For refugees — communication is aid

By Nicola Bailey, Research Officer, BBC Media Action

If you had to flee your country, what’s the one piece of technology you would take with you?

Your phone is now a refugee’s phone.

The film, designed to watch on a mobile phone, helps the viewer to experience the confusion and fear facing refugees making a perilous journey by boat. Your phone is now a refugee’s phone. Text messages arrive from your family. Suddenly someone contacts you on WhatsApp warning you to turn back. But are they right? Your lifeline is a phone with no signal that’s rapidly running out of battery.

BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, together with DAHLIA conducted research to help humanitarian agencies improve their communication with refugees. Our researchers interviewed over 100 refugees and humanitarian agency officials — and the film is an interpretation of some of their stories.

Across the world there are more displaced people escaping conflict, poverty or disease than ever recorded before. These mass movements are the first being played out in the digital age. People are undertaking often perilous journeys and, in this digital age, they often rely on mobile phones as a critical tool. However, information sources can both hinder and help. Sifting through, and processing what information is trustworthy, reliable and accurate is now a challenge for digitally connected refugees.

Refugees check their phones after arriving on a beach in Greece. Credit: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last decade, humanitarian agencies have increasingly recognised that ‘communication is aid’. The basic idea is that humanitarian communication assistance needs to be fast, reliable, and critically, two-way. It isn’t just about supplying information, but also about listening to the people that agencies are trying to help and exchanging information between donors and recipients.

Our research speaks directly to this issue. In speaking to scores of refugees in these camps we learned a great deal about what they need to know. Above all else, they want to know what their situation is, if and how they can get to their destination safely and quickly, and if not what the alternatives are.

I want to know where we are going and how long we are going to stay here for. The road is unknown and we are tired’ — an elderly Syrian man, Greece.
Credit: DAHLIA / Gilles Gasser

Beyond the immediate worry of ‘what next?’, refugees need logistical information regarding how to access healthcare, shelter, safe water and food to enable them to stay safe.

I am pregnant in my eighth month. I suffer from constant bleeding and I’m worried for my baby. Where can I give birth?’ a Syrian woman, Alexandria Camp, Greece.

It’s very challenging for humanitarian organisations to communicate clearly and offer solutions when often the answers are outside of their control.

Credit: DAHLIA / Gilles Gasser

These communication challenges are heightened by the fact that the refugees we interviewed — Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis — hail from vastly different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, speak multiple languages and there are a lack of translators for some of the lesser spoken languages, such as Dari and Pashto.

An information vacuum can be dangerous. Our research suggests that, in the absence of reliable alternatives, refugees are likely to believe rumours, anecdotes and risky informal information networks such as unverified sources on social media or even people smugglers. Indeed, while dependence on social media is high for those with access to smartphones, money for credit and the ability to recharge them, the information gained from it is not always reliable, however expedient it might seem in the moment.

Always internet, Facebook and rumours. You hear rumours all over the place. If you ask anyone in the camps what is true and what is not, they can’t tell you.’ Syrian refugee, Caritas Refugee Centre, Greece.

Accurate, timely and, above all, consistent information is thus highly valued by the refugees we interviewed. In particular, they called for:

  • Trustworthy point people in camps, who can represent their needs and concerns and provide answers to questions in their own language. As a Syrian man in the Pikpa camp in Lesvos put it: ‘If they come and tell us that we will have to wait four months or even five… then I’m fine with that, but we need a trusted person. We have different organisations giving us conflicting information…’
  • Legal advisors, who can consider individual cases and advise refugees on options.
  • Regular meetings in the camps, preferably led by officials to update people on the current situation.
  • Free internet connections so people can remain connected with family, friends and other information suppliers both at home, where they are and in their destination country.

The research also highlights that, as in other humanitarian crises, refugees need to be listened to. They need to be able to tell their own stories and participate in dialogue that provides them with psychosocial support and helps to foster tolerance in camps where tensions are spiralling and social cohesion is seriously threatened. Many need trauma counselling.

You don’t realise how traumatised you are until you leave, and you arrive somewhere safe,’ a Syrian woman, now in Berlin.

The research shows that despite challenges, there are opportunities for more effective communication with people affected by this crisis. Encouragingly, the recommendations of humanitarian agencies chime well with the needs highlighted by refugees. To build trust, reduce tension and lessen the development of rumours, agencies and refugees see a need for timely, reliable information, in the right language, preferably face-to-face.

Read a summary of the findings on the BBC Media Action website.

BBC Media Action’s research, conducted in partnership with DAHLIA, was funded by UK aid, (DFID) and commissioned by the START network, a non-profit consortium of 39 humanitarian agencies that aims to connect people in crisis to solutions. Some 66 refugees in Greece and 17 in Germany, hailing mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, were interviewed for this study, which was carried out in March of this year.

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