Since 2015, more than a million women, men and children have undertaken perilous journeys to reach northern European countries, using unofficial migration routes across the Mediterranean and South-East Europe. UNHCR, Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean, 2016, http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php. Not all of them have reached their preferred destination, and many have died or gone missing on the way. These people reflect diverse nationalities and languages and varying levels of literacy, income, social status and access to technology. But findings in a recent BBC Media Action research report show that many have one key thing in common: they require information to make decisions about their next steps, to remain safe and meet their minimum survival needs. And yet, even in this age of digital technology, they often cannot get the reliable information they need due to a lack of online or mobile connectivity and limited consistent information that they trust.
The research study was commissioned and funded by UK aid from the UK government through the Start Network European Refugee Response Programme and the CDAC Network to help humanitarian agencies understand the priority information and communication needs of refugees. Field research, conducted by BBC Media Action in partnership with Development and Humanitarian Learning in Action (DAHLIA), provides a snapshot of refugees’ experiences regarding communication and information at different points on their journey: on the route, in ‘transit’ camps in Greece and, for those who have managed to reach it, in Germany. A total of 66 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq participated in the study in formal and informal camps in Greece. An additional 13 interviews took place in Germany, along with 16 focus group discussions. In-depth interviews with humanitarian actors in Greece and Germany were also conducted to capture their understanding of refugees’ communication needs, and the challenges they faced in trying to meet them. A total of 66 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq participated in the study in formal and informal camps in Greece. An additional 13 interviews took place in Germany, along with 16 focus group discussions.
The research was carried out in April 2016, just weeks after the closure of the Western Balkans route left more than 46,000 people stranded in camps in Greece. As of 11 April 2016: Amnesty International, Trapped in Greece: An Avoidable Refugee Crisis, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur25/3778/2016/en. Despite being ‘static’, almost all of the refugees interviewed considered themselves to be still on a journey – either back to their country of origin or on their way to their destination country – and believed that things could change at any moment.
The findings from this research highlight refugees’ overarching need for critical information about their current and future situation, as well as their broader communication needs: to be listened to; to be able to tell their stories; and to participate in dialogue that provides them with physical, social and psychosocial support. Many refugees also need trauma counselling.
The research found that refugees had one overriding communication need, both throughout their journey and when static in camps: timely and reliable information on how to get to their next destination safely, quickly and without being detained. Unfortunately this was a need that humanitarian actors were often not able to fulfil, either because they did not know the answers or because they were restricted in what information they were able to provide.
‘We need someone to translate for us, to communicate our needs and give us answers to our questions.’
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, often holding papers in languages they didn’t understand, and frustrated by an application process that they perceived as unfair. Some said their journey to Europe and experience in the camps was worse than living in a war zone, 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 they had expected, had no official rights to live or work there, no knowledge of whether they would be allowed to stay, and were confused about their rights and asylum status.
Refugees wanted to know: what was next for them?
Aside from questions about their rights, their options and their status, refugees in formal and informal camps in Greece said that they needed basic information about the logistics of daily living, including how to stay safe and where to find healthcare, but often had no common language to communicate with service providers. They voiced concerns about a lack of translators – especially Farsi/Dari-speakers – to liaise between them and agencies, and also expressed mistrust of translators used in asylum interviews.
Trust was a key theme from the research: who 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 official sources, which they perceived to be unreliable, they often sought help from people smugglers, who could provide information about alternative options, even if it turned out to be untrue.
‘We need access to the internet to find information and communicate with our family at home.’
The study showed 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.
Suggestions from refugees and humanitarians
- Have focal points within the camps who speak the right languages, can communicate people’s needs and concerns to agencies, and provide answers.
- Have more legal advisers in the camps (with translators), who can consider people’s individual cases and advise them on their options.
‘We need one-to-one appointments with legal advisers, to help us understand our rights and our options.’
- Hold regular meetings within the camps to update refugees on the current situation, preferably led by EU/ government officials.
‘They could gather everyone together in meetings to share important updates.’
- Improve connectivity. Although free wi-fi is available in some camps, all camps need it to enable people to connect to their families and other sources of information.
- Improve face-to-face communication between humanitarians and refugees, via people who speak the right language.
- Strengthen the capacity of responders (NGO, volunteer, government) to communicate complex information on rights and asylum in a simple, accurate way.
- Share critical information about refugee needs and legal issues between agencies.
Challenges for humanitarian agencies
Chief among the challenges facing humanitarian agencies in meeting refugees’ information and communication needs 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, agencies knew that the situation could quickly change and was outside their control. In April 2016, humanitarian agency staff in Greece reviewed the research findings at a workshop in Athens. They discussed initiatives which were already under way, alongside possible ways to better meet refugees’ information and communication needs. Since the research was conducted, humanitarian agencies have explored new initiatives to communicate effectively with refugees in appropriate languages, in an attempt to improve the daily reality for the diverse groups of people who remain static in Greece.
Theo Hannides, Nicola Bailey and Dwan Kaoukji are researchers from BBC Media Action. This article is amended from the Executive Summary of the BBC Media Action research report Voices of Refugees: Information and Communication Needs of Refugees in Greece and Germany, published in July 2016. The content of the report is the responsibility of BBC Media Action. Any views expressed in the report should not be taken to represent those of the BBC itself, or any donors supporting the work of BBC Media Action. BBC Media Action is the BBC’s international development charity. It is not funded by the BBC licence fee but is supported by grants and donations from a range of institutions, foundations and individuals.