Can creative industries help Amnesty International shift the tenor of public debate around the refugee crisis?

Breaking point

Today (29 September), The Drum’s mission to prove marketing can change the world gets underway at Plan It Day. In attendance is Amnesty International, which is looking to tap into our industry’s finest minds to come up with a solution for changing perceptions of refugees from being a burden on society to making a positive contribution.

In September 2015 images of drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a beach in Turkey dominated the news. The image revealed the true horror of the refugee crisis, a crisis that one year on shows no sign of slowing down and which was described only a few weeks ago by European president Donald Tusk as at “breaking point”.

In the year since Kurdi’s death, more than 4,000 people have lost their lives making similar journeys, according to the International Organisation for Migration, as they flee war and persecution in their homelands.

Yet the dominant discourse around refugees in more affluent countries remains that of “fear, xenophobia and a feeling we can’t manage,” remarks Amnesty International’s communications director Osama Saeed Bhutta, who is helping lead the human rights organisation’s challenge at The Drum’s Do It Day.

According to Bhutta, “shifting the tenor of public debate” around the crisis is one of the biggest global priorities for Amnesty right now.

“Everyone knows the challenge in the broad sense,” he says. “We have 20 million refugees worldwide and in the last year there have been some attempts by the United Nations (UN) and President Obama to get people to help sort it out because they realise our generation is going to be judged by future decades on how we dealt with this.”

Referring to research conducted by Amnesty this year, Bhutta says most people can “empathise with the need to provide sanctuary” but, due to factors like negative press coverage, creative thinking is needed to shift the debate away from refugees being a burden on society.

During the summer of 2015, media outlets all over the world projected images of refugees travelling by boat across the Mediterranean, with coverage reaching a peak after Kurdi’s death which, according to Bhutta, said more than any statistic ever could.

“People could relate to that far more than they could relate to numbers; that picture became more powerful than any of the statistics, but then the news moves on and, sadly, that can feel like a setback,” he admits. “What this tells us though is we need more initiatives that will shift the debate towards a more positive and humanitarian direction.”

One such positive movement, Bhutta says, was the inclusion of a Team Refugee at Rio 2016, where 10 refugee athletes from around the world competed under the Olympic flag.

Brought together by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and UNHCR, Team Refugee aimed to ‘show solidarity with the world’s refugees’. Amnesty travelled to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya where many of the competing athletes had previously stayed to capture the reactions of those still there.

“It was hugely inspiring,” Bhutta recalls. “It showed the rest of the world that refugees are people with hopes and aspirations and determination as well. That’s no better represented than by [Syrian swimmer] Yusra Mardini, who saved so many lives by swimming and pushing a boat over to Greece and then ended up at the Olympics. That’s a movie story right there.”

Changing public opinion

By taking part in Do It Day, Amnesty hopes to be able to share more stories like Mardini’s and on a more regular basis. “We need to bring it to the fore in different ways,” Bhutta says, adding that creative minds will be integral to this.

“For us, this challenge is about changing public opinion – something marketers do every day. We could have framed it in many different ways – it could have been about aid or targeting governments – but we’ve focused on public opinion because these industries (advertising, marketing, digital) are going to be essential in changing the way this is dealt with and coming up with creative solutions.”

Having spent his entire career working in political process and global development, Bhutta notes a change in the mood recently to create campaigns with more social purpose and hopes that an event like Do It Day will enable those who’re more used to working with “moneyed” clients to see the other side of the coin and help “make this planet a better place”.

The challenge will run simultaneously in the UK and US, and while Bhutta says the perception of refugees doesn’t vary too much from one side of the Atlantic to the other, he stresses that participants need to be thinking globally for this challenge to work.

“We’re a global movement and we have real global muscle so what we’re looking for is ideas that can be implemented everywhere,” he advises, adding that for Amnesty Do It Day isn’t just for fun, it will be looking to take forward strong ideas from the event.

“We’re in this for the long haul. There’s an immediate two-year horizon we’re working towards and have an ambitious target of having two million refugees resettled by then, but that by no means solves things,” he explains. “We’re open-minded and looking for possibilities. Short term ideas are great, but what we really want are ideas with longevity that can bring debate to the fore in different ways.”

This article was originally published in the 29 September issue of The Drum.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.