"No matter the timeframe of their stay in Italy, or the purpose of their journeys, refugees and migrants demonstrate complex information needs about their ever-changing situation, which require a dynamic response with buy-in from all implicated stakeholders."
This Internews report provides perspectives and recommendations centred on the information void at the heart of the refugee crisis. Arrivals of migrants and refugees to Italy peaked at 181,436 in 2016, with 4,581 deaths at sea and countless others along the route. The report highlights the role of local media and other players in providers migrants traveling to Italy with useful, accurate information in languages and through mediums they understand, about the steps ahead - whether informing a refugee's decision to leave their home or at critical junctures along the route.
From 3-13 April 2017, an Internews assessment team carried out a rapid Information Needs Assessment with migrants and refugees in Italy to gauge their current information needs and access and to learn about the current situation of the Communication with Communities (CwC) response across the country. The assessment included more than 60 interviews with migrants and refugees, representatives from local volunteer groups, civil society organisations (CSOs), and national and international humanitarian organisations in five different locations in Italy: Catania, Agrigento, Lampedusa, Rome, and Ventimiglia. The assessment also surveyed migrants' access to information during the trip from their countries of origin.
As is described in the report, depending on nationality and access to informal networks already living in Europe, some migrants don't have a plan or destination in mind; they merely hope to flee. They are picked up by well-organised networks of smugglers, who coerce them into the trafficking route, often with false promises or threats. Once they arrive in Libya, migrants are often "sold" to other networks, forced to work until their debt is paid, or tortured and held for ransom. Some migrants spend months and sometimes years in such ordeals. Deceptive images shared on social media hid the true nature of what many migrants endure along the way, making the prospect of putting one's life in the hands of a smuggler seem more benign or adventurous than it really is. (Facebook and WhatsApp were consistently cited by migrants as being their main mode of interaction with family, friends, and networks in Europe and their home countries.) Selfies shared in front of cars or recognisable monuments on social media often hide the shame people feel for having been duped into enduring such trauma. Stories about dangers like slavery or rape are not shared by local media; instead the anecdotes of friends-of-friends who have "made it" are common. "When asked if they would make the voyage again, knowing what they know now, an overwhelming number of migrants said that they would surely not. Countries of origin and transit are as critical to the information landscape as is Italy itself, and this is why finding an effective way to bring narratives about the journey back to countries of origin is a critical piece in the puzzle of the European migration crisis."
If they survive the perilous route to Europe, migrants face new hardships in Italy. Once again, information is at the heart of many compounding factors. For example, although the information pamphlets provided to migrants upon disembarkation do indeed address migrants' legal status and outline principles of international protection. However, the way in which much of the information is presented makes it difficult for migrants to fully absorb. There are no multimedia versions of information conveyed in official pamphlets, which means limited options for those who cannot read or who do not adequately understand the languages in which the material is made available. There is no official website or repository of migrant/refugee laws, regulations or contact information for people or organisations to reach in migrants' languages. Nor is there a complete official mapping of all services available to migrants across the country.
Internews explains that their information needs become more complex while in Europe. Legal rights, available services, integration prospects, and their own mental health - like whether they can make contact with loved ones abroad - depend on information, Internews finds. Receiving effective information hinges on the capacity for translation and multi-language-speaking aid providers, as well as trust in the institutions and authorities involved in the migration phenomenon. All of this is compounded by a backdrop of trauma, given what they may have endured along the way.
Many abandon the Italian process, determined to cross borders to seek asylum in what they perceive to be more "favourable" European countries. Once they leave formal reception centres, they are completely outside the system and rely predominately on informal networks that they connect with via social media (primarily Facebook) or messaging apps like WhatsApp or Viber. If they manage to cross over to France, once they arrive, many operate blind - unaware of how to access services or seek help if they are in need. Internews says that some humanitarian actors are reluctant to make such information publicly available, as they feel that doing so would be to encourage "onward movement".
A desk review of the media products available for migrants and refugees in Italy finds that the political discourse over migration is a hot topic around which media reporting divides sharply along left/right political lines. Local media is geared to serve local Italian audiences and therefore lacks incentive or capacity to source, produce, and disseminate information for refugees. Despite various efforts outside of local media to provide refugees with information, various factors have contributed to a general lack of trust in any information provided by people outside migrants' own communities.
After sharing additional key findings from the assessment that illustrate the extent of the information void, the report offers recommendations:
For humanitarian organisations:
- Launch a regional collective service for communication and community engagement - "A regional approach to information coordination should be adopted that prioritizes two-way communication, where communities receive timely, coherent and useful information via preferred communication channels and are also enabled to provide feedback or complaints. Internews strongly recommends that all humanitarian organizations involved in the response across Europe, (including government entities), build upon already-existing mechanisms, use a diversity of channels (radio, SMS [text messaging], phone, community-based networks, etc.) to deliver information. Migrant communities need to be involved in the set-up of the system, and planning needs to include a thorough understanding of the social, cultural and behavioral practices of migrant communities."
