Theo Hannides
Nicola Bailey
Dwan Kaoukj
Publication Date
July 1, 2016

BBC Media Action

"The social, cultural and ethnic diversity of refugees passing through the region, highlighted by their diverse languages and dialects and their differing levels of literacy and ability to access technology, has added to the complexity of their communication needs."

Since 2015, more than a million people have undertaken perilous journeys to reach northern European countries, using unofficial migration routes across the Mediterranean Sea and south-east Europe. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 70% of these displaced people come from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. With a focus on the experiences of these latter populations, this research report from BBC Media Action examines the communication behaviours and priority information needs of refugees in 3 areas: on their journey, in "transit" camps in Greece, and in Germany, for those who have reached this destination country.

Research for this report was carried out in April 2016 (a month in which it was estimated that 46,000 refugees and migrants were stranded in Greece). A total of 66 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq participated in the qualitative study in formal and informal camps in Greece. An additional 13 interviews took place in Germany - capturing the voices of those who had completed their journey. A total of 16 focus group discussions (FGDs) were also conducted. Participants were asked to tell the story of their journey so far, focusing particularly on the information and communication they needed and used at different stages. In-depth interviews with 41 humanitarian actors in Greece and 4 in Germany captured their understanding of refugees' communication needs. In April 2016, humanitarian agency staff in Greece reviewed the research findings. They discussed possible ways to better meet refugees' current information and communication needs. (See the appendices for full details of the research process.)

The research found that these refugees had one overriding communication requirement: timely and reliable information on how to get to their next destination safely, quickly, and without being detained – a need that humanitarian actors were often not able to fulfil. "In interviews, humanitarian staff revealed major challenges in meeting refugees' information and communication needs. Chief among these was that they did not know when and whether borders would open to allow the refugees to continue their journey. While they wanted to share helpful, accurate information, these agencies knew that the situation could quickly change and was outside their control. With multiple actors working in this space, and a rapidly changing situation, providing accurate, consistent information was, and remains, extremely challenging."

In this context, "[w]ho could refugees trust for information? Often they did not have a choice, and had to put their 'trust' in whoever could supply relevant information when they needed it most. Faced with an information vacuum or low confidence in sources that they perceived to be unreliable, they often sought information from people smugglers."

The findings also highlight refugees' broader communication needs:

  • Refugees need to be listened to.
  • Refugees need to be able to tell their stories.
  • Refugees need to participate in dialogue that provides them with physical, social, and psychosocial support.
  • Many refugees also need trauma counselling.

For example: "Despite determined work by agencies on the ground, refugees interviewed in Greece tended to be confused about their status and legal rights - not knowing what point they had reached in the asylum process, and frustrated by perceptions that the application process was unfair. Some said their journey to Europe and experience in the camps was worse than living in war, since at least then they knew where they were and had a home, even if their lives were at risk. Refugees living in shelters in Germany, for whom life was often much harder than anticipated, had no official rights to live or work in Germany, no knowledge of whether they would be allowed to stay, and were confused about their rights and asylum status. These people wanted to know: what was next for them?"

"The analysis shows that refugees who stay in regular contact with other refugees and who have wide communication networks of family members and friends (via mobile networks and social networking sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp) were likely to be more resilient than those who were less connected. The latter, particularly Afghan refugees, tended to rely more heavily on smugglers and their travel group for information on their journey and were often cut off from contact with family and friends."

One Iraqi refugee explained how important internet connectivity was for passengers on his boat, as they made the crossing from Turkey to Greece. In addition to using global positioning system (GPS) on mobile phones to ensure they were steering the boat in the right direction, one passenger had a laptop with an internet connection. Through Facebook, he was in contact with anonymous volunteers who checked that the boats arrived safely in Greece. In this instance, the boat started to sink. The passengers alerted the volunteers through Facebook, who alerted the Greek police, who sent a helicopter to check the situation. Eventually, a boat arrived to rescue the passengers and deliver them safely to Greece.

Face-to-face interaction was found to lessen refugees' vulnerability. For instance, at transit points, word of mouth resulted in accepted knowledge, such as "Everyone knows that...". These refugees also relied on volunteers, local people, and even police for information. For information, refugees in the camps in Greece mainly depended on other refugees in the camps, family and friends at home, and even people they knew in destination countries (Syrians and Yazidis in particular), via phone and through social media. Refugees reported having limited communication with agencies and volunteers due to language barriers, but were sporadically connected to journalists, military officials, and smugglers who passed in and out of the camps.

The research highlights that many refugees feel their voice is not being heard, and that they have no one who can provide them with answers. This is leading to frustration and mistrust. The research also outlined the importance of agencies and governments being honest about what they do not know and sharing any accurate information they do have regularly and reliably to build a relationship of trust.

Building on these research findings, and on learning from previous emergencies, BBC Media Action indicates that there are a number of ways in which communication can play an important role in supporting people stranded in camps in Greece and Germany. Suggestions from refugees on how their information and communications needs could be met were as follows:

  • Have focal points within the camps that speak the right languages, can communicate people's needs and concerns to agencies, and provide answers to their questions.
  • Have more legal advisors in the camps (with translators) who can consider people's individual cases and advise them on their options.
  • Hold regular meetings within the camps to update people on the current situation, preferably led by European Union (EU)/government officials.
  • Ensure people to be connected to the internet via the free Wi-Fi that is available in some of the camps so they are also connected to their families and other sources of information.

BBC Media Action is encouraged by the fact that many of the recommendations from agencies reflect the needs highlighted by refugees, such as the need for more translators, a preference for face-to-face communication, and the need for support in communication around rights and legal issues. Other recommendations include:

  • Ensure that refugees have a voice: "Increasing opportunities for dialogue between refugees, agency staff, and even decision-makers or people who can answer pertinent questions, could help to alleviate frustrations and rebuild trust, and also give agencies an opportunity to act on feedback from refugees. Communication interventions can play a role in projecting refugees' voices, by providing platforms for people to share and tell their stories."
  • Share stories of other refugees in similar situations: "[M]edia and communication interventions can play a role in showcasing and encouraging dialogue and debate around different options and viewpoints."
  • Provide psychosocial support: "Previous research has shown that media and communication interventions, such as screens in camps, radio and television, designed to support people in crisis with relevant information and communication, can play a crucial role in providing psychosocial support to people affected by crisis."
  • Foster tolerance: "With reports of attacks on some ethnic groups in refugee camps, creating platforms for dialogue between different groups could play a role in reducing tension, promoting social inclusion and fostering tolerance. For example, drama and discussion programmes have played a role in conflict resolution in previous crises by increasing understanding and empathy."
  • Provide better access to communication networks: "Access to wi-fi and mobile phones are critical for refugees on the move and can have a direct influence on their experiences on the route."
  • Provide information consistently: "Information on changes to policies and legal status need to be provided consistently by agencies to maintain trust between them and refugees..."
  • Explore the relevance of social media for refugees: "Informal information sources through social media networks such as Facebook...could offer agencies opportunities to connect with refugees. However, there is a risk that it could be counterproductive, as social media can also be a source of unverified rumours and false information."

This research, conducted by BBC Media Action in partnership with Development and Humanitarian Learning in Action (DAHLIA), has been funded by UK aid from the United Kingdom (UK) government through the START Network European Refugee Response Programme.


Emails from Kavita Abraham Dowsing and Alexandra Buccianti to The Communication Initiative on July 18 2016. Image credit: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

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