Issue 80 - Article 8

During Covid-19: moving beyond single-issue community engagement in the Venezuelan migrant crisis

April 28, 2022

Emily Cowlrick

Gabriela Christie

With legal crossing closed due to the pandemic, migrants were forced to take dangerous routes.
12 min read

Nos vamos a morir de hambre antes del COVID-19 [We’re going to die from hunger before we die from COVID-19]

(migrant woman in Tumaco).

Gracias por escucharnos, por fin, alguien quiere hablar con nosotros [Thank you for listening to us, finally, someone who wants to speak with us]

(migrant woman in Ipiales).

The Covid-19 pandemic rapidly transformed information and media systems the world over. Journalists, civil society leaders and other communicators act as essential intermediaries between the government, public health experts and the public to stem what has been termed an ‘infodemic’. In areas experiencing a humanitarian crisis, the impact of Covid-19 compounds existing stressors and risks, and clouds information environments that are already subject to rapid changes and power imbalances.

The Internews Covid-19 response is rooted in the same knowledge as all humanitarian responses: that information can literally save lives. The solutions and strengths we bring to building healthy information environments are as needed now as ever. The Rooted in Trust project, supported by the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, focuses Internews’ capacity and networks on countering the spread of rumours and misinformation about Covid-19 in humanitarian crises. The first phase of the project was grounded in hyper-local information ecosystems in areas experiencing crisis in:

  • Mindanao, Philippines – reaching approximately 800,000 people through social media engagements, and almost 700 through community listening and learning sessions.
  • Lebanon, with migrant and refugee communities, collecting 2,774 rumours across 200 social media platforms.
  • Mali, where more than 180,000 displaced people were reached via community listening outreach, tailored radio programmes and rumour bulletins.
  • Sudan, where teams collected 1,350 rumours from listening activities in conflict- affected communities, and 2,209 rumours from social media platforms.
  • Central African Republic, where teams produced 18 rumour bulletins and worked closely with a network of 25 radio stations.
  • Afghanistan, where 1,013 rumours were collected across 232 platforms.
  • Colombia, working with migrant communities in Nariño, where more than 66,000 people were reached via rumour bulletins.

This article focuses on the work in Nariño, a region on the Colombia–Ecuador border, exploring the dynamics of information in an area already experiencing crisis. In contexts such as this, engagement and communication must recognise the chronic stressors and risks that people face, as well as the additional impact and necessary adjustment of methodology and approach caused by Covid-19.

As Covid-19 was taking hold among migrant populations in Nariño in 2020, the Rooted in Trust project sought out local partners to engage with the most vulnerable communities in Ipiales and Tumaco – to hear their concerns and questions about Covid-19 and build more accessible information channels. These partners were Caribe Afirmativo and Fedemedios. Working directly with LGBTQI+ Venezuelan migrants and on-the-ground reporters, these partner organisations have strong, trusted networks throughout the community and a deep understanding of the cultural nuances between people in the two target cities.

At the time of the project, there were approximately 1 million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, more than half of whom were undocumented. In early 2021, it was announced that the country would grant temporary protection status to undocumented people, meaning they could access basic services such as the national health system, including Covid-19 vaccinations. Despite these additional protections, sections of the population continue to face barriers to accessing information and support.

Like the broader migrant community, LGBTQI+ migrants face significant information gaps related to prevention, treatment and the signs and symptoms of Covid-19. In addition to feeling insufficiently informed, fear of stigmatisation and denial of medical support has led LGBTQI+ individuals to delay pursuit of medical treatment, putting them at even greater risk of being infected or suffering more severe symptoms. The double stigma of being both LGBTQI+ and a migrant discourages and diminishes their access to information, further marginalising the community. Additionally, the abuse and violence these communities face is at times perpetrated by the authorities, who are typically the stakeholders one would turn to for protection and information.

With a long history of working with LGBTQI+ migrant populations across Colombia, Caribe Afirmativo is expert in supporting and providing resources to people with diverse gender and sexual identities. Working alongside Caribe Afirmativo meant that Internews’ Rooted in Trust project could plug into the honest and complex conversations already being had within these communities. Caribe Afirmativo was able to use the training, funding and overall support from this partnership to expand their trusted networks and reach even more LGBTQI+ individuals at risk throughout Nariño.