- Create a single platform for migrant information - "This should be achieved by working with all relevant stakeholders to maintain an up-to-date resource for both migrants and those who work on the migration response on issues including, but not limited to, legal procedures and access to services. This platform can be created only if there is dedicated capacity to respond to questions and feedback, and would only be used if groundwork is done to gain trust from migrant communities. For example, audio and video content are desperately needed to address the information needs of migrants who cannot read, or for whom there is no information available in their dialect. To do this, Internews strongly recommends hiring migrants from different countries of origin to participate in the operation of the platform, which needs to be in translated in different languages."
- Carry out service-mapping as a basis for essential information sets - "This mapping should be available online, and possibly also as an audio system, or as part of a phone help-desk mechanism. This should be done not only for services in Italy, as there is clearly an acute need for information about protection and other services along the entire route. Cooperation is needed between local authorities, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], and civil society organizations in order to map services and make information available in multiple languages, media (audio, video, print) and across those digital, mobile and social media platforms that are already much used by migrants during their journey."
- Set up feedback and rumor tracking mechanisms nationally and in all centers - "Extensive daily face-to-face information gathering will allow for the identification of prevailing misinformation, misunderstandings and rumors amongst migrant groups. These need to be addressed in a timely and consistent way with accurate and transparently-sourced information, provided in appropriate languages. Migrants themselves may be trained to participate in these efforts, especially in long-term centers."
- Create a matrix of responsibilities (who does what, when and where) - "Internews recommends that NGOs operating in CARA [Centre for the Reception of Asylum Seekers] facilities coordinate with the managing entity to communicate to migrants a basic matrix of responsibilities, so that they understand who is operating in the center, what their role is, and which organization they can approach for specific needs."
- Establish a national and local CwC working group "in order to coordinate content and provision of information, community engagement activities, share ideas, best practices, trends, and feedback mechanisms."
- Increase CwC fixed capacity in sites and nationally - "Standing CwC expertise should be available in each organization to work with the legal experts and the facilitators, so that the information is provided in a two-way, engaging, targeted and coordinated manner. Opportunities for face-to-face information provision - especially regarding legal procedures - should be regularly available in reception facilities."
- Create help-desks and mobile access across borders - "Internews recommends one centralized help-desk be set up, with adequate numbers of relevant language-speaking staff, that can be reached by migrants via telephone, messaging services, and social media across several countries. The data collected from such a service can be hugely helpful to humanitarian actors and authorities in providing them with a better understanding of the situation and needs of affected populations on the move."
- Provide connectivity and mobile charging stations - "While some organizations have already created mobile charging stations and mobile information points, this system needs to be expanded to set up charging stations and WiFi hotspots in places where migrants congregate (like train stations), with a particular focus on urban areas and border towns like Ventimiglia."
- Provide resources for life-saving information in the country of origin - "Internews recommends that local authorities and humanitarian organizations work together along the routes of migration to provide persons in at-risk origin countries with information about protection and assistance available in their countries, so they do not feel that being trafficked is the only option available to them..."
For the media:
- Set up web radios that deliver appropriate content in a variety of languages - "Several important considerations in making these initiatives effective are A) Their capacity to source the right kind of information from the appropriate sources (humanitarian agencies, various authorities, legal sources, etc.) B) Their journalistic and ethical capacity to present the information in ways that are timely, accurate, balanced and engaging and C) Their ability to promote their services i.e. to let migrants know they exist and how to access them – this requires active collaboration between web radios and other actors..."
- Reinforce professional and unbiased reporting about migration issues to Italian audiences.
- Provide financial and technical support to a selected number of local, independent, and moderate media organizations.
- Organise roundtables and town hall events between CSOs, government officials, humanitarian organisations, and local media.
- Bring stories of the journey to countries of origin - "Interlocutors/ journalists/interviewers need training to interview migrants and produce stories that offer prospective migrants frank and detailed accounts of the brutal realities of the journey."
For the Italian authorities:
- Establish common standards for information provision - "Despite the fact that information provision for migrants is mandatory under Italian law, there is no standardized system of evaluating the quality and effectiveness of the information provided....Internews notes that communication experts in the humanitarian field need coordination and assistance to draft standards that can be implemented in different reception sites, in order to bolster accountability in information services."
- Establish clear accountability mechanisms for the private organizations managing the camps - "In reception centers, Internews recommends that the Italian government takes steps to ensure that humanitarian organizations, managing entities (private companies who run the CARA facilities) and local authorities set up formal and informal complaint mechanisms, so that migrants are able to voice concerns, raise protection issues and give other feedback in a safe and confidential manner."
For the European Union (EU):
- Provide information about rights when migrants are detained/returned - "By no means should they have their phones or any other means of communication confiscated or interfered with."
- Establish and demand clarity about the application and implementation of Dublin agreements (an EU law that determines the EU Member State responsible to examine an application for asylum seekers seeking international protection under the Geneva Convention and the EU Qualification Directive).
Email from Internews to The Communication Initiative on May 26 2017; and "Migration without Information is a Compounding Crisis", by Rose Foran, May 22 2017. Image caption/credit: Refugees on arrival in a refugee camp emergency in Italy. Credit: fabiodevilla/Shutterstock.com