The child translators on the frontline of Europe's migrant crisis

Children at the Eleonas refugee camp in Athens, Greece. Photo by: Martin Leveneur / CC BY-ND

LONDON — A few months ago, a woman and her young son entered a local police station in Rome, Italy. The woman could not speak Italian, so she explained as best she could that she wanted to report a crime.

The mother and child had recently arrived in Italy from Bangladesh, two of the more than 82,000 migrants and refugees who have so far made the dangerous journey to Italy in 2017. They are still new to Rome, but like many children, the boy has absorbed Italian at virtuosic speed. Because of his language ability, he is often called upon to translate for his family and for others in the camp, in processing centers, in hospitals and shops. Standing there in front of the police officer, he translated as his mother described being sexually assaulted by the boy’s father.

“It’s very common,” Ellie Kemp, head of crisis response at Translators Without Borders, told Devex in a phone interview. Kemp said that because children are “linguistic sponges,” and because humanitarian organizations and local government authorities lack the resources to hire translators, refugee and migrant children have very often become the unpaid translators of Europe’s “migrant crisis.” 

“The fact that they soak up language so quickly is one of the positives of the European refugee experience for children, and the children are very excited and proud about their language acquisition,” she said. “But because they do that, they end up being asked to interpret really inappropriate content for their parents or for other members of the community.”

Kemp said “no one knows” exactly how many child translators are working in the refugee camps of Greece, Italy, and Turkey. In fact, she said, no one knows much of anything about language services and translation practices in these environments because no one — not the humanitarian organizations, nor the local government authorities, nor the aid donors — is keeping track.

In the past four months, Translators Without Borders, along with Save the Children and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, has begun to scratch the surface in assessing translation and comprehension among the populations of refugee camps in Greece, Italy, and Turkey.

“I would feel comfortable estimating less than 15 percent of interpretation interactions were conducted by a paid interpreter.”

— Eric DeLuca, monitoring, evaluation and learning manager at Translators Without Borders

“Taking Italy and Turkey as examples, we met with roughly 30 nongovernmental organizations, United Nations and government agencies, and [only] about 10 had formal interpretation support available,” Eric DeLuca, monitoring, evaluation and learning manager at Translators Without Borders, told Devex. “Based on our sample, I would feel comfortable estimating less than 15 percent of interpretation interactions were conducted by a paid interpreter,” he said.

Recent studies by Translators Without Borders, Save the Children, UNHCR, and REACH have found that the severe lack of funding for language services for humanitarian organizations has resulted in widespread comprehension issues and failed or stalled asylum applications. As a stumbling block to counseling and mediation services, it has left the most vulnerable migrant groups — women and girls, young children, the elderly, the disabled, and minorities — at even greater risk of exploitation or falling out of the system.

Lost in translation

Of the 46 humanitarian organizations consulted for a Translators Without Borders study in June, none reported routinely asking refugees and migrants for their first language or other languages they understand. Because humanitarian organizations cannot accurately predict which languages are spoken by people on a newly arrived boat, they must cast a wide net, asking for “country of origin” and choosing the most dominant language, even if, as is the case in many countries, hundreds of languages or dialects are spoken.

“Migrants and refugees, like anyone, have a right to understand their circumstances [and] their rights. But at the moment, that right isn’t really being upheld in the refugee response, and that’s because there isn’t enough effort at the moment to ensure that information is provided and understood,” Kemp said.

 “For the human rights of refugees and migrants, and also very pragmatically for the governments wishing to have an orderly management of migration, it’s in everybody’s interests to make sure the information is provided and that it’s understood.”

— Ellie Kemp, head of crisis response at Translators Without Borders

A lack of funding for language services in humanitarian grants has left organizations to pay for translation essentials out of their own budgets, leading to a steady decline in the quality of language services available to refugees. Kemp said the situation is particularly severe among smaller and grassroots organizations struggling with tighter budgets.

