How Google’s unique insight into the refugee crisis helps to improve understanding and dispel myths and misconceptions
For six years now, Syria has been ravaged by civil war. As many as 400,000 people have been killed, and around half the country’s population has been forced to leave everything behind. Abandoning their families, homes and possessions, they have sought shelter in the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. More than five million live as refugees in neighbouring countries, while another 6.3 million are internally displaced. Syrians are now the largest refugee group in the world.
Since 2015, Google has been trying to help. Our philanthropic organisation, Google.org has invested more than $20 million in providing more than 800,000 refugees with emergency support, access to information and education. Many individuals want to help, but don’t know much about the country or understand what is happening there. A new project between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Google aims to remedy that.
“Searching for Syria… provides an entirely fresh look at the biggest humanitarian tragedy of today,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “This is a fantastic project with Google that allows us to pinpoint and answer the five key questions about Syrian refugees and displaced that audiences most want to know.”
Searching for Syria is a new way for people learn about Syria and the Syrian refugee crisis by exploring five of the most common search queries that people around the world are asking. The interactive site gives users the detail behind the answer, combining UNHCR data with Google Maps, satellite imagery, videos, photography, and moving stories from those fleeing the violence.
“The situation in Syria can be summed up in three words: death, destruction and displacement,” said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in Geneva. “It is very important there’s a better understanding of who these refugees are — Searching for Syria is an incredible tool that can help dispel a lot of myths and misconceptions.”
Late last year, Google and the UNHCR teamed up to combine the UNHCR’s Global Trends report, which contains the latest facts and figures on refugees and migration, with Google’s Search trends. The aim is to paint a new kind of picture of the Syrian refugee crisis, accessible to greater numbers of people, by explaining not only of the scale of the crisis, but also of the human side of it.
“The scale of the Syrian refugee crisis is difficult for most of us to fathom, but the questions on Searching for Syria are a reflection of many people’s desire to understand,” said Jacquelline Fuller, Vice President of Google.org. “Among the top searches in Germany, France, and the UK last year was: ‘What is happening in Syria?’” People are also simply searching for “What is a refugee?”
Over the last six years, Search trends from around the world have shifted from immediate questions such as “Where are Syrian refugees going?” to the more contemplative, “What was Syria like before the war?” In Searching for Syria, refugee families tell you about their homes six years ago and today—and what they’ve experienced in travelling to their new, temporary lives.
There’s a striving for continuity, a profound resilience and a wish to get back home safely: refugees in camps are doing everything from opening pizzerias to providing wedding dresses for young couples — just two of the stories shared on Searching for Syria. Still, nine in ten Syrian refugees live in cities, not camps, where they often struggle to find work, feed themselves and get accommodation. Just five neighbouring countries — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — are home to 94% of Syrian refugees.
Searching for Syria shares first-person accounts of fleeing the conflict, but also explores this fascinating and diverse country as it deserves to be known. In 2010, Syria attracted more tourists than Australia, to sites like the souks of Aleppo and Krak des Chevaliers, one of the most spectacular medieval castles in the world. Users can slide across photos to compare the Great Umayyad Mosque, one of Aleppo’s architectural jewels, in 2009 and now. It’s deeply unsettling, but it works as a tool for understanding the impact of the war.
One thing that prompts people to type questions like “Where are Syrian refugees going?” and “How can I help Syrian refugees?” into the Google search box is that they want to do something, but don’t know what. As they reach the end of the interactive answers, they can choose to share the tool on social media, make a donation to the UNHCR’s work in Syria, and to sign the #WithRefugees petition, which asks governments to ensure every refugee child gets an education, every refugee family has somewhere safe to live, and that every refugee can work or learn new skills.
“There are many different levels of engagement,” said Mahecic, all of which help the UNHCR fulfil its mission. “It’s really important for us to have a tool like this and be able to explain what these people have been going through.”