Digital crisis in the refugee migrant age

Sunday 18/09/2016
A September 2015 file picture shows a Syrian woman using her cell phone as she carries her passport in a waterproof bag after her arrival on a ferry from the Greek island of Lesbos at the Athens’ port of Piraeus.

London - “When we don’t have Viber, we use WhatsApp. When What­sApp stops working, we use Messenger” says a Syrian refugee going by the alias Raed. But his words could be a com­mon refrain of many fellow refugee migrants.

For them, a smartphone is not a display of prosperity but an essen­tial tool for survival. A recent study, however, suggests that digital care for displaced persons is dangerous­ly limited.

Mapping Refugee Media Journeys, a report released in May by the Open University in London, shows that carrying a smartphone can be a problem as well as a blessing with­out the right corresponding digital aid.

“Digital care is about the af­fordances of the technology: The resource and its provision of timely news and information,” says Mar­gie Cheesman, one of the leading researchers of the report.

Two of the main problems mi­grants deal with are limited access to sustainable information and their distrust of conventional news outlets.

It is via chats with fellow mi­grants on Facebook and WhatsApp that most seek advice.

A 19-year-old Syrian recently having arrived in German said in an interview with The Arab Week­ly: “I mainly used WhatsApp and Facebook. Advice from my family and friends — [they are] more use­ful than the news. It helped me find safe passage and keep in touch with my parents back home. Espe­cially when I knew I could go days without internet connection some­times.”

The Mapping Refugee report ech­oes the Syrian’s thoughts. “[News] organisations and government agencies are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities [of supplying valuable information to migrants] for fear of being seen to facilitate refugees coming to Eu­rope,” the report said.

Lucas Burghardt, who spent four months volunteering at the Mace­donian-Greek border, discussed the challenges: “It takes time to open an information tent, install a gen­erator, set up WI-FI so people could start their application process and learn their rights.

“Legal info is different in every country. In Germany, it’s different by state. The only thing the info tents could do was show them their options… You can’t tell them neces­sarily what’s going to happen when they get to Germany.”

The perils of being smartphone-wielding migrants often lie in two realms: The obvious physical risks such as theft and the traceable digital footprints that they leave behind. Traceability in itself is not necessarily a bad thing: Real-time data tracking has sped up service responses and allowed friends and relatives to aid migrants in forging safe passage through a minefield of adversity.

However, extremists and smug­glers are often equally tech-savvy and are capable of spinning the ta­bles of digital prowess to suit their own interests.

“People are being persecuted for their religion, and they’re paranoid and afraid of people in extremist groups and other non-state actors, as well as state actors. Anonymity can be essential,” Cheesman said.

Migrants interviewed for the report echoed that view, voicing fear at the repercussions of film­ing distressing events. Raed said: “You, as a guy in Syria, using your camera and filming what’s happen­ing, you’re risking your life and a lot died because of it”. He went on to say that “Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State) went to Tur­key and executed them [dissent­ers]… The same goes for the Syr­ian regime, if you film something against it, you disappear; many people disappeared.”

Upon arrival in Europe, gaps in information persist. Another Syr­ian law graduate, alias Abdel Kader, emphasised these grievances: “We are reborn now. We want to know everything on this country: Stud­ies, work, driving licence, transpor­tation card… metro, buses, touristic places.”

Raed proposed in the report that what was needed was an app that “contains some laws concerning foreigners, immigrants and refu­gees; the social organisations…, health, insurance; what are the required documents to register to organisations and insurance; what are the services they provide.”

This is not to say that coders and app companies have all been asleep at the wheel. InfoAid is a mobile app developed by a couple in Hungary that provides users with informa­tion about medical care, transport, and common national practices. Refugermany emerged from an ap­plication development competition and supplies similar services to mi­grants arriving in Germany. Where­2Help is the Austrian equivalent.

Despite these efforts, the re­search suggests that quick tech fixes such as these may not be suf­ficient.

As Cheesman put it: “[Technol­ogy] must go hand in hand with sustainable on-the-ground sup­port, such as old-fashioned paper-distributed information. What we need are bottom-up ways of inte­grating real life with the digital, which is also arguably real life.”