Through a combination of key informant interviews, surveys, extensive desk research and Covid-19-safe focus and listening groups, carried out by Caribe Afirmativo and Fedemedios, an Information Ecosystem Assessment was conducted to establish an understanding of information dynamics in this community as they relate to Covid-19 information needs. The Information Ecosystem Assessment methodology guided a participatory exercise with partners to document the spaces in which their community communicates. Local social media monitors identified 106 potential rumour sources and pinpointed 150 keywords in colloquial Spanish. 

This activity also helped the team identify information influencers particular to the LGBTQI+ community – and how/if those had changed since the beginning of Covid-19. It became evident quite quickly that key health information influencers for this community tended to be YouTube content creators, often not located in Nariño, or even in Colombia. Social media channels most commonly used by LGBTQI+ communities to share information were also identified, generally private closed Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

Via rumour-tracking methods, Rooted in Trust was then able to see what types of rumours were being shared within this community, and what information they needed to counter those rumours. Through analysis, monitors found that conversations avoided certain information needed by LGBTQI+ migrant communities. Migrants expressed fear in openly requesting information specific to their community and indicated that this type of information was only being shared by word-of-mouth through community leaders working in migrant camps. This need for safe information-sharing platforms supported the plan for the project to create two new Facebook groups (one for Ipiales and one for Tumaco) as well as a WhatsApp group to serve as safe spaces to share information specific to LGBTQI+ migrants.

Given the broader migrant crisis, these platforms set up to communicate and engage with LGBTQI+ migrants about Covid-19 could not be restricted solely to conversations about the pandemic, but also had to serve as a space for open dialogue about their day-to-day experiences, including the protection risks they regularly face, how they deal with them and what would help. Within those conversations, issues around Covid-19 came up.

Using the feedback from their established channels and additional conversations from Rooted in Trust’s Information Ecosystem Assessment, Caribe Afirmativo established comprehensive health and judicial steps for LGBTQI+ migrants to follow when in need of assistance, including safe houses, safe ways to access services and safe environments for reporting abuse and giving feedback. This has proven incredibly useful and important, increasing safety for LGBTQI+ migrants and accountability for perpetrators of abuse. 

This was evident through an experience shared with the project team, where a trans woman who knew of Caribe Afirmativo was able to use their referral-mapping information to report the acts of violence and trafficking she had experienced. By providing this informational resource and sufficient follow-up support, Caribe Afirmativo ensured that authorities were held accountable, and that the government worker guilty of sexually exploiting and physically abusing this woman was arrested.

Experiences like this confirm the link between accessible and relevant information and increased accountability and – ultimately – safety for at-risk groups. But it also points to the need for assessments and engagement to move beyond a single issue. If Internews and Caribe Afirmativo had not blended ongoing efforts to improve protection outcomes for LGBTQI+ migrants with Covid-19 information needs, pandemic response efforts would have fallen short in the face of a much wider crisis that cannot be put to the side. In the case of our work with LGBTQI+ migrants, each multi-faceted concern, question or piece of feedback presented engagement needs that had to be addressed delicately through the lens of a community that is doubly discriminated against across legal, health and social norms.

Within Internews methodologies, we continue to seek balance between facilitating open conversations alongside large-scale data analysis approaches that are consistent and responsible, and that effectively flag high-risk rumours. In the face of Covid-19, what was once an on-the-ground, intensive approach had to be rapidly adapted for the new, socially distanced world – while still maintaining the ability to reach conversations and groups of people increasingly isolated by the shift to online activities. What has made these approaches successful is dedicating and building capacity to ensure analysis and rumour tracking is as local and contextual as possible. In this case, Caribe Afirmativo – through their considerable expertise and trusted networks – were the facilitators of such work. In some humanitarian crises, it is more challenging to find this balance. Sometimes the right local capacity to blend two-way engagement with urgent and essential messaging (for example, health messaging) is more difficult to locate – or may not exist. Media and humanitarian partners can fixate on fact-checking and correcting, rather than identifying information needs and locating trusted information flows, causing information to sound potentially tone deaf, or to be shared through channels that are not trusted or utilised by the target population(s).

