Europe spends billions stopping migration. Good luck figuring out where the money actually goes

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: Netherlands

Organisation: The Correspondent, De Correspondent

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 12 Sep 2019

Credit: Maite Vermeulen, Giacomo Zandonini, Ajibola Amzat, Reinier Tromp, Leon De Korte, Heleen Emanuel, Afonso Gonsalves

Project description:

How much money goes from Europe to Nigeria to prevent migration? It took over five months of research to answer what should have been a simple question. In this cross-border project, journalists Giacomo Zandonini (Italy), Ajibola Amzat (Nigeria) and Maite Vermeulen (the Netherlands) scoured databases, visited countless agencies, and ploughed through an endless stream of expenditure reports. The main finding was a complete lack of transpency in how the money is being spent. 

Impact reached:

As The/De Correspondent is a member-driven platform, the investigation started with a callout asking our members to share their expertise and knowledge in the sector, this has helped the three journalist to define the scope of the research. 

The article tries to unveil how much the EU is spending on a particular policy area, where that money goes, and the effects it has. The lack of transparency and sources makes a story in itself.  The research the three journalist carried out to try and fill this gap created a unique database that can certainly demonstrate what European migration money is spent on (and what is not) – for example, border control rather than creating jobs locally. The database is available for everyone to access here.

After publication, the three journalist were invited to talk about their investigation at the European Parliament. The MEPs who attended the talk are now trying to set up a new financial working group specifically for migration. Also, Dutch parliamentarians have expressed their interest and asked official parliamentary questions to our ministers about our findings.




Techniques/technologies used:

For the data processing, Excel, Python and the pandas library were used. For the interactive graphic, a lot of sketching as well as the final graphic were made using Adobe Illustrator. Because this graphic was over 18000 pixels wide, we then used an Ai->Canvas plugin to translate the graphic to a JavaScript script that renders an HTML Canvas element. To navigate through this huge Canvas element, we wrote a JavaScript library that generates two smaller canvases per step from the big one by defining the x & y coordinates of each step and the width. While you scroll through the publication, these canvases constantly get created and deleted, since your browser can’t hold all of them in memory at the same time. For the scroll interaction that triggers each step when appropriate, we used a “scrollytelling” tool we’ve build and used a couple of times before.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The research took five months that we spent investigating online databases, in conversations with embassies in Nigeria, with management organisations in Brussels, and appeals to the Government Information (Public Access) Act in various European countries, in Nigeria and the European Commission. We spoke to researchers and officials who already knew what we found out: they called European migration financing ‘minimally transparent’, ‘unclear’ and ‘chaotic’. But above all, we saw how problematic it is that there is no clear overview of European migration budgets. And how that painfully typifies European migration policy.

This project was not only complicated in terms of content, but also quite a challenge behind the scenes. The story was written and edited in two languages ​​(the article was published in both English and Dutch). The project involved a core team of nine people working across three countries that had to visualize something that seemed impossible to visualize, and to compile a database that excels in incompleteness.

What can others learn from this project?

From a journalistic prespective, this project proves how you can tell a story about missing data. The visualisations and infographic in this story expemplify the complexity of the research carried out by the journalists and not just the final conclusions that can be drawn from the data. The main big interactive graphic inflicts a sense of “messiness”. This was done deliberately. The dataset isn’t a complete overview of all migration related funding going to Nigeria from the EU, so we didn’t want the graphic to have the more scientific infographic style that we often use in other publications. It was meant to convey the feeling of sketching along with the authors as they build their database and tell you about their struggle and findings. 

The project shows how data-driven reporting can be a storytelling tool as well as a powerful tool of transparency.

Project links: