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Study Compares NGO Communication on Migration • News • Iowa State University

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Study Compares NGO Communication on Migration • News • Iowa State University

AMES, IA – Since 1970, the number of people living outside their home country has tripled. Most migrants are looking for work or better economic opportunities. But millions seek to escape violence, persecution or natural disasters. Their integration into a new society often depends on non-governmental organizations providing services and advocating on their behalf.

A recently published study highlights how a country’s specific political and cultural context affects how NGOs communicate with the public.

Co-author and Iowa State professor Daniela Dimitrova is a specialist in international journalism and global media coverage. She says this study builds on previous research with Emel Özdora-Akşak, associate professor at Bilkent University in Turkey. Shortly after the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, the two researchers examined how the print media in Turkey and Bulgaria reported on the unfolding refugee crisis.

“We noticed that in the Turkish case there were many more references to NGOs and interviews compared to Bulgaria. This piqued our interest. We were curious why there is such a difference in news coverage,” said Dimitrova.

After receiving an ISU faculty professional development assignment for 2019/2020, Dimitrova joined Özdora-Akşak in Turkey to conduct in-depth interviews with professionals from 22 organizations. They ranged from local, grassroots groups to large international NGOs. The researchers’ 17 interviews with NGO professionals in Bulgaria were virtual in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neighbors with different answers

Over the past decade, Turkey has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other country, approximately 3.6 million people. Dimitrova said the public, government and traditional news outlets in Turkey were generally sympathetic and welcoming when Syrian citizens first arrived. The two countries share a border and overlapping histories and cultures. Also, both are predominantly Muslim.

“In the beginning, the popular media referred to the Syrian refugees as ‘our brothers and sisters.’ There was a lot of support,” said Dimitrova. “But there was a noticeable change over time. There were more negative attitudes and even hostility related to the idea that refugees were taking scarce resources away from Turkish citizens.

The researchers said in their paper that the government’s emphasis on temporary legal status for Syrian refugees has “complicated matters because it is based on the idea of ​​hospitality rather than rights, per se.”

North of Turkey, Bulgaria is much smaller in area and until recently had little experience with migrants and refugees. As a member of the European Union, Bulgaria is obliged to comply with EU regulations for asylum seekers, but has fewer resources and services than Turkey. Researchers say Bulgaria was not prepared for asylum seekers from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, which peaked at more than 20,000 applicants in 2015.

“When people from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries started arriving, there was a lot of ‘othering’ and fear. Today, attitudes are divided with greater acceptance in urban cities compared to rural communities,” said Dimitrova.

Comparison of NGOs from Turkey and Bulgaria

Dimitrova and Ozdora-Akshak noted that Turkey has a much higher concentration of NGOs focused on refugees and migrants than Bulgaria. Many are large organizations that focus on services. They often have dedicated communications teams to write grants and reports, produce newsletters and glossy brochures, and organize press events for journalists (eg a tour of a women’s career center.)

Emel Özdora-Akşak (right) conducts an interview in Turkey. Photo courtesy of Daniela Dimitrova.

There are not so many NGOs in Bulgaria and they are smaller and more specialized. One may focus more on the children, while another provides legal assistance. Few have staff who focus solely on external communication. Dimitrova said this smaller, more casual approach comes with some advantages.

“Because there are so many NGOs in Turkey, there is a lot of competition for EU resources and funding. The environment seemed more competitive and territorial. In Bulgaria, it seemed more cooperative and coordinated,” Dimitrova said, adding that NGO representatives in Bulgaria often meet to share updates and discuss opportunities for cooperation.

NGOs in both countries use technology and social media to target different audiences (eg refugees, donors, government agencies). But Turkish NGOs tend to convey information in a “one-way mode of communication,” while those in Bulgaria “seem to have the flexibility to be more innovative” and engage the public. They also tend to emphasize personal stories.

Since an opinion poll showed that over 90% of Bulgarians had never met a refugee or migrant at the time, many of the NGOs wanted to “give a human face” and highlight individual success stories. The researchers gave an example of a Bulgarian non-governmental organization that organized an interactive photo exhibition with augmented reality. Participants used their phones to learn more about individual refugees living in the community.

Interviewees on both sides expressed concerns about red tape and anti-immigrant political rhetoric. But they emphasized the need to build and maintain positive relationships with legislators and government agencies. This was particularly important in Turkey, with a government that “controlled direct access to the camps for NGO workers.”


Dimitrova said the research results show that NGOs working on migration in Bulgaria, Turkey and other countries can benefit from:

  • Communicate regularly with other NGOs and find ways to collaborate to streamline services and outreach efforts.
  • Incorporating metrics and assessments into communication strategies.
  • Experiment with more creative projects that highlight the personal stories of individuals.
  • Continuing to work with traditional media while generating content for specific audiences.

In the book edited by Dimitrova, called Global Journalism, one of the chapters focuses on the coverage of conflicts and crises. A case study shows that refugees are often presented as victims or threats, which takes away the freedom of action of the refugees themselves and makes it difficult to accept them in the host society.

“We have these conflicts in different parts of the world, and whether it’s Ukrainians in Poland or Rohingya people in Bangladesh, the migration is not slowing down. The lesson for me is that NGOs need to think long-term, because after the initial response of sympathy and desire to help, that desire can diminish over time,” said Dimitrova.

This research project was supported by a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from The Arthur W. Page Center at Pennsylvania State University.

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