Chapter 5: Messaging

Emmanuel is a confident young Nigerian living in Lagos. Imagine him starting the conversation with his arms folded, saying he already has this figured out. When he speaks, he starts with “Thank you,” then “let me show you how it will work.” Emmanuel pulls out some papers that show he’s been planning his options carefully. He explains that he has been talking with friends and family, has gone online and he likes getting information from anyone wise.



Think of Emmanuel when designing the content of your communications campaign. Respect his autonomy, but remember that Emmanuel is not the best person to tell you what Emmanuel doesn’t know. This includes the question of what he knows, and doesn’t know, about the risks.

Messaging: Three Levels of Risk

Clarifying the concept of risk for your audience and for your donors is critical. This is the element of content creation that we have spent the most time debating with donors and teasing out of the upfront research. Across the migration communications spectrum, we see three levels of insight into the risks of irregular migration. A good campaign will drill through the first two and strike gold in the third.

Level One: It’s Dangerous

Level One is where politicians and communications experts start when they first engage with a migration crisis. We look at how risky the journey is on an inflatable boat or across a desert, then we turn that into messaging that focuses on the dangers. We imagine that Emmanuel is to some degree ignorant of the facts.

For example, in October 2017, the Tunisian Secretary of State for Immigration and Tunisians Abroad “spoke out against the lack of a communication strategy that could make young people aware of the risks of irregular migration.” Or, from IOM in Tunisia, a film maker’s campaign in 2014 “to warn young people about the risks of irregular migration.”

This is not unlike the approach of anti-drug, smoking or dangerous driving campaigns. These types of campaigns have been run in many countries. When initially launched these public health campaigns usually simply stated the dangers of the practices they sought to discourage. As time has gone on, they have become much more sophisticated in their messaging and delivery. 

Level Two: They All Know It’s Dangerous

After some time and survey research, politicians and communications experts get down to Level Two, which is the opposite of Level One. Their conclusion – often said with some smugness – is that it is ridiculous to tell people that a boat journey or a desert walk is dangerous since everyone already knows that. We also listen to Emmanuel, who confidently tells us he knows about the dangers of the journey.

Furthermore, we imagine these risks must be insignificant compared to the conflict or poverty at home. It is common to seize on dramatic quotes from migrants to underline how impervious they must be to hearing about the risks of irregular migration.

A report by Altai Consulting for UNHCR in Libya in 2013 said that “learning about the risks of the journey does not deter them as they believe that nothing can be worse than what they are currently living.” Or take the story of Becky, a Nigerian woman preparing to travel, who explains she understands that she will probably need to engage in prostitution on the journey. Or the explanation from Professor Heaven Crawley: “They know the risks, but the water seems like a better option than the alternatives.”

Most communications planning gets stuck on Level Two. Research exploring the audience’s knowledge of probabilities leaps to the conclusion that there is no benefit from discussing risk. We did this ourselves until migrants told us there are multiple reasons why they want a discussion of risk.

Level Three: Riding a Motorbike

Academic research suggests that motorbike riders are more knowledgeable regarding the statistics on motorbike accidents than people who do not ride motorbikes. They know it is dangerous, but they still ride motorbikes. Similarly, many migrants in Sudan will explain they know it is bad in Libya, but they are still going to travel through there since Sudan is much worse. What is really happening here?

First, we are presuming the risk tolerance, or risk ignorance, of a small sample of people is the same as a much larger pool we do not hear from. Some people ride motorbikes, but a lot of others are put off by the accident statistics. 

Second, there is a massive gap between people’s knowledge and how they apply it to themselves. One finding from the research on motorbike riders is that the majority believe they have above-average riding skills, which presumably affects their views on whether they may have an accident. If migrants know it is risky but believe they will have above-average luck on the journey, they may not be accurately applying their knowledge of risk to themselves.

Third, hypothetical scenarios can be bantered with human bravado such as, “I would rather die than stay here.” But actual experience has a sobering effect. We have spoken with thousands of people who knew the risks but did not understand how bad it would be until they went through it. Helping people to understand this in advance can save lives, suffering and fortunes.

