For refugees, access to information is a matter of life and death. Here’s what one organization is doing to help.
By Jeanne Bourgault May 31, 2016 Via FOREIGN POLICY
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 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.