This year, World Refugee Week (June 17-23) is all about taking big and small steps in solidarity with refugees. This global movement is being organised by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which leads international action to protect refugees, deliver lifesaving assistance and help to safeguard fundamental human rights.

On this blog, we have previously looked at how translation can serve as a way of empowering vulnerable people across the world, particularly women in situations of violence.

To mark World Refugee Week 2019 we want to draw attention to the amazing (and often uncredited) work being done by linguists on the front line of the refugee crisis and look at how these small steps are making a big impact.

World Refugee Week aims to foster solidarity with refugees

The facts about refugees

According to the UNHCR, there are a lot of misconceptions about refugees. The three crucial facts to know are:

  1. “Refugees are people forced to flee to another country because of war or persecution. They are recognized as “refugees” because it is too dangerous for them to return home and they are protected by international law.”

  2. “The majority of refugees stay close to home with most fleeing to neighboring countries. Only 1% of refugees are ever resettled in third countries. Turkey hosts the most refugees followed by Pakistan, Uganda and Lebanon.”

  3. “Around the world, fewer than a third of people forced to flee live in refugee camps. Most refugees are actually struggling to survive in cities and towns. This is especially true for Syrian refugees.”

It’s widely known that refugees often face incredibly dangerous and uncertain situations, but it is rarely acknowledged how language barriers can make them particularly vulnerable to misinformation, exploitation and mistreatment.

Furthermore, it has been proven that such language barriers can directly lead to devastating and potentially life-threatening outcomes, such as misdiagnoses in health care treatments and incorrect decisions in refugee status determination.

Translators Without Borders

One of the organisations working to break down these language barriers and offer refugees the linguistic support they desperately need is Translators without Borders (TWB), a not-for-profit organisation that offers language, translation and interpreting services to humanitarian agencies across the world.

With the goal of addressing the language gap that can greatly hinder urgent and critical humanitarian efforts, their vision is to create “a world where knowledge knows no language barriers.”

So, what kind of work are their team of thousands of volunteers currently doing?

TWB Interpreter Connect

In September 2017, TWB launched the first-ever online portal to connect humanitarian interpreters and cultural mediators with non-profit organisations that require linguistic support.

After a TWB study discovered that non-profit organisations struggled to source qualified interpreters, they identified this lack of interpreting services as “one of the one of the major barriers to the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance in the refugee crisis.”

TWB Interpreter Connect was set up as pilot project to support the refugee response in Greece specifically. It has been estimated that Greece’s refugee population totals over 50,000, of whom speak countless different languages and dialects.

The project also offer interpreters free training materials and resources, such as glossaries and guides, that have been painstakingly compiled after years of research and on-the-ground work with refugees.

Knowledge is power

Indeed, effective and experienced interpreters can be the difference between refugees receiving critical information about healthcare, food, shelter, medical services, immigration procedures and accommodation information, and them relying on potentially unfounded rumours and speculation to attempt to access resources.

The designer of the portal, Julie Jalloul, is a TWB Project Manager who has also worked as a humanitarian interpreter. She says,

“We wanted to offer something that would specifically help with the critical communications link provided by interpreters.”

“Recognizing that the interpreter is often the only connection a refugee has with crucial services, we focused on helping non-profit partners find humanitarian interpreters and then giving those interpreters extra tools to do their jobs better.”

Words of relief

The European refugee crisis has been one of the gravest humanitarian crises of recent times. TWB quote a 24-year-old Sudanese male based in Rome as saying, “I felt afraid, scared, and confused because I couldn’t understand anything that was happening to me.

“Were they telling me that I could stay or that I would have to go home? I don’t know.”


In September 2015, TWB launched its Words of Relief response program in order to “support local and international humanitarian agencies working to assist refugees and migrants arriving in Europe.” To date, Rapid Response Teams (working in languages as diverse as Arabic, Farsi, Greek, Kurdish and Urdu) have provided:

  • 800,000 words of “immediate, high-quality translations in multi-media formats, to aid organizations responding along the refugee route.”
  • an estimated 100,000 people with content “related to protection, asylum procedures and basic services.”

Supporting humanitarian linguists

On World Refugee Week 2019, let’s show support for the organisations and linguists across the world who are breaking down language barriers to assist those refugees in vulnerable and dangerous situations. You can use the hashtag #StepWithRefugees

Find out more about the work of TWB and how you can support them here.

Wolfestone is a proud sponsor of Translators Without Borders, a sponsorship we are delighted to renew each year.

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