UNHCR launches campaign to debunk asylum myths in Austria

News Stories, 16 February 2009

© UNHCR
"Fleeing is never voluntary, asylum means survival" &; the "Match" campaign poster.

VIENNA, Austria, February 16 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Monday launched a major campaign in Austria to debunk myths about asylum seekers, using billboards, postcards and the internet as well as radio and TV spots.

Leaving everything behind and fleeing from violence is hard to imagine in Austria and therefore difficult to understand. This is the starting point of the awareness campaign, entitled "Match," created for UNHCR by the Reichl & Partner advertising agency.

For television and screen distribution, a 25-second spot explains what flight from persecution means and shows that asylum is very often another word for survival. The central image is of a one-dimensional house being built from matchsticks, which are then set alight. As the matches burn and smoulder, the stark message "Flucht ist nie freiwillig" (Fleeing is never voluntary) is plastered across the screen.

"We want to show the hopelessness of people who are forced to flee. They lost everything. The only way to survive is to flee and seek asylum," explained Rainer Reichl, chief executive officer of the agency.

Aside from TV and radio, the nationwide campaign will also be presented between now and the end of March on billboards, overhead rolling boards, the internet and postcards distributed in bars and restaurants. The "Match" video will also be screened in cinemas, several universities, during a football match in Salzburg and at the annual Viennese Refugee Ball this Friday.

One of the creative heads behind the campaign, Tomek Luczynski, is a refugee from Poland. The voice-over was provided for free by Austrian actor and author Miguel Herz-Kestranek. The corporate sector has also provided help, while papers have agreed to run free advertisements.

"We want to inform the public and immunize them against messages of fear," Roland Schönbauer, UNHCR's spokesman in Austria, said of a campaign that seeks to counter public ignorance about asylum seekers.

One common misconception is that most asylum seekers want to come to Austria; the campaign explains that more than 80 percent of displaced people in Africa, Asia and South America are staying in their regions.

Another myth is that is possible to make Austria less attractive for asylum seekers by tightening legislation. UNHCR has found no evidence that stricter asylum rules lead to fewer asylum applications. In fact, the number of asylum applications in Austria started to decline in early 2003, 16 months before the introduction of tougher legislation. "If less people flee to Europe, there are usually less asylum applications in Austria," Schönbauer noted.

UNHCR has also tried to counter negative media portraying asylum seekers as criminals because they have crossed a border illegally. The campaign explains that refugees may have good reasons to cross a border by irregular ways. "Someone who flees needs asylum. And someone who needs asylum is not a swindler or criminal when he or she seeks asylum," Schönbauer said.

Meanwhile, the "Match" campaign has already won plaudits. "This is a simple but highly emotional design. I am sure it works for all age groups," said one observer. UNHCR is considering using the campaign in other countries.

By Angelika Strassl in Vienna, Austria

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The World's Stateless: A photo essay by Greg Constantine

Nationality might seem like a universal birthright, but it is estimated that up to 12 million people around the world are struggling to get along without it. They do not possess a nationality nor enjoy its legal benefits. They fall into a legal limbo; they are stateless. This often leaves them unable to do the basic things most people take for granted such as registering the birth of a child, travelling, going to school, opening a bank account or owning property.

Statelessness has a variety of causes. Some populations were excluded from citizenship at the time of independence from colonial rule. Others fall victim to mass denationalization. In some countries, women cannot confer nationality on their children. Sometimes, because of discrimination, legislation fails to guarantee citizenship for certain ethnic groups.

The problem is global. Under its statelessness mandate, UNHCR is advising stateless people on their rights and assisting them in acquiring citizenship. At the government level, it is supporting legal reform to prevent people from becoming stateless. With partners it undertakes citizenship campaigns to help stateless people to acquire nationality and documentation.

Photographer Greg Constantine is an award-winning photojournalist from the United States. In 2005, he moved to Asia and began work on his project, "Nowhere People," which documents the plight of stateless people around the world. His work has received a number of awards, including from Pictures of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, the Amnesty International Human Rights Press Awards (Hong Kong), the Society of Publishers in Asia, and the Harry Chapin Media Award for Photojournalism. Greg was a co-winner of the Osborn Elliot Prize for Journalism in Asia, presented annually by the Asia Society. Work from "Nowhere People" has been widely published and exhibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Switzerland, Ukraine, Hong Kong and Kenya. He is based in Southeast Asia.

The World's Stateless: A photo essay by Greg Constantine