Published on January 28th, 2019
A blog post by Graduate Research Assistant Matt Graydon.
In 2015, over one million migrants and asylum seekers entered Europe by land and sea, a fourfold increase from the previous year.1 These individuals, seeking protection from violence in their homelands, better economic opportunities, or a combination of both, arrived in Greece, Italy and other points of entry after long, arduous, and dangerous journeys.
The hardships did not end once migrants reached European soil. Thousands ended up in camps, both official and makeshift, waiting months for their cases to be processed. After paying large sums of money (often their entire life savings) to smugglers, many people were left with practically nothing, living hand to mouth with donations from government and humanitarian organizations. Even if their asylum cases were accepted and they were able to legally settle in Europe, struggling economies, high cost of living, and the myriad challenges of integrating into a new culture made for a precarious and uncertain future. For many, this was not the European dream they had expected.
As grim stories of migrant deaths at sea and the difficulties of starting a new life in Europe circulated around the world, it was difficult to understand at times why so many people were still willing to take the risk of traveling to Europe. Of course, it is clear that for numerous migrants, particularly those coming from countries in conflict, the horrors they faced at home far outweighed even the serious risks of the journey. However, it also seems that a parallel narrative of migrant life in Europe exists, one that is shared through social media.
Prior to graduate school, I worked with the UN Migration Agency (IOM) in countries including Iraq, South Sudan, and Afghanistan. As a communications specialist, I often had the opportunity to hear the stories of people who were planning to emigrate or who had returned, voluntarily or forcibly, to their home country. In 2017, I travelled to Herat, Afghanistan, a large city near the border with Iran. The vast majority of Afghans who travel to Europe start their journey in Herat, paying smugglers to get them into Iran and onward to Turkey, where they can attempt to enter Europe by boat or overland.
At a small shop in the center of Herat city, Ismail,2 a man in his early 20’s who had voluntarily returned from Germany through an IOM-run program, told me that his expectations of life in Europe had largely been shaped by the Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages of friends and relatives who had previously emigrated. He showed me some of their photos – in them, young men with trendy haircuts and designer jackets smile next to luxury cars on clean, orderly German streets. Ismail’s friends told him how great life in Europe was, how they were making lots of money, and downplayed the dangers of the journey.
Ismail had seen the news footage of capsized boats and the dire advertising campaigns created by the Afghan and foreign governments to dissuade potential migrants (such as this example, produced by Australia), but the experiences of his friends as conveyed on social media spoke to him much more directly. He decided to take the risk and go to Germany. Ismail’s family supported him, selling property and livestock to raise the several thousand dollar smuggling fee.
The moment that he was pushed into the trunk of a smuggler’s car in Iran, however, Ismail told me that he knew he had made a mistake. The journey across Iran was terrifying. Ismail heard stories about cars similar to his that had been shot to pieces by border guards. Once in Turkey, Ismail avoided the treacherous Mediterranean Sea crossing, but instead had to trek overland through the Balkan states. He spent weeks in the mountains, hungry, cold, and constantly on the lookout for border patrols.
Ismail thought things would improve once he arrived in Germany, he said, but the lifestyle his friends had portrayed was an illusion. There was no easy living and luxury cars; his friends lived in cramped apartments, struggling to find work and integrate into a new and confusing culture. Because their families had invested so much to help them reach Europe, however, the men felt enormous pressure to show that they were happy and successful.
This is no different than the role most social media users play, portraying their lives as easier and more glamorous than they actually are. Because we trust our friends and family much more than outsiders, they have an outsized impact on our impressions and decision making. For Ismail, and many others like him, the millions of dollars spent on traditional television and print advertising, as in the case of the government-sponsored campaigns mentioned above, had far less influence than a few free social media posts from trusted friends.
In planning future campaigns to help people make more informed decisions about migration (not to dissuade or encourage the choice, but to ensure that it is undertaken with a clear understanding of the potential risks and rewards) as well as other humanitarian issues, it will be essential to take into account the substantial influencing capacity of social media and the centrality of personal connections. These platforms, which have become an element of daily life in nearly every part of the world, have the ability to both put people in harm’s way and to help keep them safe.
1 “Million Migrants Enter Europe in 2015,” BBC News, December 22, 2015, sec. Europe, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35158769.
2 Name changed for privacy and safety.