Mapping Refugee Media Journeys


Mapping Refugee Media Journeys

View Original
For Refugees smartphones are an essential tool and a risk. CCIG researchers are leading the way in research on the digital infrastructure that shapes the passage to Europe for refugees. May 2016 - September 2018
The "Mapping Refugee Media Journeys" project investigates the parallel tracks of the physical and digital journeys of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. It documents the media and informational resources that refugees use from the point of departure, during their journeys across different borders and states, and upon arrival (if they reach their desired destination). By identifying the news and information resources used by refugees, and where they experience gaps or misinformation, we intend to make recommendations to European Commission, to European Member states and their state funded international news organisations about what resources might they might provide not only to help refugees make better-informed decisions but to offer protection as required to fulfil their obligations under the UN Refugee Convention 1951. As signatories to the Convention they are obliged to provide information about national legislation relating to refugees and to cooperate with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in its timely and ordered dissemination.
Please get in touch if you wish to share information or comment on the report. The report is avaliable here. The research is featured in the short video"The map Syrian refugees use to get to Europe” with a commentary by Marie as part of  the BBC's World On The Move Day.

This research is led by Marie Gillespie, Professor of Sociology, The Open University | Contact:

The research project

98% of the population in the Middle East and North Africa use a mobile phone, 84% use a smartphone, 81% use internet connections, 51% use a ‘high-end’ device (i.e. over $500).

Facebook is the most popular app, then Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus.  Motives to use smartphones are having fun, staying in touch with friends and family, staying in touch with events, etc.

Samsung has nearly half the market, followed by Nokia and only then Apple. Average daily time on social media: at least one hour [1] .

"Mapping Refugee Media Journeys" is a collaborative project between researchers at The Open University and France Medias Monde. Our preliminary research on resources provided by UK agencies suggests that most investment in (print and video) media resources is channelled into refugee camps close to conflict zones in Syria and neighbouring countries. This is in line with Britain’s policy on providing support in the region. Women, children and older people often get stuck in camps while young men move. Among the most urgent issues to address are the markedly different gendered and generational experiences of refugees in the camps and in the hands of traffickers. UNHCR reports that over one third of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children are lost without trace, many are trafficked. The situation is changing rapidly. Now some 60% of arrivals in Europe are women and children. The second phase of the report will focus on these more recent arrival and the family reunification process.

Social media networks provide a lifeline for refugees on their journeys to Europe. Some arrive with only a smartphone anxious to find a place to recharge it. Facebook is used to crowd source information— refugees share, maps, contacts and advice in both public and private groups. On Twitter they exchange news from trusted sources – mainly friends and family who send links to outputs of some of the large international news agencies BBC and F24 and DW. But trust in media and information is in short supply among refugees. They also fear surveillance of their social media activities on Facebook and Twitter not just by the Syrian and Iraqi states but by Islamic State. WhatsApp is used because it affords greater privacy and they use it to recruit fellow travellers, contact smugglers, report on their journeys and highlight opportunities and dangers. It is vital to get a better grasp of how social media both empower and endanger refugees – making them vulnerable to surveillance. We need to identify how best and at which points and places in their lives and journeys news organisations like France Medias Monde, Deutsche Welle and BBC can offer relevant information and news resources to the most vulnerable refugees. Many suffer serious health issues and injuries and require information about where they can receive legal or medical assistance. Others need to know which cities may provide most security, food and shelter, job opportunities, appropriate language teaching. The task is immense. But we know very little about the media journeys of refugees and what their precise informational needs are, from the point of losing their home to the point of claiming asylum in a safe state, and beyond. Our research set out to answer the following questions.

​Research Questions

  • What media, news and information resources are being provided for refugees in general / civil society initiative by international news organisations, NGOs and other relevant actors?
  • What information and news media are being created and exchanged by refugees about and on their journey?
  • Which media and informational sources and social media do refugees trust?
  • How do refugee communication networks operate? (e.g. What evidence is there to suggest that friends on social media are the main source of news and information – as the big news media organisations are not trusted?)
  • How do English and Arabic news media resources compare? To what extent are multi-lingual patterns of use evident? How might multilingual media work better together?

​Research Context

The research builds on prior research on media for, by and about refugees, knowledge of diaspora media and communication networks, and research on crisis communication and conflict resolution. However most this research fails to take into the account the intersections between big media (international news broadcasters like France Medias Monde, BBC World Service and BBC Media Action and Deutsche Welle) and social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram, YouTube among other apps). Nor does it take into account the remarkable role of the smartphone in journey planning, communicating with family in the home country, fellow refugees on similar and different pathways, and connections with the diaspora.

