If humanitarian workers are to fully realise their commitments to shared humanity, compassion and solidarity, they must confront the power imbalances created by language barriers, says Claire Morris.
In the informal migrant camps of northern France, support services are provided by both local and international NGOs. These services, though differing in size and purpose, share a goal; to support people fleeing war and hardship, living outside in dire conditions on the France / UK border. I have worked with these organisations for over two years and helped to establish a charity that supports young people through play and educational activities. Although this support is provided with the best intentions, from a sense of shared humanity, compassion and solidarity, I have become acutely aware of the implicit power imbalance and how damaging this can be when ignored.
As much as we, as humanitarian workers, may want to focus on the positives of our work, we must be alert to its negative impacts. Even the term ‘humanitarian’ is loaded with the idea of an unfair exchange, where the humanitarian holds the power to better the life of the recipient. The elevated privilege, autonomy, access to materials, and accepted ‘legal status’ of those working within the sector are unavoidable. Simply the act of facilitating a support service is an exercise of power. You have something that someone else may need or benefit from. You decide when and how that is provided and who can access it.
Language barriers exacerbate power imbalances.
In northern France, the majority of volunteers and NGO staff are white Europeans. Those who use services come from a range of countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This means humanitarian workers meet people with a multitude of first and second languages, as well as people who can speak ten or more. Those who share a language with volunteers, perhaps English, German or French, are treated preferentially, whether intentionally or not. When two people share a language, they share a tool of understanding. It is easier to build rapport, trust and familiarity both ways and means that each can more effectively communicate their opinions, intentions and questions.
Language barriers can be dangerous.
Whilst working in northern France, the young people I built the most trusting relationships with were those who spoke German or English, languages we share. They felt confident and comfortable to play and communicate with me, knowing I could reciprocate. They felt able to open up to me and, in turn, able to clearly understand me and my role. This ability to communicate clearly , helped erode the implicit power imbalance.
[Language skills] can be the difference between knowing when a food distribution is taking place and missing out on a hot meal for the day.
The preferential treatment language barriers enable also perpetuate power imbalances within communities who access support services. Those who don’t speak the language of facilitators are alienated from accessing key information. In emergency situations like migrant camps, this can be the difference between knowing when a food distribution is taking place and missing out on a hot meal for the day. It could be the difference between being invited to a safe house for the night and staying outside. It could be the difference between participating in advocacy campaigns or legal cases fronted by NGOs and going unheard.
Crossing the language barrier.
Grassroots NGOs in northern France try their hardest to support people in a dignified and just way, but they regularly fall down on this front. Whilst larger NGOs have the resources to incorporate people with language skills into their staff, they can be excessively bureaucratic and therefore lack the responsiveness and flexibility of grassroots services. It is exciting to see over the phone translator apps, like Tarjimly, coming out with the aim to bridge the communication gap. However, the use of an online translator cannot be compared to individuals communicating face-to-face through a shared language.
Migrants have crossed many barriers in search of a better life, crossing the language barrier is something we can do to clear the path to justice.
Organisations operating in contexts like northern France must understand, acknowledge and act to mitigate the impact of language barriers. Where possible, recruitment should focus on hiring people who speak the same languages as those who access services. Otherwise, funding should be prioritised for in-person translators. Knowing the challenges of operating a small NGO, I am very aware that these things are not always immediately possible. But the commitment to work towards them is essential for us to realise our ideals of shared humanity, compassion and solidarity. Migrants have crossed many barriers in search of a better life, crossing the language barrier is something we can do to clear the path to justice.
Claire is a young person who cares about social justice. She Co-Founded Project Play in 2018, a grassroots organisation which supports displaced young people and children in northern France living in makeshift camps. Claire believes in developing positive narratives about people and using journalism as a tool to share nuanced perspectives.