WHEN the global refugee emergency reached Europe’s shores in 2015, governments struggled to cope. But Steven McCaffery of the Social Change Initiative charts how imaginative work by civil society is bearing fruit at a pivotal time.

ELECTIONS to the European Parliament have often seemed like little more than a distraction from domestic politics, but the contests scheduled for May this year have taken on a new significance. Big issues are in play, with migration high on the agenda.

In 2015 when the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to more than one million men, women and children seeking sanctuary on the south eastern shores of the European Union, their arrival overlapped with existing tensions over the economy and the impact of austerity policies.

Right-wing populist parties and far right movements across Europe seized the opportunity to trade on fears over migration, but mainstream politicians have also used the issue to their own ends: see the UK government pledges to its Brexit hardliners to clamp down on immigration.

In the run-up to the May elections, the UK’s exit from the EU is scheduled to come to a head, Germany is entering the era of post-Merkel politics, the tensions over ‘yellow vest’ protests still linger in France, as do protests against the hardline administration in Hungary, while populist movements will seek to advance on their share of electoral support estimated here at 25% across Europe.

But behind these headline grabbing issues, there is another side to the European story.


When Greece became a landing zone for thousands of desperate souls in 2015, politicians faltered in their response, but one philanthropic organisation was among those civil society groups that stepped-up.

Mary Healy, the then Executive Director of the Human Dignity Foundation (HDF), recalled: “HDF as a team felt really compelled to act and to respond in some way to the refugee crisis in 2015.”

HDF had never directly supported migration issues and faced the question often asked of funders: whether to make a humanitarian intervention, or support a longer term strategic approach?

An independent report available here has now captured the story of the support HDF ultimately gave to the Social Change Initiative for research and advocacy on migration across Europe, plus the subsequent leverage of additional resources it allowed. The initiative is continuing to send out ripples of change.

Mary Healy said: “I think the lessons that we learnt for ourselves were: It is possible to make a once off grant and do it well.”

The Social Change Initiative is an international charity focused on improving the effectiveness of activism and the effectiveness in funding for social change. Migration is one of SCI’s key areas of activity and the HDF grant supported two strands of action.

The first supported NGOs to plan and strategise with academics, policy makers and leading thinkers around influencing deliberations on the UN Compact for Migration in 2016, which was a process aimed at devising an internationally agreed response to migration issues.

The second strand of activity aimed to influence the narrative on migration in Europe by commissioning analysis and research, including segmented polling on public attitudes, while also resourcing activists to access experts in communications and political strategy.

The in-depth polling France, Italy, Greece and Germany gave valuable insights into the thinking of the `anxious middle’, providing an opportunity to develop more effective strategies to reach the sections of society that could be positively influenced in the migration debate. It is currently being applied on the ground and is fuelling new forms of activism.

It sparked further polling in the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, with other countries considering following suit.

The research is feeding into new ideas and approaches, including the ‘Reframing Migration Narratives Toolkit’ launched recently by the International Centre for Policy Advocacy (ICPA) in Germany.

The toolkit is part of the Demokratie Leben programme, supported by Germany’s Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, and by the Social Change Initiative.

The toolkit was born out of the realisation that new approaches were needed to win the debate. Pushing facts wasn’t enough to change minds in an era of right-wing populist politics. The toolkit gives campaigners, activists and organisations new ideas on identifying and engaging audiences in a way that recognises their concerns.

Meanwhile, a new report available here and released only weeks ago by the Greek Refugee Council, highlighted the continued abuse of people seeking asylum and exposed the poor conditions still endured by refugees in Greece.

It is a reminder of the work still to be done, though today funders and activists have new tools to promote progress.