Blog: Communicating with Persons of Concern in the Syrian Refugee Response

Source: Tue, 1 Apr 2014 11:17 AM
Photo credit: UNHCR
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On March 27th 2014, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convened a regional workshop titled Communicating with Persons of Concern in the Syrian Refugee Response in Amman, Jordan. It was attended by around 80 representatives of UN agencies, international NGOs and media development agencies working in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Turkey, the other main refugee-hosting country, was not represented. Robert Powell, a Humanitarian Communications Specialist with BBC Media Action, went along to represent the CDAC Network at the meeting. Here are his impressions.  

It was obvious from the opening presentations by UNHCR representatives from Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt that multiple initiatives are already underway to establish channels of communication with the 2.6 million people who have flooded out of Syria over the past three years. Several projects have also been set up to provide information to the steady stream of new refugees who continue to arrive – about 1,000 per day in Jordan alone. However, participants at the workshop were honest in admitting that most of these initiatives are uncoordinated and many of them overlap. In many cases, communication initiatives have been implemented without much prior audience research to ascertain whether the communication channels used actually reach their target audience effectively, and whether the formats adopted provide people with information in a user friendly way. Participants noted that more than 100 different telephone helplines had been set up for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but many of them offered very similar services. Refugees visiting registration centres have meanwhile been deluged with a confusing blizzard of leaflets. In many cases the adults failed to read them. They just gave the colourful leaflets to their children to play with. The sheer quantity and variety of guidance material available was confusing and overwhelming.

Communications initiatives by aid responders play a particularly important role in aid agencies' attempts to help refugees from the Syrian conflict. Most of the people who have fled Syria over the past three years live outside formal refugee camps. This means that it is often difficult for the aid agencies to locate and keep track of individual families. All the 900,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in makeshift shelters or rented accommodation scattered around the country. And 80% of the 600,000 refugees in Jordan live in rented accommodation in towns and villages. Aid agencies often do not know where individual refugees are staying and are therefore unable to provide them with services. And since the refugees frequently change their mobile telephone SIM cards, it is difficult to keep track of them by phone.  Peter-Bastian Halberg, the UNHCR Senior Mass Communication Expert in Jordan, noted that UNHCR only had 800 valid phone numbers in its database for the 100,000 residents of Za’atari refugee camp, the largest concentration of Syrian refugees in the country. This state of affairs forces aid agencies to rely on the refugees contacting them before they can furnish these people with advice and material assistance.

The day after the workshop I accompanied some colleagues from UNHCR on a series of home visits to refugee families living in rented flats in Amman. My meetings with these families reinforced the impression that the refugees themselves don’t know where to go to get much of the help that is available. The three woman-led households I met only knew the helpline number for UNHCR and complained that it was often engaged. They relied primarily on telephone conversations and occasional meetings with a close-knit circle of family, friends and neighbours to find out what help was available and where to get it. As a result, these households frequently received unreliable and misleading information. They also appeared to be missing out on legitimate benefits they were entitled to claim, simply because they did not know about them. For instance, Zarida, who fled to Jordan with her four young children after her husband died in police custody, did not know that she could claim a special widow’s allowance from UNHCR. And Sakina, who came to Jordan with her two sons so that the eldest could avoid conscription into the army, did not know that CARE could provide her with emergency food assistance when UNHCR stopped giving her monthly food vouchers because she had failed to renew her asylum seeker status in time.

It was heartening to see that several initiatives were underway to try to improve the efficiency of the communications initiatives that have already been established. For instance, UNHCR is planning major surveys in Jordan and Lebanon to learn more about the refugees’ information needs and detect gaps in the current provision. And in Jordan, UNHCR has begun issuing refugees with local SIM cards that do not expire if they are not used for a period of time. This should make it easier to keep track of individuals by phone. The new SIM cards also allow their owners to call the UNHCR telephone helpline toll-free – a further incentive for the refugees to retain the SIM cards and use them. These and other initiatives, such as the development of a web portal for Syrian refugees in Egypt, are very encouraging.

The Amman workshop featured presentations by two imaginative and ground-breaking communication projects that are exploring new ways to reach refugees and cater for their communication needs. CDAC Network Member BBC Media Action showed clips from a 50-minute-long video for newly-arrived refugees that it produced at the end of 2013. This entertaining combination of sketches and mini-features illustrates some of the challenges of being a refugee – such as boredom and frustration – and showcases positive strategies for coping with them.  It is played on a loop on screens at seven refugee registration centres in Jordan and Lebanon. Together these registration centres process 175,000 people per month. There are plans to project the film more widely in community centres and other places where refugees gather. Aptart, an NGO which undertakes art therapy with traumatised communities, showed photos of the stunning street art which it has helped children in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp to create. This was one of the few initiatives discussed that actively encouraged refugees to express themselves in a way that others could clearly see.

One issue that received a lot of attention at the Amman workshop was the urgent need to improve interagency coordination. The idea of establishing country-level Communicating with Communities working groups in Jordan and Lebanon was discussed. But delegates were wary of creating another talking shop which would create yet another set of monthly meetings to attend. I circulated information about three communications working groups that have already been established in Haiti (CDAC Haiti; 2010-2011), Bangladesh (co-led by BBC Media Action and UNICEF) and the Philippines (co-led by OCHA with the Philippines government, and supported in the immediate Typhoon Haiyan response phase by the CDAC Network’s Secretariat) to several interested individuals from UNHCR and OCHA to help them take the discussion further.

The biggest revelation to emerge from my visit to Jordan was the degree to which the refugees look to cash and other benefits doled out by individuals and associations that fall outside the umbrella of the UN and international NGO coordination mechanisms. These informal aid providers are much more flexible in their criteria for giving assistance than the official aid agencies. As a result they help to fill many of the gaps arising from shortfalls in the distribution of ‘official’ aid – which still accounts for the lion’s share of the international assistance provided. Most of the unofficial aid money comes from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Some of it appears to be charity, distributed spontaneously by wealthy individuals. Some of it comes via ‘associations’ with Islamic religious connections. Often, these donors make a single round of cash distributions in a particular neighbourhood and then disappear. Zarida, the widowed mother of four children, said one such association had given her a one-off cash payment of 120 Jordanian dinars (US$170) to help cover the rent of her flat in East Amman. It also provided her with monthly food parcels.

UNHCR officials said very little is known about the aid that reaches refugees through these informal channels. Yet ironically, the refugees themselves often seem to know more about the potential assistance offered by these ‘associations’ and individual donors through their own interpersonal networks, than the aid offered on a more systematic and formal basis by the world’s leading aid agencies. Perhaps the reason for this is that the informal aid is offered by people and organisations that share the same Arabic and Islamic culture as the refugees themselves. They find it easier to reach into the refugees’ communication networks through traditional channels. The local offices of the UN agencies and international NGOs supporting refugees, on the other hand, are mostly led by people from other parts of the world who are not Muslim and do not speak Arabic. This became clear in discussions at the workshop over what the working language of a possible Communications with Communities working group should be. The participants said it would have to be English rather than Arabic in order for senior staff to be able to participate in the proceedings.

Perhaps the starting point for better two-way communication with the Syrian refugees should be to try to understand better how these people see the environment they live in and connect with it. The Yoruba people of Nigeria have a saying: ‘If you want to catch a monkey, you have to think like a monkey’. Aid responders in the Syrian crisis should maybe learn how to look at the situation more from the perspective of the refugees themselves in order to connect with these people more effectively. 

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