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What kind of evidence might persuade people to change their minds on refugees?

Duncan Green's picture

Oxfam Humanitarian Policy Adviser Ed Cairns reflects on using evidence to influence the treatment of refugees.

Who thinks that governments decide what to do on refugees after carefully considering the evidence? Not many, I suspect. So it was an interesting to be asked to talk about that at the  ‘Evidence for Influencing’conference Duncan wrote about last week.

When I think what influences refugee policy, I’m reminded of a meeting I had in Whitehall on Friday 4 September, two days after the three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, had drowned.  Oxfam and other NGOs had been invited in to talk about refugees. The UK officials found out what their policy was by watching Prime Minister David Cameron on their phones, as he overturned the UK’s refusal to resettle thousands of Syrians in a press conference in Lisbon.  Even then, he and his officials refused to promise how many Syrians would be allowed. By Monday, that line had crumbled as well, and a promise of 20,000 by 2020 was announced.

The evidence of course had shown that children and other refugees had been tragically drowning in the Mediterranean for months. But it was the sheer human emotion, the public interest, and no doubt Cameron’s own compassion that made the change. Evidence and the evidence-informed discussion between officials and NGOs had nothing to do with it. More important was that a single image of a drowned boy spread to 20 million screens within 12 hours as #refugeeswelcome began trending worldwide. As research by the Visual Social Media Lab at the University of Sheffield set out, “a single image transformed the debate”.

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Two years later, a new Observatory of Public Attitudes to Migration has just been launched by the Florence-based Migration Policy Centreand its partners, including IPSOS Mori in the UK.  It aims to be the ‘go-to centre for researchers and practitioners’, and has sobering news for anyone who thinks that evidence has a huge influence on this issue.  Anti-migrant views, it shows, are far more driven by the values of tradition, conformity and security, and within the UK in particular, according to an IPSOS Mori study, by a distrust of experts, alongside suspicion of diversity, human rights and “political correctness”.

I’m no expert on refugee or migration policy, though like a lot of Oxfam old-timers I have seen for decades how the poorest countries in the world host more refugees than most European countries could even dream of. But when I talk to colleagues working on Oxfam’s European migration response, I hear something very like what the Observatory is saying. “Facts confirm bias, or get challenged or ignored,” was the pithy comment of Claire Seaward, who runs Oxfam’s European migration campaign.  And when NGOs from across Europe gathered this year at a conference on Communicating on Refugee and Migrant Issues, they heard of the power of emotion more than evidence, including from the research group Counterpoint, which pointed out that the vast majority of human thought is emotional, automatic and associative, and that we all accept falsehoods if they fit our existing views.
This isn’t just about attitudes to refugees and migrants, though perhaps they are a particularly emotive issue. Nor is it just about the woman or man ‘in the street’, while politicians consider evidence carefully. As an article in the British Journal of Political Science this August, ‘The Role of Evidence in Politics’, suggested, “politicians are biased by prior attitudes when interpreting information,” and new evidence may reinforce, not influence, those attitudes. Actually this was based on a study in Denmark, not the UK, but British readers can probably imagine what it meant.

So where does this leave NGOs trying to influence policy or public attitudes on refugees?  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “it’s the emotion, stupid”, that matters; or at least that’s the tone of quite a lot of NGO thinking as we try to communicate more effectively in difficult times. But Oxfam’s experience shows that it’s wrong to think that emotion and evidence are opposing choices.
Last year, as we began our “Stand As One” campaign on refugees, we published two pretty straightforward examples of “killer facts” – compelling figures to grab public attention. The first showed that the world’s 6 wealthiest nations, which made up more half of the global economy, hosted less than 9 per cent of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. In contrast, half the world’s refugees and asylum seekers were hosted by countries such as Jordan and Pakistan, that collectively accounted for less than 2 per cent of the global economy.

