Reaching Refugees with Micro-Radio

Andrea Panico isn’t getting much sleep. He takes my call at 9.30pm and he still has a long night ahead of him. By day, the We World team leader in Ventimiglia, Italy is attending a crisis management course and most nights he is out in the streets of the town from late at night until the early hours of the morning – talking to refugees and migrants.

“The nights are the most dangerous for them,” he explains. “There are so many children alone here, many of them younger than 18. The official shelters are only for families and unaccompanied children up to 14, so the older children don’t know where to go. On the street, bad things can happen to them, especially at night – people come looking for them for sex, they give them a few pennies or some food. We see that one of the best things we can do for them is to talk and listen, hear their problems, answer their questions, give them advice about where to go, what to do to stay safe, to find food and shelter. We try to find out if they know where their families may be and help them figure out what their legal options are for staying in Italy or moving on.”

A white man with a beard sits. A group of young black men stand around him.
Andrea Panico, center, works to provide information for refugees and migrants in Italy. Credit: Andrea Panico

Ventimiglia, a picturesque coastal town close to the Italian border with France has seen a stream of thousands of migrants since 2014. Since the closure of the Greek border in April last year, the numbers arriving in Italy have swelled. Syrian refugees, Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nigerians, South Sudanese and Somalis are amongst those who have scrambled, exhausted and traumatized, on to Ventimiglia’s rocky coastline. The horrors of their journey are hard to hear; some have been on the move for months and even years, surviving abduction, trafficking, rape, arrest, extortion, captivity and other abuses along the way. “For every thousand people who make it here, another five thousand die in Libya” said one man interviewed by Internews.

An Italian Red Cross Center is one of the only official shelters in town. It houses 300 people, but only admits people over the age of 18. The church of St. Antony has opened its doors; up to 100 people sleep there each night, but preference is given to families, and when the church is full no more are admitted. “That means that hundreds are sleeping under the bridge every night,” says Andrea, “and half of them are kids under 18.” Most don’t stay long in Ventimiglia – they are determined to get to France, Germany or England where they think life will be better, but they know little of what awaits them there either. “We let them know that there are opportunities here in Italy for them – they could even go to school here,” says Andrea. “But many times they don’t listen, or don’t believe, they are just pushing on because they have heard stories that conditions are better there than here. We try to give them the correct information about their rights and international protection – trying to cross the border will put them in more danger.”

A wall on the side of a freeway is covered in graffiti
Credit: Andrea Panico

I am amazed when Andrea tells me that he only has one volunteer helping him reach out to migrants and refugees, and some nights he doesn’t even have a translator. “Sometimes we have volunteer translators for Arabic and Farsi, some of the migrants speak French – and I have a little French.” I suddenly understand much more vividly the need for the Web Radio that he and I have been speaking about launching. “We would be able to reach so many more people!” Andrea says. “If we can put speakers and modems under the bridge, at the church, at the train station, the bus station and at the Red Cross Center – we would be able to inform people when places open up at the shelters, let them know about food, clothes and other services, warn them about dangers … we could also bring them news from their home countries and talk about important policy and legal issues that affect them.”

What will he call his mini radio station? “Yalla Yalla! It means in Arabic ‘Come On!’ or ‘Let’s Go!’” His enthusiasm is infectious. We start talking about the possibilities the Web Radio will create – and we talk about Internews’ experience running the web-based platform “News That Moves,” that offered information and answered questions for refugees in Greece. Andrea tells me he also used to work in Greece.  “We checked News That Moves” every day so we could share that information with refugees,” he says. With translation help, Yalla Yalla radio could spread reliable information across multiple language groups. Like Internews, Andrea knows how important it is not just to give information to refugees and migrants – but to give them a chance to talk and ask questions “We want to involve the people themselves in the radio – to give them a voice – let them be heard.”

With Internews’ support, Radio Yalla Yalla will be launched in the next few weeks. With your support, Andrea and We World can hire the extra hands and translators they will need to staff the mini radio outposts, research the information needed to answer questions about logistics, legal matters, finding family, safety and news from home. It’s a crucial step in providing answers – and hope – for those who find themselves stranded here with little of either.

Donate to help get information to migrants and refugees in Italy.

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Author Alison Campbell is Internews Vice President for Global Initiatives.

(Banner image: Migrant tents in Genoa beach, Italy. By Andrea Izzotti)