Fly on the Facebook Wall: How UNHCR Listened to Refugees on Social Media

In “From a Refugee Perspective” UNHCR shows how to conduct meaningful, qualitative social media monitoring in a humanitarian crisis.

From A Refugee PerspectiveBetween March and December 2016 the project team (one project manager, one Pashto and Dari speaker, two native Arabic speakers and an English copy editor) monitored Facebook conversations related to flight and migration in the Afghan and Arabic speaking communities.

To do this, the team created Facebook accounts, joined relevant Facebook groups and summarised their findings in weekly monitoring reports to UNHCR staff and other interested people. I received these reports every week while working as the UNHCR team leader for the Communicating with Communities team in Greece and found them very useful since they gave me insights into what were some of the burning issues that week.

The project did not monitor Twitter because Twitter was not widely used by the communities.

In “From a Refugee Perspective” UNHCR has now summarised their findings from the ten-month project. The main thing I really liked about this project is that UNHCR invested the resources for proper qualitative social media monitoring, as opposed to the purely quantitative analyses that we see so often and which rarely go beyond keyword counting. To complement the social media information, the team held focus group and other discussions with refugees who had arrived in Europe. Among other things, these discussion provided information on how the refugees and migrants are consuming and exchanging information (related: see this BBC Media Action report).

Of course, this type of research is much more resource intensive than what most organisations have in mind when they want to do social media monitoring, but this report shows that additional resources can also result in more meaningful information.

Smuggling prices

Smuggling prices according to monitored Facebook page. Source: From A Refugee Perspective

Monitoring the conversations on Facebook enabled the team to track trends, such as the rise and fall of prices that smugglers asked for different routes (see image). In addition, it provided fascinating insights into how smugglers are selling their services online.

Among other things, the team found

  • More than 50 Facebook pages offer short-term accommodation in transit countries (mainly in Turkey);
  • Over a hundred financial agents (sarafs) are present on Facebook. They not only keep the deposited smuggling fees as intermediaries between smuggler and client, but also manage financial transfers;
  • Over 100 “asylum and immigration consultants” offer so-called “advice on asylum claims” and provide fake “proofs” of persecution;
  • Occasionally up to 20 users will pretend to be “satisfied clients” posting messages of gratitude, or pictures to express their thanks, on certain smuggler pages. This usually occurs as a reaction to posts denouncing the irresponsibility or cruelty of smugglers;
  • When business is booming, smugglers post vacancy notices as they are looking for additional staff on the ground, most often females. These vacancy notices contain very concrete requirements (language skills, experience with logistics and booking software etc.).


Where, in my opinion, the project fell short is turning these weekly summaries into action.

The project was started “in preparation for an information campaign that would reach out to the target audiences, counter the narrative of smugglers, explain the difficulties of the journey and the basics of the European asylum system, and empower potential refugees and migrants to make informed decisions.”

But in the end, the team did not engage online. Why they decided to only be a fly on the wall, rather than share information of their own, is not discussed in the report. My guess is that they were worried about being inundated with questions, while not having the capacity to respond.

You can download “From a Refugee Perspective” here.

Do you have thoughts about the report or social media monitoring in general? Please leave a comment!