“Essentially, humanitarian workers — and all the more so grassroots organizations all over Europe — are mobilizing to support refugees and migrants. But they don’t have the knowledge about the languages of refugees and migrants,” she said. “They don’t know, for instance, there’s a difference between Farsi and Dari, or know that Arabic varies from the Persian Gulf [to] Morocco.”

Today, she said, the situation is dire, with many organizations failing to regularly staff any translators at all. Instead, these groups rely on volunteers — mainly refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers themselves, and often children.

Quality in translation varies hugely, Kemp said, and the situation can be risky, particularly for vulnerable populations such as women and girls. Counseling services in many less common languages are nonexistent, she said.

“People who are less likely to have had an opportunity to learn another language — depending on the culture, it tends to be women, older people with less access to education, often minority groups — they are more likely to be denied ... access to services, denied the opportunity to make the best choices for themselves. And they can be at greater risk as a result,” she said.

When volunteer translators aren’t available, Kemp said many organizations still default to English, despite a recent study in Greece finding that only one in 10 arrivals understood English.

Kemp detailed one instance early this spring in which unaccompanied minors held on the Franco-Italian border could not understand the instructions being given to them by police, and therefore had no idea “what their rights were, what these police could or couldn’t do to them.”

As a result, Kemp said the young people “made unsafe choices” about their migratory route through the mountains, doing “whatever they could” to avoid being caught by police.

“The risks of vulnerable people dropping out of the formal system and being more easily ready prey for people smugglers are very great,” Kemp said. “For the human rights of refugees and migrants, and also very pragmatically for the governments wishing to have an orderly management of migration, it’s in everybody’s interests to make sure the information is provided and that it’s understood, and that that two-way communication can happen.”

Losing staff

The funding squeeze on language services is also pushing more aid workers with translation skills out of the humanitarian sector, Kemp noted. As humanitarian organizations and local authorities rely increasingly on untrained volunteers and daily or weekly contractors for translation services, Kemp noted that low pay, paltry benefits, and stressful work conditions mean that turnover for interpreters has skyrocketed.

According to one as-yet unpublished study, humanitarian agencies have reported that once translators are trained, they often leave for better pay outside of the sector. One international NGO cited in the study reported a retention rate of just 23 percent over a period of four months in its recruitment of cultural mediators in Greece. Often working on daily contracts with no sustained benefits, the report says translators leave to look for more secure working conditions.

“A lack of female interpreters for the European refugee response means that, very likely, many cases of abuse and exploitation of women and girls are going unreported.”

— Ellie Kemp, head of crisis response at Translators Without Borders

Most respondents also reported an ongoing shortage of female interpreters, though this is partly due to scarcity rather than lack of funding, Kemp said, particularly for rarer languages such as Bengali and Somali in Italy, and Kurmanji and Farsi in Turkey.

But Kemp fears this shortage of female interpreters will have tragic consequences. “A lack of female interpreters for the European refugee response means that, very likely, many cases of abuse and exploitation of women and girls are going unreported,” she said. “Confidential counseling services just can’t be provided if there isn’t a female interpreter for that kind of situation.”

Finding solutions

The funding shortage for interpretation services isn’t quickly fixable, Kemp said, but humanitarian organizations can start taking action now to at least get a better grip on the problem.

“It is possible to train people who have an adequate command of both languages to offer a more reliable interpreting service,” she said.

Kemp said organizations could offer volunteers and contractors “some regular guarantee of work or remuneration,” and incentivize them with resources “to do that job at a better level,” she said.

Finally, humanitarian organizations must face the music, and assess their own language services in the most critical light, Kemp said.

“There aren’t quick and easy fixes, but there are fixes,” she said. “Right now, there just isn’t basic information being collected on languages as a basis for planning any kind of communication strategy,” she said. Oxfam and Save the Children are exceptions, she said, as they retain language managers at high levels in the organization, although typically based in headquarters rather than the field.

“Communication strategies are absolutely vital in a situation where, in Italy for example, in the first six months of this year, there were over 30 different nationalities of new arrivals.”

“In order to prepare for that, you really need to get your planning in early.”

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.