Refugees face ‘significant’ language barrier in maternity services

Explaining C-section to non-English speaker at 3am is ‘not easy’, says Dr Rhona Mahony


More interpreters are needed across Ireland to ensure refugees, particularly women and girls, arriving from countries like Syria can access primary healthcare and maternal health services, experts have said.

NGOs working with asylum seekers who have arrived under the Government’s refugee relocation programme say the lack of translation services available is a “significant problem” and have called for access to more interpreters to help overcome initial language barriers.

Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos which works directly with Syrian families arriving from camps in Greece and Lebanon, says explaining the Irish health system, social support and educational system to new arrivals is near impossible without the support of a translator.

“The biggest problem we’ve encountered is isolation and language is a huge element of that,” said Mr Finlay.

“Some refugees speak English but it’s very rudimentary. Most of the refugee families who come to Ireland, if they’re going to be here for the long haul, they’re anxious to assimilate and adapt as quickly as possible.

“They never need access to translation for too long but in the first six weeks to two months it’s an absolutely critical time when families are most isolated.”

Healthcare professionals, including Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, echoed Mr Finlay’s apprehension over the lack of translation services available at a roundtable discussion in Dublin this week. She was joined by members of the Irish Navy, the Defence Forces, Unicef, Barnardos and the National Women’s Council who met to discuss the provision of maternal healthcare to the women and girls arriving in Ireland.

Hospital services

While some interpreters are available in hospitals, Dr Mahony said dealing with the volume of non-English speakers was becoming increasingly difficult.

“For these women it must be terrifying to come to a strange country and have doctors round the bed having a conversation with you and you don’t know what anybody is saying,” said Dr Mahony. “Women are often terrified in these circumstances, they’re not sure who to trust and it takes quite a while to gain someone’s trust and for them to understand that you are there to really help them. It’s certainly not easy at 3am when you have an emergency on your hands and your having to do a caesarean section.”

“It’s not about imposing the Irish way of healthcare and the Irish way of doing things, it’s about working together and collaborating. But all of that takes time and language.”

The Dublin roundtable discussion was organised by the MSD for Mothers group to examine the recently published recommendations on refugee maternal health for EU governments. The recommendations follow a survey of 14,000 women living in Greek refugee camps which found that complicated healthcare systems, limitations on free maternal care, prohibitive costs and a lack of awareness of their rights, is preventing women refugees from accessing vital services in their new European homes.

“You don’t need full time translators everywhere but you need to know where they are in the country,” Mr Finlay told The Irish Times. “We need a cohort of travelling translators.”

“Barnardos is in constant daily contact with families who are disadvantaged and arriving in Ireland from a refugee camp is a pretty extreme form of disadvantage. It’s about meeting children and families and assessing their needs. It doesn’t matter their skin colour or the language they speak. Loneliness and isolation, they’re the same in every culture.”

A total of 1,406 people have arrived in Ireland to date under the State’s relocation and resettlement strands of the EU’s refugee relocation programme. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan confirmed earlier this month that he expected a further 738 people to have arrived in Ireland under both programmes by early 2018. Refugees have been settled in 14 counties nationwide including Clare, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Roscommon and Sligo.