Irregular migration is unsafe. We all know this – we’ve seen press articles about migrant deaths at sea, starvation, thirst. We have read stories about smugglers who abuse migrants as well, traffickers who engage in exploitation, migrants who get lost in the desert.

For policymakers, the response to this problem is to tell migrants all about the risks of the journey. The theory behind this is that if people know about the risks of migration, if they realise that they could die or be abused, they will be less likely to start the journey. So governments of Western countries engage in a variety of information campaigns. Some are blunt – Australian information campaigns in Afghanistan featured, for a while, a heavily armed man in camouflage – whereas others are more subtle, telling stories of people who did not receive asylum.

As more and more money is being invested into information campaigns, we ask – do these campaigns actually work? And how do we know?

There is remarkably little evidence on the success of information campaigns. IOM conducted a review of available evidence on the effectiveness of information campaigns, and concluded that (1) there is very little evidence on campaign effectiveness, and (2) the evidence that does exist is of limited quality. Evidence is weak both because the objectives of information campaigns are often poorly defined and because those conducting evaluations rely on small sample sizes and convenience sampling methods, rather than more robust methodologies like randomised controlled trials.

Not only is evidence limited, but there are two strong reasons why information campaigns may not, in fact, be as effective as assumed. Why? Because information campaigns depend on three assumptions:

(1) Migrants are not currently fully informed about the risks of migration. Evidence contradicts this assumption. Migrants often find out about the risks of the journey from friends, family, wider networks and social media. Information campaigns therefore form only a small element of the information migrants receive.

(2) People underestimate the risks of migration. One academic study of migrants in Nepal found that migrants overestimate the risks of the journey. In the absence of information, people assume that the journey will be dangerous – but they undertake it anyways. Information provided through campaigns, according to this survey, actually increases migration, because it gives people a more accurate idea of the risks involved in the journey – risks that they had initially overestimated.

(3) It is assumed that information campaigns are biased. One study of how migrants receive information about the journey indicates that trust is very important, and that organisations who issue information campaigns do not have the trust of migrants. People believe that governments, international agencies and NGOs provide unreliable information and overstate the risks of migration due to political and other pressures.

So what does all this mean? First – we recommend that policymakers invest in developing a robust evidence base around what makes an information campaign successful. Second – we recommend that information campaigns focus, not only on risk, but also on reward. It may be useful to present an accurate picture of life in destination countries for migrants. Third – we recommend that money currently spent on information campaigns is redirected to activities that build trust with migrant communities.