Fourth, the risk of the journey is not assessed in isolation. It’s part of a complex decision involving various options and possibilities. If your goal is to reduce the number of people taking a risky journey, you do not need to convince them that the trip is infinitely risky; you just need to shift their assessment of the relative risks and rewards of the trip compared to other options. What happens to people who do not travel despite saying they would rather die than stay at home? They tend to get on with their lives.

Fifth and most simply, there is still a level of dangerous ignorance about major risks. People considering a journey often radically underestimate the costs and/or overestimate the income they will have after arriving. They do not understand the risk of prolonged poverty and frustration. When we ask them to prioritise the information they would like to receive, they are uninterested in hearing about costs or salaries. Either they do not know they are ignorant, or they do not want to hear that they do not know as much as they think they do. In either case, a good communications campaign is going to find a way to have a discussion about these risks.

Discussion is the key. Static facts aren’t enough. You need to go much further and provide sustained engagement to help people interpret what the facts mean for them and how the risks of the journey compare to other options.

Knowledge can change behaviour but often does not. Risks are known but ignored. Repeating hard facts or showing scary images is about five percent of the task of a good migration communications campaign. The other 95 percent is generating a discussion about the rewards awaiting migrants and what threatens the outcomes they imagine.

As one Eritrean told us in 2017: “Before I thought I knew…Now that I know what is going on in reality and it made me consider many other options. I have contacted my distant family members in Australia about the possibility of resettling there.”

Messaging: Engaging with Desired Outcomes

Why do people undertake irregular migration? It is a question posed at the start of most research projects that support communications campaigns. But it tends to be forgotten as the campaign is developed.

If you do not engage with the reasons people want to migrate, such as political repression in Eritrea, for example, then your impact will almost certainly be superficial or even negative. If you only focus on the costs of travel, the risks of the journey or the danger of smugglers, you are not talking in the language of your audience – the language of ambitions and dreams. It is like describing to a young athlete all the painful hours of training and injury they will endure, without discussing the gold medal that could result from the effort.

For example, when looking at a particular kind of modern slavery affecting Nigerians, it seemed that the years of unpaid servitude – the risks – increased the attractiveness of this option. Why? Because they believed that great, entrepreneurial rewards come to those who take risks; that the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

Let’s return to the example of communicating the risks of death or injury on the journey. Often you have a mountain of contradictory evidence to cut through, because many people have arrived successfully despite the dangers you have raised. A better approach would be to link these risks explicitly to the intended outcomes rather than focus on the process.

Imagine you are talking with someone who is emigrating to give her children a better future. She says she understands the risks but that she is “dying at home” so is willing to take the chance. You can find out if her family is at risk and whether she has talked with others about the prospects for her children if she dies or is injured during the journey. Ask if she thinks her children would be happier with their mother alive, even if it meant staying put. With this approach you are directly engaging with her desired outcome – a better future for her children – rather than focusing on the migration process and the risks.

We can take the same approach with the costs of the journey, which people considering irregular migration regularly underestimate. You will often discover that they believe it to be an effective investment based on their understanding of how quickly they can recover their costs and become much wealthier.

For example, say that a Gambian man believes the migration journey can be paid for by taking out a loan of USD 4,000 and he expects to earn USD 3,000 per month after arriving in his new country. Based on your research, you can explain that the trip will probably cost USD 8,000 to USD 10,000 and after expenses he will have no more than USD 100 left of his salary each month. That means it will take years to pay back the cost of his migration journey.

We are not expecting everyone in this situation to throw up their hands and abandon the idea of migrating, but by helping with financial planning you have allowed this man to think through what he is trying to achieve. You have engaged with the outcome, not the process.



“Why do you want to migrate irregularly?”

There are no jobs here. 

“What information would you like?”

Well I think I understand it all now. We are just waiting for the right time to go. 

“You know what it will cost you?”

Yes, sure.

“You’ve heard there are dangers on the journey?”

Of course. Everyone knows that.

“What about Europe? Do you know what life is like?”

I know.

“Do you know that there are safe and legal alternatives to irregular migration?”

I’ve explored them all. They do not work for me and there is no hope for my family if I stay.

Sadly, Emmanuel has the kind of knowledge that American historian Daniel J. Boorstin worries about: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.”



Chapter 4: Channels and Messengers

Chapter 6: Long-term Solutions

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