Surveying Refugees: Needs Assessment

Cassidy McKenna, The Unmentionables' Global Correspondent.  Cassidy is currently based in Athens and originally from York, UK.

Open your newspaper, or its website, and look for the section about the refugee crisis. Find the words journalists have chosen to describe the people who are part of it. Maybe they’ve said, The Migrants. Or, The Syrians. Or, The Muslims Who Come Over Uninvited On Those Boats. Or, indeed, the Syrian Muslims, which is probably pretty frustrating to all the Syrian Christians, who make up 10% of the country’s population.

Refugees. Asylum seekers. Economic migrants. All these names are used, interchangeably and without clarification, but rarely have the people they refer to been asked what they might like to be called. This community is diverse. There is much variety in language, culture, faith and future- as any mass of people who are defined only by border regulations (that they did not decide on) would be. There is no one term that can describe them.

How, then, do you assess the needs of a group who, like all groups, are made up of individuals? Each person has a differing attitude to the Unmentionable topics of menstruation, underwear and contraception. This is no different for this displaced community.

Some are single men, some teenage girls, some mothers with young children. They live in different accommodations, from state-run camps, to squats, to shelters and apartments. They have different legal statues. Some are waiting for their flight to their country of relocation, whilst others have not pre-registered asylum claims yet, and are unable to walk the street without being classified as illegal. Several have no regular access to some of their most basic hygiene needs. They each have a different story.

When what is lacking is so vast, how do you decide what to give?

This is how The Unmentionables do it. In December 2016, The Unmentionables wrote, translated and distributed a round of surveys in Athens, Greece. This needs assessment asks a broad range of questions - from what female hygiene products someone prefers, to how often an individual has soap and running water.  The wording is careful to avoid preconceptions wherever possible. It asks neutral questions to allow each person to provide their own judgement on how much access to products and services they may need.

Everyone who shares the same biology still prioritizes it differently. The survey stresses that there is no incorrect answer to a question like, how many pairs of underwear do you require, as long as it is possible to help it to not be, not enough.

This survey covers information that can be difficult to discuss. It makes necessary inquiries about sexual activity and personal health. Both the layout and the length is designed to be unintimidating. It aims to ask for as much information as possible, without making the experience of filling it in any more of a labour than divulging its subject matter may be.

Most of all, what a needs assessment needs, is to defend dignity. This is the core of every decision The Unmentionables makes, and conducting a survey to decide aid distribution is no different. The subject matter is confidential, and so the survey is kept confidential too, prioritising each person’s privacy by keeping the entire experience anonymous. 

The displaced community in Greece contains multitudes, and no single descriptor is able to explain the manifold of its experiences. By conducting a needs assessment, The Unmentionables resists a presumption of needs that would be as limiting as calling its members by any single name.

It doesn’t assume. It does the decent thing. It asks.