In the digital age, access to information and self-representation are human rights. Refugees and migrants on the move face a distinct and dangerous lack of reliable information from the governments of their host countries, as well as by local news media. On top of this, their voices are often lost in prevailing, reductive media narratives about refugees, which often present them as a homogenous group, rather than as individuals.
A 2016 report “Mapping Refugee Media Journeys, Smartphones and Social Media Networks,” published by The Open University/France Medias Monde, delves into the source of the first problem, namely, “ the lack of a pan-European approach to the provision of reliable, relevant and timely information” to refugees.
According to the report, refugees believe that news organizations have a large role to play in their protection, and could do a great deal more in this regard. Refugees, however, often feel they cannot trust these sources, which they only rely on for breaking news. When it comes to information about topics like housing, food and clothing, access to public services, and legal assistance, they find local media wanting. Instead, they often have to turn to activist groups, volunteers, family, friends and other refugees they can trust.
Grassroots initiatives such as Are You Syrious? (AYS) and the Refugee Radio Network, are actively working to plug these information gaps. In providing crucial information to people on the move (such as updates on accommodations, detention and asylum applications), they are giving refugees a chance to realize the universal right to information.
The volunteer-run NGO Are You Syrious? started in 2015 in Zagreb, Croatia, as refugees and migrants were traveling through the Balkans on their way to countries such as France and Germany. According to the BBC, over a million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by land and sea that year.
In Zagreb, volunteers helped with the refugees with their immediate needs, providing food, shoes and other necessities. Some of these individuals banded together to start Are You Syrious. Today, the group consists of over 200 volunteers spread out across different countries in Europe, and now Australia.
Since its inception, the NGO has been gathering and sharing important updates on the situation for migrants and refugees in Europe, which they share in a Daily Digest. The digest provides updates on important shifts in national and European migration policies. A recent daily digest shared information about delays at the Athens’ Immigration Unit. The group has been particularly vocal in sharing updates on the squalid, inhumane conditions that refugees all too often face throughout their journey.
“The digest started at the very beginning, and it is one of the most important parts [of the NGO],” Nidzara Ahmetasevic, a volunteer and editor at the NGO, told Muftah.
Since its inception, AYS’s information gathering network has expanded. “We have a huge network of people sending us information from everywhere,” Ahmetasevic says. Contacts from all over Europe and Australia send information to Are You Syrious. The group also has connections with other grassroots groups in the Balkans.
To combat potential misinformation, AYS uses a verification system. A team of volunteers works on gathering and fact checking information the group receives either from other volunteers or independent sources. Using Whats App chat rooms, these volunteers verify every piece of information they receive. For each new piece of information, the group requires two to three confirmation sources.
Despite significant risks to their own safety, refugees and people on the move are also active contributors to the daily digest, Ahmetasevic told Muftah. “We know cases of refugees who send us photos and videos from camps inside Greece, and before we publish them we have to hide their identity,” she says. She described an instance in which police raided a Greek camp looking for a phone that had been used to disseminate materials to AYS.
Refugees across Europe are also spearheading their own initiatives to change the regressive media narrative that exists about them. Nigerian-born Larry Macaulay founded the Refugee Radio Network in 2014, after an arduous journey from Nigeria to Liberia to Italy and finally to Germany. In just three years, his enterprise has expanded beyond the original two-hour show into a force for refugee representation and political change. According to an interview with Huck magazine, Macaulay now travels all over Europe to encourage refugees to join the network.
Elsewhere in Germany, the refugee-run radio show “Our Voice” aims to “collect personal stories from refugees” to show that “we are more than ‘just’ refugees.” Five journalists from Syria, Turkey, Togo, Gambia, and Cameroon spearheaded the show, broadcasting it in German, English, French, Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish to ensure it reaches various audiences.
Topics are diverse. The group recently interviewed a Gambian migrant who voluntarily returned from Germany to his homeland. The show also delves into subjects such as a film and voting rights in Germany. The show’s creators and participants often call on refugees to join them, offering radio workshops.
Other refugee-run initiatives aimed at providing a more positive narrative include French-based Voix des Migrants, production company Picture Me Different, educational initiative Silent University, and Flüchtlinge für Flüchtlinge/Refugees 4 Refugees.
Some of these organizations recently came together at the Conference on Media and Migration in Hamburg (CMM), organized by Larry Macaulay. It was the first event of its kind, gathering 250 participants (media practitioners, policy makers, activists and newcomers) to discuss refugee social empowerment and participation in media initiatives.
“We never wait for opportunities to arise.” Macauley told conference participants, according to an article by refugee journalist Nyima Jadam. “We go for them instead because we believe that no one can tell our stories better than us.”