Information is Aid

This is the first in a series of posts about addressing the information needs of migrants and refugees.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have made a brutal choice. When faced with the option of remaining in an increasingly war-torn country versus the risks of treacherous ocean crossings and long treks through uncertain terrain as winter closes in, thousands have chosen the latter.

This terrible choice is made more difficult and dangerous by a lack of useful information along the way.

From Turkey through Lesvos and onward through the Balkans, a lack of current, local information makes many vulnerable to kidnappers, traffickers and smugglers. Or it means people find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and get involved in riots or stampedes. Or they simply travel for days to find a border recently closed.

While much has been made of the use of smartphones by the current wave of refugees, these high tech tools are useless without good, local information that answers specific questions. GPS may tell you that you are on Lesvos, but it won’t tell you in Arabic or Dari or Pashto how to get to the registration center, how far that is, whether to walk or wait for a bus. Your smartphone may connect you to a loved one further along the trail, but the information they are hearing is as likely to be laced with rumor and outdated information as useful insights. And when the smartphone you have been relying on runs out of juice, you are lost.

Internews arrived on Lesvos almost two months ago to assess and try to address the information needs of the refugees landing there en route to Europe.

Shockingly, despite intensive media coverage of the situation there throughout the late summer, and the presence of hundreds of volunteers and aid agency personnel, there was not even the most basic signage or other information to greet people as they land and help them understand where they were and what to do next.

People coming off the boats frequently had no idea where they were. They did not know Lesvos was an island, or part of Greece, did not know that they would need to walk across several more countries to get to Germany, had no idea of the processes they would need to go through along the way. One woman, a bookkeeper from Aleppo, travelling with a 12-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son told us “If I had known before I came that it would be like this, I would not have come.”

Standing in their shoes

Imagine you and your family have made it from Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq to the Turkish shore. Across an expanse of Mediterranean the width of the Mississippi River is the island of Lesvos, the first step into Europe. You manage to negotiate passage with a smuggler and you buy life jackets for yourself and your family. You feel hopeful and exhausted.

What you don’t know is that much of the information you are given by the smugglers is untrue. You don’t know that most of the boats are dangerously overloaded and many sink. You don’t know that the life jackets you purchased are unlikely to help in case your boat is capsized. And you may not understand that on the other side there are complicated processes for entering Europe and moving onward.

Refugees wait by a fenced area on the island
Camp Kara Tepe, Lesvos. Photo: James Fennel/Internews

If you make it to the beach on Lesvos, you will be met by well-meaning volunteers — both local Greeks and expats who will greet you and provide you with basic needs such as blankets, food and dry clothes as you are likely soaked and hungry. They will not speak your language. They will point you up a steep and rocky goat track and then some way inland to reception tents that will direct Syrians to one camp and non-Syrians to another (although that is also unpredictable). There is a lot of pushing and shoving and shouting and confusion as police and other officials try to handle the numbers. Families get split up. Children go missing. Buses may be waiting, or they may not arrive for hours. And people start walking, not understanding how far it is (a two days’ walk). For Syrians the process to get off the island may happen in a day or so. If you are from anywhere else, you will have to find your way to another center where you may wait up to five days or longer, in what experienced aid workers have called some of the worst conditions they have ever seen.

For people who have not had the process explained in languages they understand, who do not have the necessary documentation and paperwork or the resources to take the ferry, it’s bewildering. There are stories of families that do not know that there are free resources for them on the island, or that buses will eventually come to collect them, so they hike the 60km, sleeping out in the rough. Some fell victim to hypothermia and died.

Even in the best case scenario, once you are cleared to leave Lesvos, you will need to figure out what you need to do to get ferry passage off the island, to the mainland and beyond. Every new day, every step of the way, in the days and weeks to come will be fraught with confusion, rumor and questions.

A high-tech/low-tech approach to information dissemination

When we arrived it was clear that the first thing people needed was a simple map, in a variety of languages, which show them where they are and get them moving in the right direction. For the first time, the tents on the beach and the first processing centers now have these maps in the form of large banners. We then created information kits to provide to aid agencies to set up information kiosks in camps and transit centers where people can get more of their questions answered. Many of the other humanitarian organizations on the island, from Mercy Corps to Doctors without Borders, are using these kits to augment their aid centers. We are coordinating these messages with other humanitarian agencies, to ensure that clear and concise information is getting out.

An aid worker points to a map on a banner while 3 refugees look on
An information banner, in Lesvos. Photo: Mat Abud/Internews

We have re-purposed trucks with loud speakers to rove around broadcasting simple, coordinated messages in Arabic — “Remain calm. You are welcome. Please proceed to X camp or Y camp.” Just the presence of an information source can be reassuring and alleviate some of the terrible stress people are experiencing.

These interventions are just a starting point and answer only the most obvious questions. Once people know where they are, a myriad of other questions emerge. Is the boat to Athens big or small (we are afraid of small boats)? Will there be food and water on board? What will happen when we get there?

Finding a way to systematically address these questions not just in Lesvos but along the entire route through the Balkans is one of the most immediate and important challenges of this refugee flow.

A red pickup truck with a megaphone on top
A loudspeaker carries a simple message to keep calm, in Lesvos. Photo: James Fennel/Internews

Accurate and actionable information provided to refugees on a regular basis can help keep them safe and mitigate their stress along the way. It can keep them clear of bottlenecks, dead-ends, human traffickers, extortionists, landmines, riots, razor wire, teargas, water-cannons. It can help them connect with transport, food, medicine and shelter. It can help them to manage their expectations, save money, avoid panic, share this information with people around them, and make well-informed choices and decisions for themselves and their families.

Information is a relatively low-cost, high-impact commodity that can be delivered by humanitarians even in places where other, more concrete humanitarian services cannot always be made available. In the increasingly fluid and unpredictable new order of humanitarian crisis and ensuing displacement of people, it is becoming increasingly difficult for humanitarians with their goods and services to be in the right place at the right time.

A banner with a map and Arabic text
The map and information banner on display in Lesvos. In English, it reads: “Welcome to the Greek island Lesvos. You must register with the authorities first on the other side of the island. By bus takes about 90 minutes. Walking takes two days. Please stay with your traveling group, and don’t get into separate vehicles. Keep your luggage with you at all times. Beware of over-pricing. Do not sleep or rest on the roads.”

Internews’ provision of banners and audio on Lesvos is just the start of our information response to this crisis. In the coming weeks, we will be setting up a news service that will reach refugees in multiple locations in multiple languages with regularly updating “News You can Use.” Stay tuned to this channel to learn more.

Alison Campbell is Senior Director for Global Initiatives at Internews.

(This story was originally published on Medium)