When refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos, they board buses bound for their next destination. Speakers blaring overhead tell them what will happen next. They learn how to get a ticket for the ferry, where to sleep, what questions to expect.
That information comes from Internews, an organization focused on independent media and access to information. Alison Campbell, senior director for Global Initiatives, caught up with Devex on a recent trip to San Francisco, California, to discuss the News That Moves campaign, which provides people traveling the Balkan route to Europe with the news they need to continue their journey.
“If we can infuse this social movement with higher quality information and make it more robust, it will be more resilient to outside shock, corruption, disruption, trafficking, distractions, etc.,” she said, tracing her finger toward Damascus, Syria, on a map illustrating the information services of News That Moves. “Information becomes a kind of glue that holds everyone together going right back to here.”
Beyond News That Moves, a variety of aid organizations are providing information along the migration routes from Syria to Europe but these services are “patchy and scrappy,” Campbell said.
In a September 2015 analysis of services and information flows on the Balkans route, Internews found 83 organizations focused on information ranging from transportation options and border closures to policy and legal questions to financial and safety concerns to ways to find lost relatives or friends.
The majority of these services were provided in English, with 19 in Arabic, eight in Pashto, six in Dari, two in Tigringa and one in Farsi. News That Moves focused on news for refugees rather than news about refugees offering all of its content in Arabic, Farsi, Greek and English.
“What is actionable, accurate, timely? Those questions drove our editorial guidelines. It’s got to be for refugees. It’s got to lead to decisionmaking that is immediately relevant to your life,” she said. With a network of stringers and pro bono support from Translators Without Borders, Internews produces content then distributes it via paper flyers, SMS, email, apps, audio and social media.
Going in, the Internews team assumed that most of these migrants would be able to access information online via their mobile phones, until the Internews team found that both mobile phone usage and Internet connectivity was limited.
Another flawed assumption was that top information needs for refugees might include questions like the closest medical care facility, but their requests tend to relate not to humanitarian services but rather how to continue the journey, like the cost of bus tickets and the process with documents at the border.
“They want to keep moving,” Campbell said. “Any information that will keep them on the move.”
As the Internews team figures out what new refugees need and the partners that make sense to deliver that information, they are also gathering massive amounts of data they hope will equip others to respond more quickly and effectively down the road.
Because its product is information, Internews does not need to follow refugees from point A to point B to point C to deliver physical services. “We can have a certain element of virtual delivery and we can partner with those aid agencies,” she told Devex.
The Internews team distributes fliers, like news of the day, to these aid agencies, which they can distribute to individuals or post on notice boards in camps.
“What we had to do is consider everyone and everything a platform,” Campbell said. “Every aid worker becomes a platform for our information.”
Much of the reporting is responding to rumors, like a rumor circling around that Germany would imprison refugees for carrying a Quran, wearing long clothes, or praying.
“No one will make you forget Islam in Germany or in any other European country,” reads the reporting, which cites Article 4 of the German Constitution and provides a number for an anti-discrimination agency.
Campbell has leveraged radio broadcasts for humanitarian response, but she said she was drawn to the design challenge of designing information resources for people on the move.
The information needs for Syrian refugees today is quite a contrast from the information needs of Somali refugees Campbell worked with at the Dadaab refugee camp in South Sudan in 2005.
Her work 10 years ago was with a more static population with a radio listening culture whereas in the Middle East the preference is for television and the migration is more transitory, she said.
“The demographics are different everyday, so you’re not familiar with the population. They don’t speak the language of their host countries, and there is not a local media that Internews can support,” she said.
But what remains the same is the focus on creating information rather that goes beyond instructions.
“What is the content they’re going to need? How are we going to deliver it? How will they know that it is available to them? That is hugely important for Internews,” Campbell said. “We’re not always about just providing them with information. We need to hear from them constantly.”
Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.
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