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How to help migrants make the best decisions at the worst times

‘Everything, it was just a lie.’

Image of Mugur Dumitrache helping a family from Afghanistan
Mercy Corps water and sanitation expert Mugur Dumitrache helps a family from Afghanistan on the Greek island of Lesvos. (Karine Aigner/Mercy Corps)

Early last year, Venezuelans who had fled their homes for Colombia told my colleagues that they had met an unexpected reality after arriving. Relying on information from family or friends in deciding to relocate, they arrived to discover that misinformation or even plain rumour had landed them in suboptimal situations. “When I arrived in Bogotá, I crashed [with reality], because everything, it was just a lie,” explained one migrant, who said friends had told him he would easily find work. 

Without the right information, delivered at the right time and in the right way, migrants and refugees may make decisions that at best jeopardise their chances of starting off right and at worst put them and their families in danger. Providing information through flexible, evidence-based tools — such as fact-checked websites or monitored social media accounts — must be central if we in the humanitarian sector are going to help migrants and refugees make the best decisions they can at the hardest point in their lives. 

Let’s start with a well-known fact: we’re all prone to short-sighted, inconsistent, and irrational choices. Stress and deprivation can exacerbate this because we lack the mental bandwidth to carefully evaluate options when we’re overwhelmed. Lack of information or misinformation further compounds the problem. Taken as a whole, the situations refugees and migrants find themselves in when deciding to flee home, or when deciding what to do next after arriving in a new country, often lead to poor decision-making. 

More than 4,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers lost their lives last year on their way to new destinations — a decline from 2016 when that number peaked at about 8,000, the highest in recent years. While humanitarians agree that we need better ways to save and improve the lives of people on the move, we have not seen much innovation in response programmes. New approaches to how we meet the needs of an unprecedented 70.8 million displaced people must start with how we’re delivering information. 

About 62 percent of migrants we at Mercy Corps surveyed in December 2019 regarding information sources said that social media, messaging apps, or both are their primary go-tos. Given high mobile phone and internet use in places like Colombia, which hosts more than 1.6 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants, we need to prioritise digital solutions when designing programmes to share relevant, customised information to help people in transit.

Addressing these challenges requires not just providing refugees and migrants with more information, but thinking about how and when to share useful information so that people can process and act on it more effectively. By default, humanitarian organisations typically share information with refugees and migrants in person when they seek and receive assistance. However, our experience and research shows that people tend to respond better to information when it is delivered at salient points – when they are about to make a decision – and repeatedly, at multiple points, rather than just once. 

Recognising this, in 2015, at the height of refugee arrivals in Europe, Mercy Corps partnered with the International Rescue Committee to develop a mobile website designed to respond to the needs of refugees arriving in Greece. This initiative has expanded into a broader digital information sharing approach with customised digital products under an umbrella initiative called Signpost. This has since been deployed in places like Jordan, Greece, Italy, El Salvador, and soon Colombia, reaching more than 1.5 million people. It enables aid professionals to verify and share information useful in life-altering decisions, such as what migration route is safest, or what kind of documentation is needed at a border crossing. Platforms such as Facebook are leveraged to provide information in multiple languages and to respond to questions posed in real time. Users can access information from anywhere with internet access. 

“Even if a digital solution is not possible, simply recognising the challenges people face in decision-making and tailoring programmes to address those challenges can be powerful.”

Migrants who have used Signpost say that it helped them make better-informed decisions. For example, in April 2019 when a rumour circulated in Greek refugee camps that European nations were temporarily opening their borders, many refugees and migrants began organising a caravan and preparing to move. The Signpost team fact-checked this information with national authorities, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and other international organisations and sent updates clarifying the possible legal ramifications. This alerted travellers that they could be arrested or risk being denied travel documents later on if they left Greece. Over 25,000 people viewed the posts and used this information to decide their best course of action.  

Approaches like this are a necessary adaptation in today’s world. Even if a digital solution is not possible, simply recognising the challenges people face in decision-making and tailoring programmes to address those challenges can be powerful. We need more evidence-based programme design when developing solutions for people on the move, drawing on the large body of research about judgement and decision-making from disciplines such as behavioural economics, psychology, and brain science. 

Decisions that refugees and migrants make about where to travel, what routes to take, and how to make a living are some of the most consequential choices they will make. Information is power, and humanitarians need to prioritise approaches that work in today’s world so that all people fleeing crisis and conflict have the information they need to empower them to be safe, access vital services, and rebuild their lives.

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