Publication Date
April 1, 2017

"During the large influx of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants to Europe in 2015, it became apparent that most people started their journey without a clear understanding of what lay ahead of them....It was a mixed migration movement that included many people who were not entitled to protection, but were lured into leaving by the false promises of smugglers and, potentially, traffickers."

From the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this report provides a summary of refugee and migration-related exchanges among Arabic speakers and Afghans on social media from March to December 2016, in an attempt to provide a systematic analysis of the discourse among refugees. UNHCR shows how to conduct meaningful, qualitative social media monitoring (SMM) in a humanitarian crisis. The project was started "in preparation for an information campaign that would reach out to the target audiences, counter the narrative of smugglers, explain the difficulties of the journey and the basics of the European asylum system, and empower potential refugees and migrants to make informed decisions."

UNHCR notes that the insufficient funding of humanitarian operations in countries of first asylum and the fragmented approach of many donors on the mixed migration routes destabilises refugee populations and sets in motion secondary movements. In addition, the absence of credible legal pathways to Europe increases the volume of irregular movements and the dependency on international smuggling networks. A lack of awareness about the eligibility criteria for asylum also plays into the hands of these smuggling networks and human traffickers. Insufficient information concerning the rights and obligations of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe can also lead to rumours and half-truths, making integration difficult. Communications from the diaspora can play either a useful or a detrimental role in this context. This report offers a chance to hear what refugees themselves have to say about the situation, how they personally cope with their predicament, and what they hope for their future.

Between March and December 2016, the project team (one project manager, one Pashto and Dari speaker, two native Arabic speakers, and an English copy editor) from UNHCR's Communicating with Communities Unit monitored Facebook conversations related to flight and migration in the Afghan and Arabic speaking communities. To do this, the team created Facebook accounts, joined relevant Facebook groups, and summarised their findings in weekly monitoring reports to UNHCR staff and other interested people. ("The sharing on a weekly basis of the information collected with a wide network of Government actors and European institutions led to a better understanding of the flows. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that it also led to enhanced preparedness or contingency planning in Europe.") The project did not monitor Twitter because Twitter was not widely used by the communities. To complement the social media information, the team held focus group and other discussions with refugees who had arrived in Europe. Among other things, these discussions provided information on how the refugees and migrants are consuming and exchanging information. Monitoring the conversations on Facebook enabled the team to track trends, such as the rise and fall of prices that smugglers asked for different routes. In addition, it provided insights into how smugglers are selling their services online.

Among other things, the team found:

  • Pre-departure, among Afghans, the only sources of information are the local smuggling agents. Syrians/Iraqis also have only a vague understanding of asylum and life in Europe. Their main source of information are their fellow Syrians and Iraqis who already made the journey. Media are not seen as trusted sources of information per se. Syrians and Iraqis distrust smugglers and only use them where they have no legal option to move.
  • More than 50 Facebook pages offer short-term accommodation in transit countries (mainly in Turkey).
  • Over 100 financial agents (sarafs) are present on Facebook. They not only keep the deposited smuggling fees as intermediaries between smuggler and client but also manage financial transfers.
  • Over 100 "asylum and immigration consultants" offer so-called "advice on asylum claims" and provide fake "proofs" of persecution.
  • Occasionally, up to 20 users will pretend to be "satisfied clients" posting messages of gratitude, or pictures to express their thanks, on certain smuggler pages. This usually occurs as a reaction to posts denouncing the irresponsibility or cruelty of smugglers.
  • When business is booming, smugglers post vacancy notices as they are looking for additional staff on the ground, most often females. These vacancy notices contain very concrete requirements (language skills, experience with logistics and booking software, etc.).
  • Most Afghans completely entrust themselves to their local smuggling guides and follow their instructions. They speak their language and are considered more trustworthy than non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local authorities, or UNHCR. They rarely possess mobile phones, much less smartphones.
  • Travellers from Iraq and Syria use maps, mobile phones, and information obtained on Facebook to decide on the best routes and methods of onward movement. The decision of where to go is sometimes guided by coincidences and sometimes by the fact that they have ties in a certain country.
  • Whereas Afghans rarely share personal problems, Arabic speakers widely discuss personal integration problems, notably learning the new language and understanding the new culture. They debate Western influence on their women and youth, as well as politics, rising xenophobia in Europe, and attacks on refugees and accommodations centres. They worry how acts of terror committed by Muslims will diminish their chances of getting asylum. Jokes and black humour serve for venting stress and bewilderment about cultural differences.

The SMM described here was originally intended as a temporary activity. However, it was decided to gradually transfer the entire service to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Malta in 2017. There, SMM will be a permanent activity furnished with sufficient resources to develop it into a standard EASO service.


Slimline C4D Network Twitter Trawl: 8 - 14 May 2017; and "Fly on the Facebook Wall: How UNHCR Listened to Refugees on Social Media", by Timo Luege, Social Media for Good, May 10 2017 - accessed on May 16 2017. Image credit: © UNHCR / Andrew McConnell / 2016