Chapter 1: Make Room for the Most Affected

UNHCR Innovation Service
Mar 27 · 5 min read
Photo from NASA.

By Annie Neimand, Ph.D., Ann Christiano, and Lauren Parater

One of the challenges the humanitarian sector faces is the simplistic and harmful stereotypes shared in stories about refugees by national news media and even humanitarian organizations themselves. Stereotypes can have harmful effects on people such as refugees, migrants and those internally displaced.

Greussing and Boomgaarden (2017) summarize research examining dominant frames used in communicating about refugees and identify three major themes. First, news media often use a victimization frame that portrays refugees as victims in need of help as a way to build support for humanitarian intervention. In a recent project conducted in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Innovation Service, our research team found that the stories shared by humanitarian organizations often use this frame as well.

Second, news media and politicians often use a threat frame that inaccurately emphasizes the potential for terrorism, crime and economic burden to a host community associated with asylum seekers. Similarly, Alex Randall, project manager of the Climate Change and Migration Coalition, found that media coverage of events leading up to the Syrian conflict in 2011 framed movement as a threat. In a report, he writes, “Many media reports argued that climate driven migration into cities created violence between migrants and existing residents that descended into wider conflict. The media reporting tended (wrongly) to present migrants and refugees as a threat to Europe and a source of chaos and violence within Syria. In general, media reports ignored research pointing towards cooperation between migrants and residents in protests against the Syrian regime.”

Lastly, Greussing and Boomgaarden describe the use of the flooding metaphor to describe movement. They write that this metaphor “associates immigration with powerlessness against the magnitude of newly arriving people and the costs or expenses of refugee services… Moreover, these metaphors depict refugees and asylum seekers as anonymous, even dehumanised groups …which further leads to a polarisation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Within this narrative, refugees and asylum seekers are constructed as deviant or alien to the host society, disrupting its cultural identity, language, and values.”

These frames play into negative perceptions of displaced persons as a burden or threat to a community. As a result, they potentially trigger negative emotional reactions that may incite unfounded prejudice toward people seeking safety. (Abid et al., 2017; Greussing and Boomgaarden, 2017).

Experts believe that communication should avoid playing into these frames as they are counterproductive and inaccurate. Most displaced people stay within their national borders, and this framing takes away the humanity and agency of these communities.

One way to avoid feeding these stereotypes is for the global community to create opportunities and spaces for those affected by the issue to tell their own stories.

A community-led approach to storytelling places those most affected in control of when, where, how, and why their story is told. When those affected are not in control of their own stories, storytelling can oversimplify complex situations, misrepresent a community or perpetuate a stereotype. People are inherently complex and nuanced. Giving them the opportunity to share their experience will feel more authentic and can lead to more powerful and honest stories.

Research tells us that stories from people affected by climate change or changes in the environment may be seen as more trustworthy than news reports (Wahl-Jorgensen, Williams, and Wardle, 2010). Yet, as stated in the report Moving Stories: The Voices of People Who Move in the Context of Environmental Change, produced by Climate Outreach and Information Network, “The voices of people who move in the context of environmental change are absent from the debate about how we address the issue.”

The report effectively features voices and context of those affected in a digestible, emotionally-driven and informative way. The authors Alex Randall, Jo Salsbury and Zach White lead with quotes from people describing the experience that led them to move, and follow that quote with regionally-specific social, economic and political factors that help the reader understand the intersecting and amplifying nature of climate change.

UNHCR’s Innovation Service is piloting efforts to work with refugees to tell their own stories. Recently, they have worked with the Community Technology Empowerment Network- Uganda (CTEN), an organization led by refugees committed to increasing access and improved use of information and communication technology, to write their origin story as a strategy to build support for refugee-led innovation. Doing so, they believe, will help build understanding of what refugee-led innovation looks like, build support for similar projects, and illustrate the ways in which refugees are the source of solutions.

UNHCR’s Innovation Officer, Katie Drew, explains, “We’ve been trying to unpack the challenge of story ownership, refugee voice and agency in our communications work over the past year, in an attempt to counter the prevailing narrative of refugees having their stories told for them, by us. Experimenting in this space with CTEN helped us address head-on some of the unspoken complexities of international to local — or ‘insider to outsider’ — power dynamics and learn more about storytelling techniques in different cultures. It’s an area of work we’re definitely keen to continue experimenting with, to find better ways for refugees to author our communications.” The Innovation Service will continue to experiment with CTEN and other communities in the coming months.

As a sector, we need to ensure the voices of those affected are driving the narrative to authentically illustrate the complexity and nuance of displacement in the context of climate change. Doing so will help ensure we do not produce harmful and simplistic narratives.

This special publication is part of a partnership between the UN Refugee Agency and the University of Florida Center for Public Interest Communications. In an effort to move past communication strategies that simply “raise awareness” of an issue, this partnership aims to connect those working in the humanitarian sector with applicable insights from behavioral, cognitive and social science to make a lasting difference on the issues that matter most.

Thank you to Alex Randall, Erica Bower and Hannah Entwisle Chapuisat for their time and insight for this project.

This special report shares how we can apply behavioral, cognitive and social science to build understanding and support for complex issues. We focused on climate change displacement as it is one of the critical and most complex areas of work facing the humanitarian sector — and the entire global community. The special report is divided into five chapters:

Introduction: Communicating the Complexity of Displacement in a Changing Climate

Chapter One: Make Room for the Most Affected

Chapter Two: Use Visual Language

Chapter Three: Tell Stories

Chapter Four: Use Emotion with Intention

Chapter Five: Step Into the World of Your Community


  1. Abid, R. Z., Manan, S. A., & Rahman, Z. A. A. A. (2017). ‘A flood of Syrians has slowed to a trickle’: The use of metaphors in the representation of Syrian refugees in the online media news reports of host and non-host countries. Discourse & Communication, 11(2), 121–140.

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

The Arc

The Arc

How science can improve communication about refugees and humanitarian innovation.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade