Amnesty International Wants the Ad Industry to Help Improve Perceptions of Refugees

By Erik Oster 

Amnesty International will issue a challenge to the advertising industry at The Drum’s Plan it Day and Do it Day events, calling on advertisers to change perceptions surrounding refugees. 

“Everyone knows the challenge in the broad sense,” Amnesty International communications director Osama Saeed Bhutta told the publication. “We have 20 million refugees worldwide and in the last year there have been some attempts by the United Nations (UN) and President Obama to get people to help sort it out because they realize our generation is going to be judged by future decades on how we dealt with this.”

The goal of the challenge will be to shift public opinion at a time when anti-refugee sentiment seems to be growing in certain circles. Such sentiment is often attributed as a contributing factor in the U.K.’s Brexit decision this summer, for example, while xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment also seem to at the heart of Donald Trump‘s campaign. Just yesterday, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., generated controversy with a tweet comparing the “Syrian refugee problem” with a bowl of Skittles with three that “would kill you.”


Media surrounding the refugee crisis hasn’t been limited to documenting such xenophobic fearmongering, however. Bhutta points to the inclusion of Team Refugee at the Rio 2016 Olympics, which included ten refugees from around the world brought together by the International Olympic Committee and UNHCR as an initiative that could help “shift the debate towards a more positive and humanitarian direction.”

“It showed the rest of the world that refugees are people with hopes and aspirations and determination as well. That’s no better represented than by [Syrian swimmer] Yusra Mardini, who saved so many lives by swimming and pushing a boat over to Greece and then ended up at the Olympics,” he added. “That’s a movie story right there.”

“For us, this challenge is about changing public opinion – something marketers do every day,” Bhutta said. “We could have framed it in many different ways – it could have been about aid or targeting governments – but we’ve focused on public opinion because these industries (advertising, marketing, digital) are going to be essential in changing the way this is dealt with and coming up with creative solutions.”

Amnesty International’s Do It Day challenge will run simultaneously in the U.S. and the U.K. but Bhutta notes that the problem requires a global outlook. “We’re a global movement and we have real global muscle so what we’re looking for is ideas that can be implemented everywhere,” he said. 

“There’s an immediate two-year horizon we’re working towards and have an ambitious target of having two million refugees resettled by then, but that by no means solves things. We’re open minded and looking for possibilities. Short term ideas are great, but what we really want are ideas with longevity that can bring debate to the fore in different ways.”