The statistics which Ms Fleming deals with in her role as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Director of Communications make for difficult reading. The agency is tasked with caring for all, globally, who are forced to leave their homes due to conflict and persecution: internally displaced people fleeing conflict, famine or other difficulties without leaving their country; refugees, crossing borders to stay alive; and asylum-seekers, unable to return to their country of origin for fear of torture or death. In total, these three groups currently number over 68 million people. That is a lot of tears.
Eliciting sympathy for those tears– and eliciting action when sympathy is gained – is, however, no easy task. That, though, is ultimately Fleming’s job. The objective, she says, “is to use communications to not only inform about what’s happening in the world – how many refugees crossed a border, the dire situation of refugees trapped in Libya, the number of deaths on the Mediterranean – but also to get people to care about those people.”
Her job, then, is to build empathy, a scarce resource. Many, she notes, experience what social scientists call “psychic numbing: that is, when people that are presented with large numbers of suffering people, even if they might feel some sympathy, they feel numb; there is too much to know what to do.”
Helping people not to be numbed by the sheer scale of the issues raised by forced displacement globally is a job made harder by the fact that, increasingly, there is political currency to be made for those willing to do the opposite. The rise of populist politics, she notes, has “definitely influenced how people feel, because fear is a very powerful emotion”– and fear of the other, especially, can “provoke that overwhelming emotion” capable of sweeping a party, or an individual, into power.
Fleming didn’t expect anti-migration populism to spread so rapidly. “I remember in 2015, during what was the so-called Europe Refugee Crisis, where a million refugees arrived in Europe… I lived in Vienna; and I walked around the corner of the street to the train station and was just overwhelmed by the outpouring of compassion and help, by ordinary citizens who were coming out, and carrying signs of ‘Refugees Welcome’, and home-made food, and their kids’ favourite stuffed animals, all kinds of things.”
“It was really something that I will never forget,” she says, “but I also knew at that moment that this wasn’t going to last.”
Nonetheless, the speed with which anti-immigrant rhetoric gained traction surprised staff at UNHCR. It began with Victor Orban in Hungary, distorting the narrative around the arrival of migrants; then was embraced during the Brexit debates, epitomised in Nigel Farage’s famous “Breaking Point” poster (which depicted, she says, “the crowds of men at a border, basically saying, ‘They’re coming to our country’. They were [on] the other side of the continent, trapped in Serbia, trying to get to Hungary”– but that didn’t dissuade Farage); and later appeared in America and Brazil.
“I do think,” Fleming says, “that when you have a leadership that creates these narratives, that repeats them over and over, it does influence public opinion tremendously.” She remains optimistic, however, and points to research by the international organisation More in Common (whose stated aim is to “tell a new story of ‘us’”, celebrating uniting commonalities) suggesting that, in fact, only 15 percent of the population in most countries properly buys into the populist, anti-migration rhetoric.
Addressing that rhetoric is a considerable challenge. “We’ve made a decision not to bother with [that] 15 per cent, who are so hard-line and hateful,” Fleming says of UNHCR’s approach. Instead, they focus on the “conflicted middle,” comprising around 70 per cent of the population. She notes that this group will generally, if told that a refugee is someone fleeing war and persecution, agree that their country ought to take them in – but that they retain, at the same time, fears of cultural change, loss of employment, terrorism, and the other worries often associated with influxes of foreign people. In addition to that first 15 per cent and the conflicted 70, of course, there is a remaining 15 – those “who are still taking refugees into their homes, going out in boats into the Mediterranean, etc.”; but they are the choir, and the focus is on the middle 70.
The first step to reaching them, Fleming says, is “to try to understand, not to judge, or criticise, the fears that people are feeling, but really to look at those,” without condemning them, and find the channel of information which could best persuade them to re-evaluate. This requires a network of “very audience-focused, very aware” local communications bureaus, who can understand the sources of fears and work to effectively reduce them. In some communities, for instance, “they would be very responsive to what the church says; the other, maybe soccer … some people are very influenced by social media”: it’s a multi-faceted, carefully-tailored approach. I suggest that this is above all one that requires empathy on the part of UNHCR, if they are to have a hope of persuading their audience to empathise with those they seek to serve. Fleming agrees. “If somebody is feeling fearful,” she says, “you can’t just throw information at them, and say, ‘you shouldn’t be afraid, because actually, your statistics are wrong, your fears are wrong’: myth-breaking doesn’t really work, so one has to find other ways of allaying fears.” The alternative to argumentation and confrontation, and the main thrust of much of UNHCR’s communications strategy under Fleming, is to praise welcoming attitudes, rather than condemn exclusionary positions.
“We focus our communications,” Fleming explains, “on other people who are helping: we do stories of communities, or individuals, or mayors, who are actually being very welcoming towards refugees, and we profile them. They’re mostly saying how how it doesn’t just feel good to help them, but how they’ve enriched their lives in some way; and to do this in a kind of authentic way, because people are more influenced by people like them, than they are by us, or some UN organisation,” which will often seem faceless or – worse, after demonisation by populists – threatening. So, if you visit UNHCR’s Facebook page, you will frequently see profiles of refugees-turned-Olympians; refugees helping farmers in their adoptive country; refugees warmly praised as expert chocolatiers: stories of hope. You will also frequently see Fleming: conducting interviews; standing alongside Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner; or reporting from camps: smiling, calm, and empathetic.
And also, wholly understandably, often rather weary. I ask her how she maintains her own sense of hope in the face of the constant, Sisyphean task of protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable, a group continuously replenished by new, often unexpected, crises. She laughs wearily. “It can be pretty depressing, when you see the worst of humanity in what has happened to refugees. We are constantly listening to testimonies that are just so horrific that you could really lose faith in humanity, if you let it.” At this point, she stares out of the window of her Geneva office. The wall behind her is bare except for a world map; you would very soon run out of space for thumb-tacks representing those testimonies. “But then,” she observes, “we see also the best of humanity, very often.”
At the time of the interview, she had just returned from a trip to Tanzania and Ethiopia, border regions subject to long-term refugee crises.
“These are countries which have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, over decades; you know, if any European country did that, it’d be, you know, ‘the end of the world!’ There’s a generosity among the local populations that is intrinsic.” She acknowledges that accepting refugees can create problems: cultural, material, environmental; it will always necessitate changes. This being the case, she says, “it’s quite remarkable to see the humanity that we very often do, that, even so, refugees are being welcomed in large numbers, in countries that are not Europe, and that are not the United States, or Australia!”
Finding space for the many refugees is a project whose importance is only growing. Tens of millions worldwide rely on UNHCR; UNHCR relies on the UN’s member states— and also increasingly, Fleming adds, on the private sector and donations, to free it from that first reliance. Support for the effort to help refugees, both of the hundreds of millions being sought from the world’s PwCs and Gates Foundations, and of the sort already given by many in St Andrews – manning lifeboats off Italy, or the donation warehouses in Dundee – is only becoming more important. The ‘problem’ will not go away. The statistics won’t dwindle until they are turned from statistics back to people: empathised with, and found homes.