Tuesday, October 18, 2016

How Information Travels in Temporary Refugee Camps

Megan Keeling (not taking the second module)

This proposal was inspired by an episode of This American Life documenting refugee camps in Greece. The podcast can be accessed here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/592/are-we-there-yet


Currently, over one million refugees make their home in temporary or makeshift camps in transit countries such as Greece, Jordan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.[1] Almost 80,000 people live in Za’atari camp in northern Jordan, and over 57,000 are currently staying in temporary camps throughout Greece.[2] For now, refugee populations remain isolated within the camps through linguistic, cultural, and legal barriers. While some previous studies have looked at how communication from outside sources is spread and interpreted through refugee camps, there has not yet been a large-scale social networks analysis of how information travels internally through camps.[3]

Because of the insular nature of these camps, news and rumors travel quickly. While much of the time this only fuels harmless gossip, sometimes the rumors can spark violence. Recently, a riot broke out in a Greek refugee camp over reports that Greek emergency personnel failed to provide treatment to a woman and her son who had been struck by a car. Whether or not the reports were true, they sparked a violent clash between the young men in the camp and Greek police.[4] Understanding how information flows through refugee camps can help mitigate incendiary rumors, preventing further violence, while also providing NGOs, government, and UN officials with a better understanding of how to engage in outreach and provide support within the refugee camps.


How does information travel through refugee camps? Who are the trusted sources of information within these camps? How quickly does information travel? What groups are most well-informed, and which are excluded from information?


There will be a relatively small number of “key informants” – individuals with high Eigenvector and betweenness scores on a social network analysis – who transmit most of the information in the camps. They will be centered within factions, possibly based on family or city/town of origin, but perhaps based on new connections formed after displacement. The study will also identify “bridge” individuals, distinct from key informants, who transmit information between factions.


Researchers will ask a large sample of refugees in a given refugee camp the following questions to establish network data:
  •        Who do you trust the most for accurate information?
  •         From whom do you most often hear news or gossip?
  •        Who do you speak with most frequently? (up to 5 people)
  •        How many people do you speak with regularly who live outside the camp?

Next, participants will be asked to report from whom they recently heard a piece of camp news, when they heard it, and who they told. This will be neutral or positive information rather than negative or incendiary.

Demographic data (age, gender, religion, city and country of origin) on participants will be collected as attribute data. The two questions above will provide two different perspectives on how information travels through camps that can be interpreted through social network modeling and analysis.


Social network analysis of information flows will provide camp officials with valuable data on who are central sources of information within the camp. This can be used to mitigate damaging rumors through applying appropriate interventions using key informants and bridges to limit the spread of misinformation. More importantly, key informants and bridges can be leveraged to ensure that accurate news and information, particularly concerning legal status or relevant political issues, can be communicated throughout the camp accurately and efficiently. In this regard, the study of social networks within camps is a starting point for camp managers and officials to design and implement better interventions by leveraging existing information pathways and key informants. This will help improve daily life in the camp, and mitigate negative outcomes and violence until the refugees are settled in permanent homes.

Ethical Considerations and Research Challenges

Accurate data on this topic will be extremely difficult for outside researchers to collect. Asking information about key and trusted informants will likely provoke a defensive and distrustful response from a population who may fear it will be used against them. While understanding how information flows can be immensely valuable to NGO leadership and actors interested in camp stability, it must not be turned against refugees to create an atmosphere of surveillance or to further curtail freedoms of speech or assembly.

[1] UNHCR website. “Figures at a Glance.” http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html. Accessed October 17, 2016.
[2]International Rescue Committee. Country Profile: Greece. https://www.rescue.org/country/greece. Accessed October 17, 2016.
[3] Kivikuru, Ullamaija. 2013. Upstairs downstairs: Communication contradictions around two african refugee camps. Journal of African Media Studies 5 (1): 35-51 and Bulley, Dan. 2014. Inside the tent: Community and government in refugee camps. Security Dialogue 45 (1): 63-80.
[4] Lowe, Josh. “Migrants Riot at Greek Refugee Camp after Car Deaths.” Newsweek. Online edition. 17 October, 2016. http://www.newsweek.com/greek-camp-migrants-riot-car-accident-thessaloniki-510675.

1 comment:

Christopher Tunnard said...

This is so interesting and has such great potential for a network study. One student in the course have attempted to do what you propose in Za'atari (see Connor Maher 2014 on blog.) His study was going to be on mobile phone calls, and he was going to get his data from Zain (the Jordanian mobile service provider.) It never came to pass, however.

Your study is equally difficult (if not impossible) to get the data for, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. There's enough interest in this, however, that I would imagine that someone in the refugee research community will figure out away. If you're interested, come talk to be and we can perhaps begin to plot a course to the data.