The European Refugee crisis: 10 Communications with Communities challenges

Syrian refugees who just landed on the Northern shores of Lesbos Island from Turkey try get mobile phone receptions so that they can check their location and notify relatives that they arrived safely. ©UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

The challenge is obscured by ‘complexity’

“It’s like no other emergency” or “there are huge challenges, like nowhere I’ve ever worked” are common phrases I’ve found myself saying post deployment to almost every humanitarian operation I’ve worked in. I’m definitely not alone – humanitarian workers are often prone to describing their latest field experience as ‘particularly difficult’, ‘unique’ or ( even more vaguely) as ‘complex’.

Sticking with a ‘it’s like no other context’ mantra makes extremely limited headway in terms of defining the challenges and even less progress towards finding solutions. From conversations with people working in the Europe Refugee Crisis context, I’d been told that there were unique challenges relating to communicating with communities (CwC). If the Emergency Lab was to help identify, develop and test innovative solutions to these challenges, I needed a much better understanding of the context and to work with teams to define these challenges further.

The Emergency Lab’s first step: defining the #commisaid challenge

In December, the Emergency Lab went on a scoping mission to fYR Macedonia to do just this. With refugees, UNHCR staff, and partners we identified 10 specific CwC challenges. Caveat: stop reading now if you’re looking for solutions – we’re very much at the ‘work-in-progress stage’:

  1. Rapidly moving population: We estimated that the average refugee spent between 6-9 hours transiting through fYR Macedonia in December – with some people traveling through from the Greek islands even quicker. Communicating with a community that changes or ‘refreshes’ this quickly is not only ‘Groundhog Day’-esque for field workers, it limits the amount and type of information that can be shared. Repetitive information ‘provision’ related to available services is only one element of CwC. Quickly establishing dialogue is key – but how do we listen, and to whom, if we only have 30 minutes?
  1. Where and how to ‘close the loop’: Commitment 5 of the Core Humanitarian Standard states that people affected by crisis should have access to safe, responsive complaints mechanisms. But what does this look like for a highly mobile population? Do people have time to complain if they’re hurrying for a bus, ferry or train? If so, how do we respond if they’ve moved on?
  1. Diversity of language requirements: In this context, vital documentation is transliterated across four different scripts, there are multiple spoken languages and varying literacy levels within a ‘community’. At field level, translators are in short supply – with humanitarian agencies struggling to find Macedonian and Pashto speakers or Serbian and Kurdish speakers. The Emergency Lab has started working with Translators without Borders on key translation and plans to prioritise this challenge in 2016.
  1. Leveraging channels: There have been many reports highlighting the significance of the mobile phone in this context – with much progress having been made in terms of ensuring wifi connectivity, mobile phone charging and access to SIM cards. Refugees frequently state that Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber are their preferred channels for communication – but is this with humanitarians? If these channels are predominantly being used by refugees to communicate with friends and families how can/should we leverage them to facilitate better dialogue between refugees and aid agencies? Are humanitarians ready to embrace ‘social media’ like this? And what of the non-digital channels? While the majority of refugees own a phone, many do not – how do we engage with these people and ensure their voices are heard against the digital backdrop?
  1. Information Management sans Frontiers: The Europe Refugee crisis is a multi-country, multi-region response. Sharing information on this scale takes considerable resources and time. If field teams do not have the latest information to share with refugees they risk providing conflicting information or spending considerable effort hunting down details. Fragmented information management also impacts the likelihood that feedback from refugees will be used to inform improvements to the wider response – as information shared by refugees remains ‘local’.
  1. Coordination: CwC coordination – really? A challenge specific to the Europe Refugee Crisis? Many people highlighted the significant contribution that volunteers had made to the response. Some coordinated volunteer groups are well-organised while others are well-meaning individuals. From a CwC perspective, the importance of systematic information sharing is key; how can we best engage volunteer groups and individuals in coordination mechanisms? How can we also ensure that good practice in terms of listening, feedback and complaints management is followed?
  1. Dignity and wellbeing: The traumatic experiences and protection risks faced by thousands of refugees currently on the move requires special consideration. Whilst en-route what can be done to support refugees’ dignity and wellbeing from a CwC perspective? UNHCR has been working with Clowns without Borders to provide entertainment and act as a distraction. The Emergency Lab is currently exploring other options to provide entertainment in waiting areas – potentially through access to news broadcasts, serials, films.
  1. Seriously, what can we talk about?: In 30 minutes there will be some sensitive topics that it will not be possible to discuss and harm caused by trying to do so. These discussions will be best held when trust has been established – recognising that this takes time, this will most likely be with professionals in destination countries.
  1. Too cold to talk: The cold, harsh Baltic winter also impacts CwC activities. At transit sites refugees seek warmth, waiting inside shelters with their family groups. The cold makes standing around and ‘chatting’ unbearable. Winterization of CwC activities is critical.
  1. Harnessing ‘innovation’: The Europe Crisis has definitely struck a chord with Tech Developers and Designers. However, there has been a proliferation of new ‘Apps’ – many of which seem to duplicate existing platforms and are seldom used. This innovative, creative capacity needs to be better harnessed – ensuring that the solutions are ‘needs-based’ and reflect real field challenges. How can we best harness this capacity to improve CwC? (Focusing on 1-9 above would be a start!).

If these challenges resonate with your experience, please do share your learning.

The Emergency Lab is planning a follow-up mission to fYR Macedonia where we hope to test some of our solutions to these challenges. More details to follow…


Photo credit: ©UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

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  • Angela Rouse

    These challenges certainly resonate. Looking forward to hearing about the testing of solutions Katie!

  • Hugh

    Establish large residential camps that provide adequate temporary accommodation for the migrants/refugees. This will give you all the time you need to evaluate and assess the individuals prior to resettling elsewhere.I have briefly discussed options here:

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