Valentina Baú
Publication Date
January 30, 2018

University of New South Wales

This article moves away from the conceptual framework of intercultural communication and builds a case for the role of development communication in establishing durable social bonds between refugees and host communities, whose benefits are seen to expand to broader areas. Rather than considering strictly culture and its symbolic understanding, the development communication approach is regarded here as an instrument to mediate change and create a new social fabric. The paper starts by presenting the benefits of the alternatives to encampment as a solution for refugees, which have been identified primarily by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Valentina Baú then introduces the concept of local integration and the different elements it encompasses. She goes on to make a case for the significance of the role of development communication in this context and the contribution it can bring to particular areas of the integration process, debating the differences with the intercultural communication perspective that has so far dominated this field. Lastly, Baú provides a number of practical examples on how development communication can be applied in the context of local integration and highlights the intent of an intervention and the nature of the media or communication channel that can support it.

As Baú explains, UNHCR emphasises that, while camps are crucial to provide shelter to a displaced population during emergencies and to coordinate services and assistance, there are negative consequences of continuing encampment, such as: creating dependency to the humanitarian aid system; undermining the ability of refugees to play an active role in shaping their own lives; distorting local economies; negatively impacting the surrounding natural environment; and potentially contributing to an increase of protection risks, including human trafficking. Allowing refugees to reside in local communities, on the other hand, enables them to employ their personal skills and assets, stimulate local economies and development, and create a better protection environment.

There is presently no shared definition, theory, or model of integration involving refugees. Article 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention stresses the duty of host governments to facilitate smooth naturalisation of refugees, referring therefore to their legal rights. In addition to legal, other categories identified in the literature comprising the integration process are economic and social. Contrarily to processes of assimilation, integration suggests that refugees maintain their own identity as they take a place in the host society, so that both populations co-exist in a way that is acceptable. Research has shown that cultural preservation is seen as an essential part of effective integration by refugees themselves, as a way of strengthening family relationships, connecting with the larger refugee community, and feeling integrated in a diverse society while identifying with one's own culture.

Development communication focuses on "bottom-up" change, which is rooted in the idea of community self-development and assumes that no communities or countries can thrive if operating in a way that is entirely autonomous from the others. This concept is particularly relevant when one considers integration as a process that brings benefits to both newcomers and hosts. While the media play a crucial role in raising awareness and expanding knowledge about an issue, reaching large numbers and generating conversation among its audiences, the process of social learning includes that act of listening and exchanging views. Hence, social networks are key for the promotion of new ideas within the development communication paradigm.

Bennett (1998b) explains that intercultural communication practice, which looks at the process of communicating concepts between people from different cultures, should not be formulated around assumptions of similarity. Cultures differ by definition on the basis of languages, beliefs, and behaviour patterns; hence, considering these differences is fundamental. It can be argued that, on the other hand, development communication is driven by the idea of working together towards a shared goal, which is that of positive social change and, ultimately, development and growth. Therefore, while differences must be taken into account in the context of refugees and hosts, integration will revolve around leveraging on shared aims and interests, rather than smoothing dividing factors.

Baú asserts that, in a context where refugee integration and conflict prevention go hand in hand, development communication is not only an effective framework to design interventions that are timely and targeted to the main issues that affect refugee-host relations, but is also an instrument to create dialogue and encourage both sides to participate meaningfully. Rather than considering strictly culture and its symbolic understanding, this communication approach is concerned with the achievement of both behavioural and social changes that benefit individuals and society as a whole.

In order to have a positive transformative impact on different groups' relationships, for example, UNHCR (2014) puts forward a number of lines of action that directly involve the use of communication. The agency recommends consultations with both refugees and host communities through structured participatory assessments in order to understand people's conditions, aspirations, and concerns. Advocacy strategies can be useful to respond to the approach of the host government, but also local communities, and call for state responsibility and human-rights-based policies. Within this context, it can be argued that also awareness-raising communication strategies that illustrate the integration process, accompanied by both individual behaviour change and social change communication interventions, can be crucial in ensuring that the process is conflict free. The International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI, 2015) highlights some of the domains in which these interventions can be particularly helpful: sensitising local populations to the reasons that refugees flee and their rights in national and international law; encouraging interaction and dialogue between refugees and host communities, allowing for better understanding; and developing mechanisms at a local level for the identification and resolution of points of conflict.

Other ideas Baú explores for the application of development communication in the context of local integration:

  • the need for a greater and transparent two-way exchange between refugees and host communities through the creation of social spaces of platforms
  • advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns to address negative media and shed clarity on the issues that are not being portrayed fairly
  • establishment of community councils with representatives from both host and refugee communities
  • the idea of Urban Resource Centres, which would give refugees an opportunity to meet and discuss their experience in a structured way and to receive advice on how to settle outside the camp and how to tackle the question of livelihood
  • the implementation of communication strategies aimed at providing information to both refugees and local officials on the existing refugee situation
  • the Communication for Integration (C4I) project funded by the Council of Europe, which used channels including mass media, social media, brochures, viral videos, comics, songs, stories, and multimedia products to combat myths and misconceptions that undermine local integration
  • a code of conduct with the national media to mitigate problems related to xenophobia
  • the Intercultural Cities Network's highlighting of the importance of communication strategies that highlight the positive contribution of refugees while at the same time challenging myths conveyed by the media and politicians
  • mobile connectivity through smartphones to improve connection between refugees and host communities and to assist refugees with accessing specific local services, which can help newcomers to strengthen community relations, develop public confidence in the migration system, and ease labour market integration.

The practical examples presented in the paper, which have either been implemented or developed as recommendations by humanitarian organisations and scholars, are meant to demonstrate the different uses that can be made of the media and communication to address the issues that arise in the refugee/host relation. Baú states: "Development Communication can be applied as an instrument to facilitate connection and understanding between local communities and the displaced; to create spaces for refugees to learn more about the local culture and broader issues affecting that reality; to gain knowledge, for the host population, of the integration process and the effects on their communities; and most importantly, it can be designed to combat rumours, conduct sensitisation, avoid marginalisation, resolve disputes and prevent potential points of conflict to arise."

She continues: "If purposefully understood through this framing, the integration practices espoused by UNHCR and other humanitarian and development actors could gain valuable strengths from an informed media design. At the same time, the dialogic view of the communication processes occurring not only between hosts and refugees, but also among other relevant actors, can set in motion a mechanism that facilitates the vision of a shared future and allows for more sustainable and long-term solutions to be made....Developing a stronger theoretical structure for the use of Development Communication in the context of refugee-host integration...should now be considered a priority for Development Communication scholars."


Communication Research and Practice, 2018 - sent via email from Valentina Baú to The Communication Initiative on February 6 2018. Image credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images