This essay was originally posted in the recently released report: UNHCR Innovation Service: Year in Review 2016. This report highlights and showcases some of the innovative approaches the organization is taking to address complex refugee challenges and discover new opportunities. You can view the full microsite here.

Define Challenges

Communicating with transiting refugees in their native language

The acute refugee crisis that unfolded in the Middle East and Europe caught the world’s attention as massive flows of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, East Africa and elsewhere pursued any path available to a safer and more promising life, after fleeing war and persecution in their countries of origin.

Some days in November 2015 saw 10,000 new arrivals to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. With this boom in the number of transiting refugees, UNHCR had to rapidly escalate efforts to assist and protect.

Refugees and migrants, speaking a range of languages, needed critical information. They actively sought updates and advice, but often found a range of often misleading rumors on social media. When new waves of refugees and migrants were arriving quickly, UNHCR field staff often ended up answering the same questions over and over again.

When political realities changed the landscape completely and refugees were no longer passing through borders within hours or days, UNHCR needed to once again adapt to a new situation.

In order to respond to the changing context in places like the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, UNHCR needed a wider range of tools to increase two-way communication with refugees. It needed a way to overcome the site’s poor Internet connectivity, deliver helpful information in a targeted way,  and capture user feedback—for a rapidly moving population and then later for a static one.

Identify Solutions

Loud speakers, digital displays, and an application

The UNHCR country team requested support from the Emergency Lab, which in its first year is focusing on facilitating communication with communities. The Lab is a shared resource between the Division of Emergencies, Security, and Supply, and the Innovation team.

The Emergency Lab started with a scoping mission in December 2015 to interview refugees about their journeys and their experiences at the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonian border. At the same time, they listened to UNHCR field staff, identifying and analyzing the challenges they faced around effectively communicating with refugees.

The scoping mission showed that communicating in the languages spoken by transiting refugees was a priority—not just to disseminate information but also to avoid marginalizing those who did not understand English.

UNHCR partnered with Translators Without Borders in order to translate the most relevant information into Farsi, Pashto and Arabic, and to broadcast it over a loudspeaker system that had already been set up at what was once the main entry point from Greece to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The existing loudspeaker system was not a “smart” one—to change the message, local staff had to go back and forth to the locked container where the system was installed to use the microphone, make a recording, or play messages. The new system, which was set up with free, off-the-shelf hardware and software applications, could be remotely controlled via tablet from anywhere, including the capital, Skopje.

Digital displays were also piloted. The displays could provide important information that was also entertaining—these aimed to increase the dignity of anxious, waiting refugees. UNHCR contracted a company called Xibo and pioneered a centrally managed system that allowed different content to be channeled to different screens based on the population watching them.

Many refugees inside the reception center still preferred face-to-face contact with UNHCR, and given the massive influxes of people, there were not enough translators to help. The Emergency Lab worked with the field team to identify the most frequently asked questions and to develop the appropriate responses. These messages were translated into Pashto, Farsi and Arabic with help from  Translators Without Borders.

In collaboration with Google, Mercy Corps, ThoughtWorks and others, a mobile application was then developed called Translation Cards. The app organizes questions by topic into electronic “decks,” which staff can access on their phones or tablets. These simple audio-visual flashcards allow refugees to hear pre-translated answers to their common questions spoken aloud in their own language.

Test Solutions

Faster and more accurate communication based on needs

To address the connectivity challenge, a partnership was brokered with Telecoms sans Frontieres to provide connectivity for refugees in Gevgelija, on the southern former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia border, and also at a site in Serbia. Having a reliable and speedy Internet connection is key for refugees, who have reported using Facebook as one of the most trusted ways of communicating with their families. It also allows them to quickly access electronic documents that can help them with registration.

To test the usefulness of the new broadcast system and content, the Emergency Lab and former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia UNHCR staff carefully curated a playlist of messages that informed refugees about safety concerns and resources, provided facts about the registration process, and informed them of their rights and entitlements, with breaks between languages and times for quiet.

Refugees who listened found the messages put them at ease and increased their awareness and understanding. Among other things, the messages worked to assuage fears, direct crowds, and staff reported a visible calming effect on refugees who heard them.

The country operation found that being able to remotely change the recordings was very useful, and they found it easy to play targeted messages based on the fluctuating situation—removing messages in a specific language, for example, when people from that country were not passing through.