In our efforts to find this balance, and by way of Rooted in Trust’s recent Information Ecosystem Assessments and rumour-tracking experiences across seven humanitarian crisis situations during Covid-19, Internews continues to learn and adapt our methodologies. Given its essential place in all our approaches, we explored understandings of trust in a report compiled by Pierrick Judéaux (Global Research Coordinator for the first iteration of Rooted in Trust): Understanding trust: global conversations and local realities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From this report, and from our Covid-19 response as a whole, three lessons stand out:

Two-way engagement mechanisms are essential to providing life-saving information

Two-way communication mechanisms are necessary to ensure that information about Covid-19 (and other crises) is shared between humanitarian organisations and communities in a way that is relevant and timely to those communities. These mechanisms must include ways of listening to concerns, feedback, myths and rumours about Covid-19, particularly from vulnerable and marginalised groups whose voices may not be systemically listened to or represented.

There are remote and in situ methods for two-way engagement that are effective, including remote social media/digital platforms and in person at migrant check-points or shelters. Two-way engagement can also happen via trusted media – either through existing mechanisms (for example, call-in radio) or through additional support to set up or improve engagement efforts to make the mechanisms more inclusive and accessible in terms of language and literacy, and content that appeals to different groups.

Proximity does not equate to trust

Population groups that feel stigmatised or marginalised are unlikely to trust voices that emanate from the community that stigmatises them. Instead, they turn to actors that give them a voice. Research indicates that migrant populations in Tumaco and Ipiales are much more likely to trust international media than local voices from host communities. As one researcher put it: ‘with xenophobia on the rise, it is not surprising that mistrust is perceived towards the dominant society’.

Discourse around localisation, the value of proximity and the need for humanitarians to rely more closely on influential figures in the communities they work with has been prevalent in the last decade. However, the practical implications derived from these conversations have often proved simplistic and frequently amounted to relying on community leaders (local government representatives, informal community representatives etc.) to ‘pass on messages’ to community members. But not all local intermediaries and gatekeepers carry the same trust within migrant communities, and especially among those identifying as LGBTQI+. In our survey, community leaders, religious leaders and local government officials in Nariño appear to enjoy little trust overall – at least as far as information on Covid-19 is concerned. More than half – 55% – of respondents felt some level of distrust (partial trust, very little trust, or no trust at all) in community leaders, 69% for religious leaders and 70% for local government officials.

This finding affirms Internews’ approach to locating and reinforcing existing community structures that can facilitate feedback and communication mechanisms, but also to aid and protect people who might be outside those community structures by supporting and setting up channels that they trust.

There is a lack of specific understanding of vulnerable and marginalised people’s rights and needs, and the risks they face in seeking information and services

Lack of knowledge from the media and humanitarian response agencies about issues related to specific groups can further obscure their struggles and make humanitarian efforts less effective. The Information Ecosystem Assessment in Nariño found much lower levels of information related to Covid-19 prevention, treatment, signs and symptoms held by LGBTQI+ migrant communities in Ipiales and Tumaco. Unless they are a specialist service, journalists and media platforms generally lack understanding of the needs and interests of vulnerable and marginalised people. So, when it comes to communicating large amounts of new, technical information (as is the case in the pandemic), reporting with specific needs in mind – for example, people with a different immigration status and legal rights – is difficult.

We have found that investing resources in Information Ecosystem Assessments as early as possible in a crisis can go a long way in identifying these needs early, and shape the way we bridge the work of local journalists, media platforms, health communicators and humanitarian responders.

Leveraging lessons such as these from the first phase, Rooted in Trust began its expanded second phase in August 2021, adding teams and partners in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, South Sudan and Zimbabwe. The second phase will continue to strengthen the local capacity of humanitarians, media and health communicators to ensure their Covid-19 information work is shaped by and responsive to the needs of vulnerable communities caught up in humanitarian crises.

Emily Cowlrick is a Humanitarian Manager with Internews. Gabriela Christie is the Senior Programme Officer with the Rooted in Trust programme.


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