A behavioural approach to irregular migration information design

Next week is the United Nations Behavioural Science Week! The United Nations (UN) Secretary General’s Guidance on Behavioural Science will be launched. This long-awaited document, along with a report on how 25 UN entities are applying behavioural science to help reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will offer guidance on how a behavioural approach to development challenges is helping to deliver more innovative and effective solutions than traditional approaches.

One of the areas that has huge potential to benefit from behavioural science is information design in the context of irregular migration. The term irregular migration is “generally used to identify persons moving outside regular migration channels. The fact that they migrate irregularly does not relieve States from the obligation to protect their rights.” (International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 2021). It refers to the situation that a person finds themselves in as they move between borders.

Making migration safer is one of the key priority areas under the SDGs. SDG target 10.7 is to “facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” (United Nations, 2020). One of the ways that governments and international organisations are trying to contribute to achieving target 10.7 is through information and awareness raising campaigns.  However, very few of these campaigns are designed from a behavioural perspective, and so they are not able to provide potential migrants with the information they need to move safely.

Migrants need access to high quality, tailored information. Several studies have shown that migrants often start their journeys with limited or biased information and thereby end up in vulnerable and life-threatening situations (Tjaden et al, 2018).  We also have little knowledge of what works: out of 60 publicly available evaluations of information campaigns (out of a total of 3,600 evaluations), the findings of two evaluations were published in peer-reviewed journals (Tjaden et al, 2018). The bar for designing these vitally important information campaigns is extremely low.

Large investments and weak outcomes

Information and awareness-raising campaigns for migrants or potential migrants are common. Campaigns vary in the target groups, types, formats, messages and strategies of such campaigns are also diverse. For example, across the European Union, over EUR 23 million has been devoted to information and awareness-raising campaigns to counter migrant smuggling since 2015 (European Commission, 2018).

Evaluations of awareness-raising and behaviour change interventions to minimise risks associated with irregular migration are limited. Furthermore, the reliability of the evaluations is limited too and often there is no description of a systematic approach used for the evaluation or the campaign (Tjaden et al, 2018).

Designing campaigns based on behavioural drivers

The behavioural literature that exists on migration decisions has shown that individuals’ risk perception and decision-making processes operate in a complex milieu of external and internal determinants, and a myriad of push/pull factors (Zimmerman et al, 2015).  The context (family, community, national and global) in which migrants find themselves is critically important to decision-making. Koser & Kuschminder (2016) offer a decision-making theory of how migrants in transit decide whether to move on or to return which further confirms the complexity of environmental factors affecting migrants’ decision-making processes.

Factors Determining Migrant Decision Making in Transit (Koser & Kuschminder, 2016)

For (potential) migrants, decision-making is happening in a continuous and dynamic manner. Their information needs change based on where they currently are, what is happening in their social networks and policy conditions. Deciding what to do next with such a complex mix of information inputs makes it our responsibility to design information in an accessible manner that helps (potential) migrants make the right decisions to keep themselves safe.

Successful behavioural approaches

More recently, there has been increased interest in applying behavioural science to design information and awareness raising campaigns to improve their quality. In 2019, IOM conducted the first randomised control trial of its Migrants as Messengers campaign in Senegal, which used videos featuring migrants’ stories about their journey. They compared groups who watched these videos (test group) with groups who did not (control group) and retested them six months later. They were able to increase knowledge, increase risk perception, decrease intention to migrate irregularly and change views about returnees (Dunsch et al, 2019).  Similar results were found in a study conducted in Nigeria where the researchers concluded that using targeted information campaigns improved the odds of risk protection among young people (Obi et al, 2019).

One of the most pioneering initiatives is IOM X. IOM X is IOM’s campaign to encourage safe migration and public action to stop exploitation and human trafficking. IOM X moves beyond raising awareness to affecting behaviour change. It applies a Communication for Development (C4D), evidence-based and participatory framework using the P-Process for campaign design and tailoring messaging for its activities. The website offers lots of resources and guidance on how to design behaviourally-informed campaigns that are of value to people on the move.

Lessons learnt from successful campaigns

Designing successful communication campaigns supporting migrants facing irregular circumstances is possible by using a tailored and behaviourally informed approach. According to Browne (2015) successful campaigns have the following characteristics:

  • They are delivered by a trusted source;
  • They are targeted to specific groups, with specific messages;
  • They include testimonials from (returned) migrants;
  • They are repeated and not delivered piecemeal or once-off; and
  • They are integrated into broader migration policies and campaigns.

The Mixed Migration Centre (2020) surveyed Afghan returnees on their experiences before and after the journey,  and put forward two key recommendations when designing information campaigns:

  • Information campaigns should target the wider community and actively include diaspora communities as key influencers of risk awareness and protection;
  • As well as providing a realistic overview of potential risks en route and how to mitigate them, information campaigns should also include content on job opportunities, living conditions and asylum procedures in destination countries.

A key lesson from this research is that taking a behavioural approach will remind us to take the most fundamental and crucial step: ask our audiences what their experience has been and what information they needed.

The agendas of the different actors in the migration and development space vary, but ultimately, taking a behavioural approach to designing information campaigns is taking a human-rights based approach. We should be focusing on providing targeted information to (potential) migrants in all their diversity in a timely manner to help them stay safe along their journeys.

Browne, E. (2015). Impact of communication campaigns to deter irregular migration (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1248). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.

Dunsch, A. Tjaden, J. & Quiviger, W. (2019). Migrants as Messengers: The impact of Peer-to-Peer Communication on Potential Migrants in Senegal. Impact Evaluation Report (IOM Geneva, 2019).

European Commission (2018). European Commission contribution to the European Council, Managing migration in all its aspects: progress under the European Agenda on Migration.

European Migration Network (2019). Migration and communication: Information and Awareness-raising Campaigns in Countries of Origin and Transit Austrian National EMN Conference 2019 – Briefing paper

International Organization for Migration (2021). Key Migration Terms.

Koser, K. & Kuschminder, K. (2016). Understanding irregular migrants’ decision making factors in transit. Occassional Paper Series No. 21|2016. Maastricht University / UNU Merit.

Mixed Migration Centre (2020). The decision to migrate among Afghans: access to information and key influencers.

Obi, C., Bartolini, F., D’Haese, M. (2019). Evaluating the impact of information campaign in deterring irregular migration intention among youths. a randomised control experiment in Edo State, Nigeria. A paper submitted for presentation at the AAAE Conference, Abuja.

Tjaden, J., Morgenstern, S. & Laczko, F. (2018) Evaluating the Impact of Information Campaigns in the Field of Migration: A Systematic Review of the Evidence, and Practical Guidance. IOM Global Migration Data Analysis Centre: Central Mediterranean Route Thematic Report Series, Issue 1.

United Nations (2020) SDG Indicator 10.7.2. Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Zimmerman C., McAlpine A. & Kiss L. (2015). Safer labour migration and community-based prevention of exploitation: The state of the evidence for programming. The Freedom Fund and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.