DAKAR, 13 May 2011 (IRIN) - Thousands of refugees in eastern Liberia want to know what has happened to their family members, about the state of their villages, and whether it is safe to go home, said an April assessment by Internews, an NGO working to improve information exchange in disasters.
"Rumours spread fast", Internews director Jacobo Quintanilla told IRIN. "There is a massive information vacuum in a crisis.People often run away in the middle of the night. The first thing they do is tune into the radio to find out what is going on - this need must be properly acknowledged."
Simple solutions like bicycling through villages using a loudhailer to announce the news could help refugees make informed decisions about their lives.
People who were internally displaced by the violence in Cote d'Ivoire are also left in the dark. Olivier Ziaď, who is sheltering at the Catholic mission in the town of Duékoué [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=92491 ], in southwestern Côte d'Ivoire, told IRIN the information vacuum was just as big there.
"These days our source of news is the telephone," he said, because most IDPs receive news by calling relatives in other parts of Côte d'Ivoire or Europe.
The Internews report notes that most refugees in Liberia, especially women, have received little or no news about the situation in Côte d'Ivoire. Very few have mobile phones and the popular local radio station in eastern Liberia is "vastly under-utilized, and its potential to support the humanitarian response remains largely untapped".
Violence in Côte d'Ivoire displaced almost one million people and caused over 100,000 to flee across the border to Liberia [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=92417 ]. Many are too afraid to return home.
Internews has encouraged aid agencies to hand out wind-up radios at schools and clinics frequented by refugees, and distribute shared mobile phones. It also recommends setting up listening stations and loud-speaker systems in the refugee camp at Bahn, 50km from the Côte d'Ivoire border, as well as at transit centres and aid distribution points.
The information NGO suggests that mobile phone operators send text messages with information in French, and that local NGOs use community radio stations to transmit important news, advisories and messages.
Community radio stations should also broadcast a French version after the news in English.
Pockets of success
Some agencies are serving refugee information needs effectively. Quintanilla said Radio Karnplay in Nimba County, read out announcements by refugees free of charge, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helped refugees make free phone calls and delivered messages to their families.
The UN Refugee agency (UNHCR), the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), use the NRC's 135 protection monitors to deliver messages to refugees in villages encouraging them to move to the Bahn refugee camp.
NRC also has mobile teams of legal advisers to assist refugees in matters of the law, such as how to get a death certificate, legalize a land claim, or inform them of their rights in other situations.
Internews said examples of good information exchange could be found in humanitarian responses in Sudan, Pakistan, Gaza, Chad, Kenya, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
Rachel Houghton, who coordinates Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) - a network made up of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the ICRC, international NGO Save the Children, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation - said information exchange should feature at all stages of crisis response, from assessing needs to evaluating performance.
CDAC aims to guide agencies in how to do this better, but Quintanilla said agencies would have to find the resources to do this.
The BBC World Service Trust and Internews also focus on information as aid by distributing radios and mobile phones, sending out rapid response news teams in crises, and broadcasting crisis-specific information.
Creeping up the agenda
The need for better information exchange is not a new idea. It was the subject of the annual World Disasters Report in 2005, when Markku Niskala, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) and Red Crescent Societies, pointed out that "People need information as much as water, food, medicine or shelter. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources. Information bestows power."
Houghton said the new UN Emergency Response Coordinator, Valerie Amos, was reinvigorating the accountability debate in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the humanitarian policy-making forum of the UN, and this would include a fresh look at information flows in disasters.
While the debate continues, in Côte d'Ivoire, displaced people are still looking to outsiders to fill in the gaps. "You see the worldwide media coverage - what is the take?" an aid worker in western Côte d'Ivoire asked IRIN. "Is Côte d'Ivoire going to be okay?"