Where Rumors Can Kill

(Internews President & CEO Jeanne Bourgault discusses access to information for refugees in this article from Foreign Policy Magazine.)

Frustrations have been boiling over into violence on the Greek border with Macedonia. Along the razor wire fence, refugees in the Greek town of Idomeni have been stranded with no information about when — or if — the border would ever open. In April, some made a desperate dash for the other side. They were met with Macedonian stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. Three hundred were injured, including women and children. Earlier this month, refugees pushed an abandoned train car toward the border, only to be confronted this time by Greek police firing stun grenades and tear gas.

These were only some of the indignations inflicted on some of the 54,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries, who are now trapped in a bureaucratic purgatory in Greece. Many survived bombs, gunfire and mass killings at home. Desperate to flee the violence, they risked their lives in perilous sea crossings arranged by smugglers. Greece, which is mired in economic crisis, is not their goal — they want only to be allowed to continue on to further European destinations. But on March 20, the door to the rest of Europe slammed shut as part of an EU agreement with Turkey.

Now the refugees must wait for asylum law experts from other European countries to rule on who can stay in Greece or who might be granted asylum elsewhere — but when that will happen is anybody’s guess. In the interim, just last week, the refugees from Idomeni have been moved to other camps near Thessaloniki, about an hour away. Non-Greek media were not given access to report on the camp clearing and, once again, the refugees had no idea what was happening, or why.

When most people think of a humanitarian crisis, they imagine a population that has nowhere to live and nothing to eat. But in Greece, food and shelter, while basic, are available.

The two things that are in short supply are patience and information.

The situation exposes one of the greatest challenges of humanitarian crises today — ensuring access to relevant, accurate information that might help calm tense situations. Our organization, Internews, has been working together with myriad other groups around the world to try to fill this critical and under-appreciated gap. With all that refugees have had to navigate — smugglers, dangerous sea crossings, foreign cultures, domestic laws, international agreements — information they can trust is as vital as food, medicine and shelter.

Over the past decade, the notion of “information as a form of aid in its own right” has gained traction. The humanitarian community has come to understand the importance of listening to, talking to, and exchanging information with the people they serve. In addition to radio broadcasts, bullhorns and billboards, a mix of new information technologies from texting to apps are increasingly deployed in crisis scenarios, enabling the affected people not only to receive information, but to engage in dialogue with humanitarian responders.

These strategies are relatively easy to design and implement in “typical” crisis situations, where the affected populations share a common language and culture with each other and with the surrounding community. In such cases, local media can be mobilized to serve their information needs through radio, print, and television. Temporary radio stations can be set up in camps for the displaced, and radio receivers distributed to the population. Simple megaphones in public gathering places, clinics, and food distribution sites can help.

The case of the current refugee crisis in Europe, however, is much more challenging. This population speaks multiple languages and varies wildly in its demographic make-up, literacy rate, and access to smartphones and the Internet.

In the beginning of the mass migration last year, improving refugees’ access to information was relatively simple.

Refugees arriving on Lesbos knew literally nothing about what to do or where to go. Some had been told by smugglers that they could take a taxi to the Macedonian border — an impossibility, since Lesbos is an island. A low-tech but highly effective solution was for Internews to place banners in multiple languages on beaches and roads with vital information about what to do next: walk, wait for a bus, find a camp, go through a registration procedure, buy a ferry ticket to the mainland. It’s easy to imagine the comfort a simple “You are here” message can give when you truly don’t know where you are.

Later, we broadcast audio bulletins of this information on buses that took refugees from the beaches to camps and registration points. This solution worked well when the population passed through a single access point and shared a common and then-attainable goal: forward motion. Internews could tell them where they were and help them continue on to their next destination.

Then things started to get more complicated.

We saw that the primary source of information among the refugee population was word of mouth, amplified by ever-present smartphones. But much of the information was out of date. Worse, rumor and misinformation was rampant, some of it dangerous and much of it originating with smugglers in Turkey.

Some refugees punctured their inflatable boats when they got close to shore, believing that anyone in a seaworthy craft would be turned back. Others swore that carrying a Koran could get you arrested, or that relocation programs were all a lie, or, conversely, that European countries would pay for absolutely everything in their new lives.

Identifying and debunking those myths has proven to be as important as any other aspect of information delivery. Word spreads quickly in a refugee environment, allowing rumors to quickly go from a whisper to a roar. And when decision-making is based on rumors (“Should I get on this rubber dinghy? Should I destroy my passport?”) the consequence can range from creating unnecessary hardship to death.

To at least begin to address the problem, Internews created “News That Moves,” a website that gives up-to-date information in multiple languages on safety and travel information, available humanitarian assistance, policy changes, border status advisories, and even weather and sea-crossing conditions. In recent weeks, the website has reported on people in one camp who posed as refugees to profit from sales of goods. It has given notice of plans to open new refugee camps. And it has helped aid workers calm near-panic situations caused by Greek ferry strikes. Smartphone apps help deliver information from the site to as many people as possible.

But in the world of ubiquitous social media, where sharing or retweeting something takes half a second, sometimes the problem isn’t too little information, but too much. In the best of scenarios, a rumor can fuel unfortunate decisions. In the worst, it has the power to kill. That’s why establishing systems to find, debunk and dispel rumors quickly is so imperative. This is no small task when so many hold the equivalent of a broadcasting station in their hands, in the form of a smartphone that can disseminate gigabytes of unverified information in seconds.

That’s why Internews has deployed a “Rumor Tracker” based on methodology developed after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. A joint project with Translators Without Borders and Action Aid, the Rumor Tracker is a weekly bulletin of the latest misinformation heard by our staff and other aid workers. When we hear a rumor, we either confirm it or debunk it. Written in Arabic, Farsi, Greek and English, it’s like Snopes.com for one of the biggest mass migrations in history.

Through it all, two-way communication is critical to ensuring that refugees get the information they need. Internews does not just tell them what we think they need to know. We start by talking, interviewing and conversing — listening to what they are talking about in order to understand how to help them best. One way, one-size-fits-all messaging — described in a recent report as “outmoded” — doesn’t meet the needs of mobile, connected populations.

And what about the thousands who made it into Europe before the doors closed on March 20? Their information needs, too, will be enormous for years to come. From Madrid to Munich to Prague to Paris, questions abound: Where can I get a job? How do I enroll my children in school? Who can help me learn the language?

Answering those questions will require a combination of everything we’ve learned so far: that media should be in local languages; that appropriate, contextually-sensitive technology can help; that sometimes an old-fashioned flyer posted on a wall speaks the loudest; and that recognizing and debunking rumors is more important than ever in today’s connected world.

Beyond the 54,000 people in bureaucratic limbo in Greece today, there are more than 60 million refugees across the world today. While some are on the move, many more are living their lives in camps in a purgatory-like state.

Mass migration is one of the defining humanitarian issues of our time. These millions of voices are all asking the same question: “What now?” Our answer is to begin to return dignity to the affected population through information — free of rumor, lies or agenda — so people can find their own way forward. There will be more, not fewer, refugees in the decades to come. To meet their daunting needs, the global community needs to understand that information is a critical part of the equation.