News - 12. November 2015

Breakfast Briefing II: Digital Communication and Risk in the 'Refugee Crisis'

Citizens' initiatives and the communication strategies of public authorities


On 11 November, PRIO organised a second breakfast briefing in the context of the RCN funded project DIGICOM.


Smart phones, GPS location services, interactive maps, online portals: these are some of the tools that have been put at disposal, designed and used by migrants and refugees along their ways to Europe, to stay in touch with their families at home or at their destination, and to plan the safest route. Indeed, among the main responses to what is generally called the largest 'refugee crisis' since the Second World War, a wealth of citizen initiatives have provided some forms of 'digital support' to respond to the needs of the refugees, during their journey as well as upon their arrival in different European countries. From the Refugees Welcome-initiatives, with national and local chapters in several European countries, organizing volunteers through Facebook and other social media to provide food, clothes as well as housing to the refugees, to other uses of digital platforms to collect information and channel this to the refugees, from which border crossing points to avoid to where to find assistance and help.


To better understand these responses and to draw conclusions for policy making on risk and crisis communication, this seminar addressed the following questions:

  • What were the risks perceived that made citizens in different European countries come together and start initiatives such as the Refugees Welcome?
  • How have public authorities used digital and social media platforms to respond to the situation?
  • What was the role that digital communication means played in making these responses possible?
  • What opportunities do these tools offer, and what are the new risks and challenges that arise with them?


Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert introduced the briefing, by highlighting how social media and other online platforms change our perceptions of what is far away, and what is near. She also reminded that while many digital tools now allow for refugees and migrants to better organize themselves, and responses to be organised, digital technologies can also be used to control human mobility. 


Mareile Kaufmann then interviewed Knud Andreas Kleppe. Kleppe is volunteer and member of the interim board of the Refugees Welcome to Norway initiative. He was involved in the very beginning of this initiative in Oslo, when social media, and especially Facebook, was used to coordinate support to refugees arriving in Norway. This initiative grew fastly and he explained how it learnt to organise itself as the interest and needs grew. He also showed how the different modalities of social media allowed for creating a network with other local initiatives around the country. 

Christopher Wilson, co-founder of The Engine Room and independent researcher, elaborated on technology-driven civil society responses to the refugee crisis. He showed the opportunities created by such online initiatives, as well as the associated risks, notably when things happen fast to respond to an unfolding situation. He concluded with some reflections on how these digital means affect our sense of empathy.