Staff found that including Macedonian in the translated messages was important for involving local aid workers, and ensured that government and military officials knew what was being shared with people on site.

To test the effectiveness of the televised information, UNHCR set up a large screen in a child-friendly space at the entry point to former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and started showing videos, cartoons and informational messages aimed at parents.

Children who arrived in the center were exhausted after long journeys, and were stuck inside during the freezing days of winter, so the child-friendly content streamed on TV screens allowed them to relax a bit and regain a semblance of normalcy in their lives. The initiative was very well received and the team put up 11 more TV screens at entry and exit points.

The Translation Cards app received good feedback as well, especially after modifications added culturally appropriate greetings and other phrases refugees wanted to incorporate into their interactions. One user even commented that it was the first time he felt connected to someone with a blue vest.

The cards enabled faster, more accurate communication. And the app freed up translators’ time to work on more complex work rather than responding to simple, repetitive questions that did not require specialized responses.

Refine Solutions

Adapting to a new emergency context

As refugees and UNHCR faced changing policies about which populations could enter former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, each aspect of the Emergency Lab’s solution needed to be reconsidered.

The loudspeaker messages had to be adapted quite substantially as some nationalities stopped arriving. When the border closed entirely, it no longer made sense to broadcast short, repetitive messages to a population that may remain at the border for weeks. Similarly, the entertaining television material had to be reconsidered as refugees were now unable to move forwards. In short, the space changed from a space to transit, to one to remain in, and bide one’s time.

Now that there is no longer a push to get out quick snippets of information while holding refugees’ attention, the system has been adapted further – with a satellite connection for news and entertainment: Many refugees say the most important thing is to know what is going on at home and internationally.

The new situation on the ground also made some of the questions included in the mobile app less relevant. Refugees became more interested in receiving more information on for example. their legal options should borders remain closed.

In the context of such drastically different conditions, the Emergency Lab advised the country team as they designed and implemented an information and communications needs assessment that surveyed 107 refugees in the Tabanovce transit center. The assessment identified the information and communication needs of refugees, which the Lab helped analyze to uncover the most appropriate channels for information sharing.

For example, it found that 90 percent of the refugees said they preferred face to face communication with UNHCR, while many of them also said they used mobile communications apps Viber and WhatsApp. The assessment also revealed that some populations place great trust in UNHCR, while others trusted instead to other sources found on the Internet. Men were more likely to seek information about asylum and legal procedures while women were more concerned with support available for their families.

Moreover, the Emergency Lab worked with the team in former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to build communicating with communities into its programming, further supporting the regional protection strategy, in large part by developing the tools to collect feedback and complaints face to face. The country team is now using two tablet-based feedback forms to gather and organize information and make sure that feedback is received and further acted upon, ensuring those who need to receive onward referrals do not fall through the cracks.

This initiative was linked to UNHCR’s Information and Advice Desks—an interagency initiative to ensure coordinated access to information, feedback and referrals across sites.

Finally, field operation staff received training on recording, disaggregating and analyzing data collected through these mechanisms in order to create more responsive and productive messages and programs.

To support ongoing efforts to build better communication with communities, the Lab and the UNHCR team in former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia worked together to hire additional staff members to manage the technical equipment and provide network support. Terms of references were created, interviews were carried out together, and staff hired. The Lab and the field teams also worked together to help with onboarding and training on projects and tools.

Scale Solutions

Expanding Translation Cards to other country operations

UNHCR Innovation hopes to test Translation Cards in other relevant operational contexts. Other humanitarian organizations can also create their own card decks to better communicate with the specific populations they are working with, and further development on the app is now underway with this in mind.

Based on its experience creating content for the screens installed in former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Emergency Lab is collaborating with colleagues in other European countries that could benefit from producing similar packages.

For the country team in former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, information gleaned from the information and communication needs assessment is directing next steps for setting up more effective ways of communicating with refugees.

The Lab continued to work with the country operation to identify how other information and communications needs could best be addressed. For instance, they collaborated to develop messages for women’s bathrooms that inform women and girls about how to alert UNHCR staff about protection issues they faced during their journeys or after arriving in former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Although the Emergency Lab is no longer on-site, it still works together with the country operation with remote support. It will continue to provide guidance as needed, with the aim of supporting the country team provide the best service possible to refugees.