Using CwC as a tool when fast-paced transit turns to frustration and uncertainty

In January 2016, the Emergency Lab posted a blog about the different challenges humanitarian responders faced when trying to communicate with refugees and migrants making their way through the West Balkan route into Europe.

In early March, border restrictions across the Balkans changed the face of the crisis, significantly decreasing the numbers of refugees and migrants transiting through sites where UNHCR had a presence. A significant re-think was required regarding how to effectively communicate with refugees who now remained at these sites for prolonged periods of time. With an uncertain future, they face a dilemma as to whether they should wait in often dismal conditions, apply for International Protection, or attempt risky onward travel by approaching smugglers. There are numerous reports on the risks and dangers of onward movement, for example three people drowning in the river near the entry point in fYR of Macedonia.

In light of these changes, the challenges around communicating with communities in these situations are vastly different from when thousands were moving through the sites every day. Part of the way we work is to continuously re-evaluate our interventions; it became clear that with this change, we needed to revisit the early stages of the Innovation process, namely challenge definition, in order to ensure our solutions were appropriate to the context.

Here is our list of revised challenges, some of which were verified through an information and communication needs assessment in fYR of Macedonia that we completed in late March:

  1. Humanitarian organizations are unable to provide people with the information they need. People affected by crisis often look to humanitarian responders for information we sometimes cannot provide. The process around the EU-Turkey agreement took a number of weeks and in this ‘waiting’ time with closed borders, there was very little information we could provide people on the matter. The field presence of humanitarian responders puts us at the front line, faced with difficult questions about constantly changing policies, which are often not situations we can affect. Communicating with communities becomes extremely challenging when the primary information need is beyond your capacity to provide.
  2. In this environment rumour and speculation runs rife. Not only did people ask what was happening, but they asked whether there was any truth around a rumour i.e. “I hear X country will open its border to Syrians tomorrow.” These rumours spread fast and word-of-mouth is often more effective than alternative communication channels. Challenge: How do you combat rumors to ensure that communities aren’t being misinformed by hearsay that could ultimately lead to them taking decisions that negatively impact their lives?
  3. Providing information around legal options for refugees isn’t always straightforward. In this environment, the legal options for refugees have also been evolving and developing. In some contexts, it has not always been clear how to effectively begin an asylum procedure for refugees and procedures changed frequently. Providing information around this is a core mandate for UNHCR, but the fact that many people have such specific needs and contexts, the respective legal options differ depending on this circumstance i.e. for separated children to particular nationalities and so forth. With this in mind, it is a challenge to provide general information applicable to all about asylum, as the information needs are often quite specific.
  4. There is frustration and boredom amongst refugees and migrants. Many of the refugees had travelled thousands of miles to get to what was almost the doorstep of their desired destination country. The consequent shutting of a route that had been a channel for over a million, naturally causes frustration: “Why now? Why didn’t I go earlier?” Our challenge as responders is to acknowledge and respect this frustration when we communicate with people, and turn the energy it brings about into something positive for all around it. Connected to this, is the resulting boredom that comes with being isolated in a transit centre. Now that some of the refugees have been spending multiple weeks on sites, which were designed to host them for no more than a couple of hours, the opportunities for entertainment are incredibly limited. This boredom can lead to apathy which can in turn lead to non-participation and isolation. There are also documented cases of people – mainly young males – turning to alcohol and drugs which exacerbate these feelings. How can we communicate with these people in ways that are enjoyable and engaging so as to help minimize frustration?
  5. Refugees and migrants face an uncertain future. The uncertain future that refugees face makes it difficult to communicate with them. They are in a position where they want to make the best decision to help their families and themselves, and look to humanitarian responders for guidance. The challenge we face is how to ethically deal with this. While we do our best to provide unbiased information around the different avenues available to them, we still need to show compassion for their situation. We need to ensure that when they ask us ‘what would you do if you were me?’ that our answer reflects neutrality and clearly provides the information necessary for each individual to make a fully informed decision for themselves.
  6. There is difficulty in building trust amongst refugees and migrants. The above issues culminate in what is arguably a more testing challenge for CwC practitioners, which is around building trust. The tumultuous situation has led to a very low level of trust in humanitarian responders amongst some refugee populations. This was verified through our information and communications needs assessment that showed approximately 50% of the sample Syrian respondents had no trust in the information provided by humanitarian responders. Working from this baseline is a challenge in itself, but it is also extremely challenging to begin building up this trust in a very narrow humanitarian space that is coupled with an extremely sensitive political situation. We experienced situations where refugees were suspicious when asked questions, fearing that information they provided would be utilized to turn them back to the countries they were fleeing from. While this isn’t the case, it was vital for UNHCR staff to try and build and engender this trust in a very complex and uncertain situation.
  7. It’s important to understand and identify natural leaders. When starting dialogue with groups of people, it is natural that the diverse nature of personalities fulfill different roles in part of that dialogue. As they say, it is sometimes those who shout the loudest who get heard. This was certainly the case on the border between fYR Macedonia and Serbia where some refugees opted to try and refuse assistance on behalf of the group as a form of protest. This is greatly problematic as we knew from conversations with other individuals that there was a great desire for more support and assistance. On the other hand, these leaders can act as a great resource, as when they are on board with a certain activity – say an organised distribution – the effectiveness of the task is exponentially amplified.
  8. Our CwC interventions were more suited to respond to a transit environment. As mentioned in our introduction, the Emergency Lab had various interventions that were introduced into the operation that were contextually focused around the transit environment. A key challenge for us was how to repurpose things we already had in place to make them suitable for the new circumstances: we didn’t want to lose the investment put into these systems when it would be appropriate to use them in a modified way. For instance, a loudspeaker system works brilliantly in providing information to people on the move i.e. like an airport, but if people are spending longer periods there, it can have seriously negative connotations, such as the feeling of being detained, and lacking agency.
  9. There are varying language requirements. This was actually in our first list of challenges but it is included here again to emphasize its importance. There are multiple spoken languages and varying literacy levels within a ‘community’. At field level, translators are in short supply – with humanitarian agencies struggling to find Farsi and Macedonian speakers for instance. The Emergency Lab is continuing to work with Translators without Borders to provide support to field staff through a variety of remote channels, including the Translation Cards app.
  10. Building feedback loops is still a challenge. In the transit situation, we noted the difficulty of closing feedback loops given the extremely short time people were in a particular site, and the difficulty of capturing feedback while in transit. So this should be easier now, right? Actually, it is still complex. As humanitarian responders we face the challenge of ensuring that the process of providing feedback doesn’t make people feel uneasy about their situation. For example, people may be reticent to provide feedback on the services within a particular location as this may reiterate a feeling of permanency or of being ‘stuck’ in a situation.

If these challenges resonate with your experience, please do share your learning. We’ll be sharing more details soon on how we dealt with these some of these challenges.

Photo credit: UNHCR/Mark Henley

We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create  impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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