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Language Barriers Limit Access to Coronavirus News for Some European Migrants

Migrants walk to reach Pazarakule border gate, Edirne, Turkey, at the Turkish-Greek border on Sunday, March 1, 2020.

Keeping up to date about the coronavirus can be a problem for migrants who do not speak the language of the country in which they are living. In the Netherlands, a group of volunteers is trying to address the problem with a help desk aimed at recent immigrants.

Every afternoon, calls come streaming into the coronavirus help desk, a service in the Netherlands for newcomers who do not speak the national language, Dutch.

From two- to four p.m., volunteers answer calls from an immigrant population that hails mostly from Syria and Eritrea.

Co-founder Milka Yemane explains that the service fills a gap in the coronavirus prevention campaign.

“We got a lot of questions from newcomers, from refugees about the corona crisis, but also about what was the government saying about it?," asked Yemane . "What do we need to know? Why are the schools closing, et cetera, et cetera. So, we said, it is so important to also offer them this very important information in these times in the languages that they know best.”

Seven civil society groups started the service, which is operated entirely by volunteers. Operators at the help desk speak Arabic and Tigrinya, the Eritrean national language.

Yemane says they plan to add other languages.

Providing information to communities that don’t speak the national language fluently had a catastrophic impact in Sweden. Six of the first 15 coronavirus casualties in Sweden had a Somali background. The Swedish government has now committed to providing coronavirus-related news in 15 languages, including Somali.

Catherine Woollard is the director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. She underlines the importance of understanding the communities of people with migrant and refugee backgrounds.

“It’s very important to assess the needs of different groups and to take then a tailored approach," said Woollard . "There are those people with a background in migration, who may be disproportionately carrying out work that has become essential, both high-level high skilled clinical work but also low-paid undervalued work, that may be putting them at greater risk.”The coronavirus help desk says that the group of newcomers in the Netherlands adds up to about 100,000 people.

Yemane says the support does not stop with just translating the information but that people also need follow-up support.

“If you have symptoms you can call your doctor, for instance. But then the next problem sometimes is that they cannot call the doctor because of the language barrier," said Yemane . "So, then we have like this back office for questions that cannot be answered right away, and also call their doctor for them.”

Other European countries, like Belgium, have also announced measures to share coronavirus-related news in additional languages.