugees has proven to be more complex than in some other refugee crises. As with many crises, there are multiple languages involved. A planning meeting may be held in English, field agents will speak something else, and throughout the process there are multiple iterations of interpreting and translating involved. “There’s the potential that the message may be changed slightly,” says Scott. Ultimately, communication is about “giving the population a life of dignity,” and ensuring that the links between the population and the decision-makers are strong and smooth.

In this case, Rohingya is a minority language with roughly 1.8 million speakers. To complicate things, it does not have one agreed-upon script, and a large portion of the refugee population is illiterate in any script.

TWB attempted to tackle this problem by finding pictures to communicate in print form, but they’ve found that “it’s trial and error to work out what pictures represent what,” says Scott.

Additionally, they’ve encouraged humanitarian agencies to adopt an oral method of transmitting information. They translate messages which are then broadcast via loudspeaker in cafés and other places where refugees normally congregate, and use loudspeakers in the camps. Scott has done humanitarian work before, and used to work for the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC): “my background is in communicating with audiences; I guess the audience just changed,” she says.

TWB works with other humanitarian organizations on the ground to communicate with the population. They coordinate with healthcare organizations, translate sanitation or shelter-related messages. “We’re a small team, but we try to spread across the entire response,” says Scott. Fieldwork involves communicating with the refugees directly, researching challenges that have arisen. “If they’re not washing their hands, we ask them why they’re not washing their hands, so it’s not just yelling information at the community.”

Linguistic workshopping is something the refugees like, says Scott. “They really enjoy explaining their culture and explaining their language to us.”

TWB linguist AK Rahim says working with refugees to find out more about their language is something that makes him happy as well: he’ll return from the field excited about everything he’s learned over the course of the day. Growing up in an immigrant family, he said, “your identity is kind of shaped by not knowing the language.”

Discovering Rohingya

Rahim grew up in the United States speaking a language that is very close to Rohingya. He spoke Chittagonian, from the regional area of Chittagong in Bangladesh, often considered a dialect of Bengali. Chittagonian and Rohingya are linguistically related. This linguistic similarity has provided the Myanmar government with rationale not to give the Rohingya legal status: they say the Rohingya are actually Bengali, although they have lived in Myanmar for generations. Rohingya is distinctly different from Burmese, the language spoken by the majority population in Myanmar.

As immigrants, the Chittagonian that Rahim’s family “preserved” in the United States is closer to Rohingya than current Chittagonian is — because certain Bangla words hadn’t yet infiltrated the Chittagonian imported to the US by his family. Rahim also grew up speaking Urdu and Bangla (also called Bengali), which is necessary for coordinating humanitarian response in Bangladesh.

The linguistic workshops TWB conducts attempt to discover more accurate ways of communicating with the population. For example, a large portion of the women “don’t use the English word ‘diarrhea,’ which is commonly used in Chittagonian and Bangla, they use a Rohingya word that means ‘body falls apart,’” says Rahim. This was something the translators didn’t initially realize. They were mistakenly translating this medically as something akin to “I feel like I’m falling apart.”

As another example, says Rahim, “the word for gender doesn’t exist, so trying to explain that to a group of people who are very conservative” was difficult. Talking about gender-based violence is basically impossible without extensive workshopping. If the refugees are coming up with terms for new things they’re encountering, the TWB linguists want to know what those are. As it turns out, hospital is “room of the doctors.” There was no one-word equivalent for the word for “emotion,” so the refugees had to create one.

Rahim came up with a transcription method to write Rohingya and keep track of all this. “Obviously there’s been some difficulty with that,” he says. Rahim notes that there aren’t that many people doing research on Rohingya — and he’s trying to find them if there are.

Rahim has a linguist’s perspective on the challenges inherent to a largely non-written language. Ideas are cultural, he says, and words are dependent on the time period and agreed-upon definitions. “Writing is, if you think about it, a constraint on the natural flow of language.”

As for what script they might use in the future, Rahim says it’s something they’re currently researching. “We as an organization will research the prevalence of scripts, their demands and key factors in its adoption by the community.”