Migration communications campaigns are strange beasts. Governments and international organisations spend millions on them in the hope of reducing irregular migration. Departments tasked with doing so generally start with no idea how to do them. Activists generally do not recognise their importance. And the general public usually has little awareness that they exist.

Interior or foreign ministries are usually responsible for these campaigns. The person in the ministry responsible for creating the campaign may not be a migration expert or a communications specialist. At some point they will engage an international organisation or a commercial communications agency to implement the campaign.

Flabby performance metrics will be set; hundreds of thousands (or millions) will be spent on social media, posters and mass media broadcasts; and at the end no one will know for sure if it had any effect. But because the topic of irregular migration is so politically sensitive, governments will continue spending money on migration management even if there is no evidence that it is effective.

So governments risk wasting money. What’s the big deal? They do it all the time. The problem is not the wasted money but the wasted opportunity to help vulnerable people make safer and more informed decisions.

More than 20,000 migrants have died on the Central, Western and Eastern Mediterranean routes between 2013 and 2020, which works out at around 34 a day. An unknown number of migrants died on earlier stages of the journey. An even greater number experienced serious abuse. Seefar’s research with migrants tells us that they did not expect the danger to be as chronic, frequent or prolonged.

Migrants are making decisions about irregular migration based on imperfect and incomplete information. When they have a fuller understanding of the issues and facts, some make different decisions. This empowers people to avoid hardship, while simultaneously serving the needs of a donor seeking to reduce irregular migration.

This book shares insight to designing effective migration communications campaigns intended to change the behaviour of people migrating or considering migration.

In the last seven years Seefar has tracked over $150 million spent in this field. Migration communications has gone from an under-scrutinised niche to an at times contentious, widely adopted, practice. After 10 years of experimenting and learning, the time seems ripe to build stronger structures to guide the arguments and practice behind migration communications. 

This iterative approach has seen the development of a range of practices that migration communications campaigns have come to rely on, with varying levels of perceived effectiveness and requiring varying levels of investment. Activities include:

  • Scripting lines for politicians to deliver
  • Providing information and counselling face-to-face, over the phone or online
  • Unacknowledged support to news media and documentary makers
  • Advertising on billboards, television, radio or the internet
  • TV, radio or internet dramas and sitcoms
  • Training and education for community leaders and teachers
  • Community events
  • Comic books, pamphlets and messaging collateral
  • Participating in conversations on social media

If you are reading this book, you are probably a practitioner like us. We are going to share lessons about our failures and successes and those that we have seen around us. We are also going to share what we have found to be best practice. For newcomers to the field, we hope this will accelerate learning, avoid waste and make the job more fun. Veterans will recognise some of the pitfalls and find value in the unique combination of approaches we’ve refined through evaluation.

This book will help you design a communications campaign that is effective for current and potential migrants and for the people financing the campaign. It is a guide to each major component of the 3E Impact method, though it does not try to cover every detailed decision that will be required when using it in your specific campaign.

The focus is on campaigns that address irregular migration, such as people moving countries to work illegally or people crossing borders without visas to claim asylum. We will look at campaigns developed with top-down funding from governments, international organisations and NGOs. Bottom-up ideas that emerge between migrants will not be covered as we presume these are not prompted by externally-driven campaigns. We will also exclude activities and events such as unscripted politicians insisting migrants should be locked up and refugee rights groups holding demonstrations to welcome refugees.

A migration communications campaign should focus on serving migrants, not stopping migration. Do the former well and the latter will occur on its own for a meaningful proportion of people. If it does not, the tools we describe throughout the book will enable you to understand why your campaign is not working.

We want people considering risky migration to understand the reality of the processes and outcomes they are facing. That reality can be liberating, but it can also be treacherous. We believe there is a strong obligation to help people to work through their options, but the decision is theirs.

Our Lessons

Seefar has worked on migration communications design, implementation and evaluation for governments, international organisations, private foundations and private companies. We are not experts in every area of this relatively young field. But donors, migrants and peers are kind enough to tell us that we have something useful to say about some important parts of it. The lessons in this book provide examples of problems faced – the 3E Impact method is a key plank of our response.

The Seefar team comes from Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Eritrea, Germany, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Libya, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, the United Kingdom and the United States. We have strong experience of migration in Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia. We have much less expertise in migration through and from Latin America. Our focus is not on visa policy or border security systems but on the migrant’s perspective.

We cannot say that every design, implementation and evaluation has worked; we can say that we have learned from them all. The result is the 3E Impact method.

The Context for your Campaign

We do not need to tell you that you have got a tricky job. But before we jump in, let’s take a look at the landscape in which we are travelling together and some of the successes and failures.

A major lesson from all kinds of communications activities is that there is a chasm between what the speaker says and what the receiver hears. We give examples in this book of ways in which your audience filters what you say and twists it to fit with their existing knowledge and ambitions. 

The key point is that you cannot sit at your desk and get your point across – you will need to be out in the field, where you will discover that you are not the only one trying to get their point across.

The communications space includes: politicians from across the spectrum; smugglers; a migrant’s family and friends; journalists; a vibrant social media community; and international music, TV and films that act as advertisements for life in your home country. All of these voices can support, confuse or contradict what you are trying to do. Cutting through the noise will be a major challenge you have to overcome.

You will also notice that there is little support back home for what you are doing. It is easy – and usually justified – for taxpayers and politicians to question the use of public money on communications campaigns. On your left will be people arguing that the entire effort is illegitimate and a waste of money as it is premised on stopping people in need from claiming asylum.

On your right will be people who want to preserve a distinct national culture and identity by excluding those from other cultures, believing instead that “charity starts at home”.

Some friends, colleagues and enemies will ridicule the idea that communications can solve the problem. You will agree and explain that you are solving just one part of the problem. As hundreds of thousands of people are risking their lives to migrate, you will be convincing these peers that the work you contribute to has helped tens of thousands to choose not to.

In the next few chapters, we process lessons from countless research and dozens of communications campaigns to highlight what to embrace and avoid when designing effective migration communications campaigns that help people, while also achieving public policy aims. The outcome is the 3E Impact method.


Chapter 1: Planning a Communications Campaign

We use cookies to allow us to better understand how the site is used. By continuing to use this site, you consent to this policy. Click to learn more