The dilemma with ‘Dilemmas’: UNHCR launches problematic campaign that ‘refugees have no choice’

For World Refugee Day last week, UNHCR launched a shiny new global advocacy campaign called Dilemmas. According to the strategy documents (full acknowledgement: it is awesome these are public), the new campaign

“compels audiences to consider the same life-or-death decisions a refugee is forced to make when they decide to flee – building empathy for the distinct horrors of refugee flight and the compelling need for protection.”

Revamping the ‘Take Action’ section of the UNHCR website, Dilemmas challenges users to consider what they would do if in the same situation that hypothetical refugees may face (e.g. What would you do: ‘Face death in a war zone?’ or ‘Escape but leave loved ones behind?’) . Each scenario is accompanied by testimonies from refugees and displaced people to give authenticity and humanize stories.

UNHCR has even developed a game for Android and iOS called “My Life as a Refugee.” Players can select one of three characters, based on real life experiences of refugees, and attempt to reach safety, reunite with loved ones and rebuild their lives through a series of tough decisions and chance events.

This is supplemented by glossy, artistically striking images and videos of celebrities like Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and Goodwill Ambassadors Khaled Hosseini and Juanes, all primed to be shared online.

Let’s be clear here: this is super sexy advocacy by UNHCR standards. It may not seem that impressive to those outside the NGO world, but I have seriously never seen the concept of refugee protection this amped up.

Yet innovative tech, stunning visuals and beautiful celebrities mean nothing when a campaign message gets twisted.

And honestly, I’m appalled by how twisted the messaging has gotten. Seared into almost every image and repeated by every celebrity is the tagline, “No one chooses to be a refugee,” and the more common and more problematic refrain,Refugees have no choice.

Obviously advocacy requires simplifying messages to some degree. But effective campaigns are not fuelled by stupidity and pity. And these slogans dilute the complexity of migration down to the point of being disempowering and inaccurate—at the cost of a entire, well-conceived strategy.

So let’s break down this trainwreck.

1) Um, refugees do make choices.

Even before getting into the policy and ethical implications of the notion ‘Refugees have no choice” (don’t worry, those are points #2 and #3), this makes no sense. Not just in life (because obviously refugees do make decisions). But it actually makes no sense in the context of the discussion Dilemmas frames, because the campaign starts on the premise that refugees are faced with difficult choices that are outlined for the viewer to consider.

This juncture between the campaign premise to the slogan results in a weird incoherence that permeates throughout the materials. Case in point: in Hosseini’s video clip, he blatantly poses a dilemma faced by a hypothetical refugee (“Would you stay and risk being killed, or would you escape and risk rape, kidnap or worse?”), then concluding with “Refugees have no choice.” Yes, these are both terrible options, but clearly then it is a decision to flee. So why state otherwise? It sounds dumb.

But even outside the context laid out by Dilemmas, people obviously make choices when they leave during a crisis: they decide when to go, where to go, who to go with, whom to trust, what to take, etc, etc. The decision-making ability afforded in each of these choices reveals significant power dynamics that emphasises the problem with lumping ‘refugees’ together—and can even highlight that being able to leave in the first place also reflects a certain amount of privilege. For instance, a wealthy, politically involved family may be able to legally leave before war breaks out to go to London, while a young woman from a poorer, rural area may have to stay in a conflict zone because she can’t afford to go or because her mother is not well enough to make the journey with her. All of this gets masked when with the statement, ‘No one chooses to be a refugee.’

2) By emphasising that “refugees have no choice”, Dilemmas winds up reinforcing the problematic dichotomy there are ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migrants.

I realise, dear reader, you may read point #1 and think I’m quibbling over silly semantics. Alright, maybe I am. But these silly semantics happen to be codified in international law, which provides protection to migrants based on their reason for leaving. Broadly speaking, if that reason is that the migrant was ‘forced’ to leave (i.e. because of political reasons, such as persecution) refugee protection can be granted, whereas if that reason is ‘voluntary’ (i.e. because of economic or social reasons) refugee protection is not.

While this distinction sounds clear on paper, it takes two seconds to get cloudy, because the line between voluntary/forced is actually a spectrum than a tangible divide. Take an example of an Afghan migrant: are you fleeing because a) armed groups are specifically targeting your family due to your political involvement; b) you’re afraid that your town will be affected by violence; or c) the war has made the economy collapse and you can’t make a livelihood? Turns out only A falls under ‘forced’ migration territory while B and C are closer to ‘voluntary’.

What is bizarre is that UNHCR knows these complications intimately. In adjusting to these changing dynamics towards more social/economic pressures, UNHCR’s mandate has had to expand well beyond serving refugees alone to the vague, all encompassing term, ‘other persons of concerns’, which includes internally displaced people, returnees, and other victims of conflict.

In light of the fact that UNHCR provides support to an increasing variety of migrants, it remains puzzling that the Dilemmas campaign would find it useful to reify the idea that refugees, in particular, have no choices. The implicit suggestion that other migrants do have choice doesn’t earn anybody working on broader migration any points.

3) Saying “Refugees have no choice” strips refugees of their agency and garners pity instead of empathy.

It is this last point that is probably the largest offence of Dilemmas in my book.

My skin crawled with every retweet that ‘refugees have no choice’ on World Refugee Day. Coupling that with the line ‘But you do’ felt ethically wrong. The power dynamics are all off in this campaign, ultimately empowering the viewer to feel sorry for refugees beyond anything else.

What’s most disappointing is that I think from what is outlined in UNHCR’s communication strategy for this campaign, the potential for building empathy was immense. The game and gorgeous graphics would have been interesting if put alongside text that (coherently) reflected that refugees make choices like any person would, even if in a difficult context. Basically a few words have undone a well conceived campaign. Honestly, it made me straight up annoyed and angry to see such blatant pity generated by a UN body.

Sadly, the moral of Dilemmas seems to be that the line between building pity and empathy remains razor thin in advocacy–and good strategy means nothing if your slogan is shit.

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