The second showed that, for all the attention on Alan Kurdi’s death, the number of global refugee and migrant deaths went up by more than a fifth in the following year. Both these slim briefings had the same objective, to put Oxfam’s message in the minds of people we would be talking to soon, because the life of a “killer fact” is not long. (Alright, 8 men own the same wealth as half of humanity is an exception.) In July 2016, that was the hundreds of thousands of people going to the UK’s summer festivals, one of the main ways we were trying to promote a petition. In September, it was the diplomats meeting at summits on refugees and migrants in New York.
Both examples were new calculations using existing data, from UNHCR, the World Bank, and the International Organization for Migration, choosing data that would stir emotions, particularly in the case of deaths that rekindled memories of Alan Kurdi.

Both were inexpensive in staff time and had no other costs – not an irrelevant point as we try to work out what research has the most influence.  Apart from Oxfam’s media output using celebrities, they had more media coverage in the UK than any of our other output in 2016 about refugees. Anecdotally at least, they did indeed help create a fertile climate to speak with festival-goers and high-flying diplomats alike.
That type of research is useful, of course, but also limited. Does it transform attitudes in the long-term? Does it influence people who don’t already agree with our views? I don’t think so. It feels like an approach that is talking to the 24% of people in the UK who are “open to immigration”, but perhaps not much to the 48% that are in “mid-groups” according to IPSOS Mori, and who are potentially open to the kind of genuine argument, rather than rallying the converted, that NGOs are not so good at.

Our second approach to use evidence in the “Stand As One” campaign was also useful but limited. That’s when we combined personal case stories with policy options or recommendations.  A perfect example is a paper we published with the British Red Cross, Refugee Council and Amnesty International this February. Together Again presented seven cases to illustrate why particular policy suggestions would make sense. Tesfa, a teenage refugee in the UK, for instance, was separated from his mother and younger siblings because the UK does not allow refugees under 18 to apply for their families to join them from abroad. I Ask the World to Empathize took a similar
approach, and was widely welcomed by already-interested diplomats in New York where it was mainly used. But does that kind of research speak to anyone who does not empathize with refugees already? I somehow doubt it.
Our third approach is a more innovative and ambitious attempt, which my colleague,  Franziska Mager, presented to the ‘Evidence for Influencing’ conference. She has used , a narrative-base method for collecting quantitative and qualitative data, initially in the Central African Republic.  It involves asking displaced people to tell a story about a specific experience related to their decision making whilst in limbo, and then, through an intricate follow up questionnaire, to interpret through the respondents’ eyes what they find most significant. We’ll be publishing the results in the next few months, when we hope we will see how, when cleverly combined, the power of stories and of stats can work together to make a convincing argument.

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But perhaps all these approaches have a common limit, when it comes to using them for influencing.  Do they all speak to readers who, like their writers and researchers, believe in the value of universal human rights?  The IPSOS Mori and other studies have shown that they – we – are no more than 20% or 25% of the population. Without influencing others, NGOs may hope for the odd success, such as seizing the moment to influence a Prime Minister to change one policy.  But if NGOs are really going to help transform attitudes and eventually policy on refugees and migrants, it’s going to take not only a generation, but evidence that speaks to at least some of the “mid-groups” that are not convinced by NGOs’ traditional messages.

This takes us to one final research approach that we’re exploring now. We will find out if it works when we publish in 2018.  With the Refugee Council, we’re exploring the experiences of a number of refugees in the UK, and in particular whether their experiences of the UK’s system of family reunification has had an effect on their ability to fit into British society.  That in itself is a vital issue, but it’s also an issue which speaks not only to readers driven by universal human rights, but also to readers driven more by concerns for social cohesion in the UK.

That research is not quite finished, but what’s exciting about it, I hope, is that it’s providing evidence, and powerful human stories, not only for a traditional NGO narrative to uphold human rights – though it absolutely is.  But it also fits a narrative that a far wider number of people already believe in –building social cohesion in a disunited Britain.  And it brings those two things together in an inclusive narrative – that the UK should allow refugee families to live together in the UK, because that would be right and humane, and because it would help make the UK a more cohesive place as well.

Will that influence anyone?  We’ll see.  If it helps persuade a handful of MPs to change the UK’s family reunion policies, that will be worthwhile.  But perhaps, just perhaps, it could be an example to follow in the future – generating evidence for inclusive narratives that could appeal beyond NGOs’ traditional supporters.

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