This project takes into account the wider digital infrastructure and media ecology in which refugee journeys are made order to better understand emergent relationships between big and social media in refugee communication and information networks. It also seeks to take a critical approach to the techno-optimism which is rampant in this field. Technology alone can never be a solution to a human crisis of this nature.


The research sought to

  • Undertake a review of media coverage of the refugee communication and digital environments to contextualise our mapping of refugee media journeys.
  • Carry out interviews with refugees and NGOs on resources used and mobilised and gaps in information provision.
  • Conduct social network analysis of Facebook and Twitter uses among refugees.
  • Present recommendations to the European Commission and Member states, their state funded international media organisations tasked with offering services to overseas publics, and NGOs and policymakers as to models of good practice and how best to help the most vulnerable refugees.

​Digital Routes

  • When and where is most info provided – in the Middle East before they leave, or in camps, or on arrival in Europe?
  • Follow the geographical and media journey in parallel, dominant routes, points of pressure/health and security dangers. Where is there greatest lack of information?
  • Interview data has potential to elicit stories.
  • How can research feed into citizen journalism and production (e.g. F24’s Les Observateurs)?


Information covered:

  • Situation in Syria – go on or go back home?
  • Information on camps – safety, movement, legal advice, citizenship, access to social and health services; information and links to back home.
  • Situation in Lebanon and Jordan – will they face discrimination?
  • Health, food, living conditions: key issues to be solved.
  • Who can offer help: e.g. UNHCR, Amnesty International, Red Cross?
  • The fate of their fellow refugees on different parts of the journey – communication from those who have arrived? But what of those who die on the way?

​Methodology: mixed and mobile methods

Each chapter gives full details of its methodology. We used mixed and mobile methods to triangulate different perspectives and forms of evidence. Our methods included:

  • Interviews with over 50 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Paris, Cherbourg, London and Swansea about uses of smartphones and social media along their journeys
  • Interviews with staff at the European Commission, with international broadcasters and with NGOs.
  • A content and discourse analysis of 342 English Language news items to assess  the shifting nature of public and media discourse on refugees
  • An analysis of refugee social networks (Facebook and Twitter especially) by computer scientists
  • A survey of existing resources available and a critical analysis of a best practice in providing digital resources for refugees on their smartphones.

Research with and for International broadcasters

Public Service International broadcasters are aware of their responsibilities to their audiences wherever they may be and feel it is important not to abandon them in time of need. But they are equally aware that they must remain impartial, balanced and objective and cannot be seen to be facilitating irregular migration. So the following questions were in the forefront in this partnership with France Medias Monde:

  • What are we already doing and what more can we do (France Medias Monde, Deutsche Welle, BBC World Service, BBC Media Action)?
  • What’s missing, based on research on what people use and what they need?
  • How can digital and non-digital best work together? (E.g. will an app work or are text alerts better?)
  • Is the aim to provide news and political info about security or focus on how to live, which places to avoid, conditions in some European camps, health, etc?

The research aimed to feed into discussion and plans at France Medias Monde, Deutsche Welle and BBC World Service and BBC Media Action to provide appropriate resources for refugees at key points their journey – from departure to arrival in Europe.  The resource could:

  • aggregate best big/international news media information about the situation on refugees for/with refugees in different countries;
  • provide social media platforms and one stop shop to access information about support and other resources.

The main aim would be to provide independent (as far as is possible) information about the legal, social and political contexts in which refugees find themselves, where they can find relevant support.

We also aimed to assess the implications of our research for the role of the European Commission and Member States and their responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention.


The report summarises the first of three planned phases of research. We hope that our collective efforts will enable us to work effectively with relevant organizations and initiatives. We aim to contribute knowledge and know to creating a more strategic approach to the provision of valuable resources for refugees and a more coordinated Digital Management of Migration policy among EU Member States. The first phase feeds into plans to develop digital resources for refugees in Europe, and makes recommendations policy-makers to support such plans. The second and third phases will involve developing new partnerships, designing the resources and monitoring and evaluating progress.

Please get in touch if you wish to share information or comment on the report.

This research is led by Marie Gillespie, Professor of Sociology, The Open University | Contact:


[1] Source: Athanas Jamo (IPSOS Connect, UAE), conference presentation on Middle East and North Africa (MENA)  Digital Trends’, at the Conference of International Broadcasters’ Audience Research Services (Zeuthen, Germany, 8-11 May 2016) –

Image shows a map sent via Whatsapp by refugee interviewed in Paris

Learn more about the research programme: Digital Citizens


Cite the report as: Gillespie, M. Ampofo, L. Cheeseman, M. Faith, B. Iliadou, E. Issa, A. Osseiran, S. and D. Skleparis, 2016, “Mapping  Refugee Media Journeys, Smartphones and Social Media Networks”. Project Report. The Open University / France Médias Monde.