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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

The Digital Migrant

“Water, phone and food.” This article takes a look at the crucial role played by smartphones and technology in the lives of migrants.


Digital space increasingly occupies a purgatory-like status in our conscious lives. We congregate in the manifestation of our online identities, disengaged from the physical whilst immersed in a secondary reality. Through smartphones and laptops, users around the world are able to access a common ground that is not easily limited by physical geography. We use our smartphones for a vast number of things: from online banking to cycling directions. The data that we gain is often overshadowed by the vast amount of data that these devices obtain about us. However, for the former reason, Middle-Eastern asylum migrants have increasingly turned to their smartphones for deliverance.

According to Marie Gillespie, a sociologist at The Open University in the United Kingdom, “water, phone, and food” are the three most important things that asylum migrants have reported taking with them when fleeing their homes. Their technological savviness has led to organizations flocking to this medium in order to provide assistance. Gillespie says, “Once in Europe, again, the smartphone becomes an absolutely vital tool, not only to inform themselves about shifts in migration policy and where the problems and dangers might lie … but because it can really help to fill in the big picture and counter smugglers narratives.”

Asylum migrants are often misinformed and led astray by those who wish to take advantage of their desperation.

However, how do they use their devices? Often, smartphones are used to communicate with those who have gone ahead, in addition to using digital services such as Refugee.Info that help with the legal and transitioning aspects of the forced displacement. However, asylum migrants are often misinformed and led astray by those who wish to take advantage of their desperation. After arrival in the host country, social media also plays the role of giving asylum migrants sovereign control over their digital identities, shaping their own narratives for the world to see. The archive of photos and memories stored on the device also help to preserve a part of their lives that has undoubtedly fused itself into their identity: the dangerous voyage to Europe. Smartphones also allow for the engagement of valuable social capital so that the new arrivees are able to network with those who have arrived earlier, therefore being able to exchange important information for a more streamlined integration process.

Unfortunately, this enhanced social connectivity can also backfire. Just as we compare the quality of our lives to the seemingly glamorous ones of Instagram influencers or YouTube personalities, asylum migrants do the same through their social media-based perception of the migration experiences of those who have gone before them. This causes unrealistic expectations, also aiding conniving scammers attempting to convince the asylum migrants of a comfortable life in the land to come.

Despite the obvious convenience they provide, the use of smartphones in an asylum migrant’s passage is still not a light undertaking. They must be cautious with the digital traces they leave through their reliance on public wifi networks, as this allows for potential surveillance by various actors. Research has indicated that Syrian asylum migrants prefer social media information that originates from existing social ties and is based on personal experiences, due to its higher perceived trustworthiness. Additionally, not all migrants have smartphones. The press has presented a skewed representation of the more affluent Syrian refugees who are able to afford smartphones and phone credit in the first place, failing to take into consideration the less privileged Afghans, Eritreans, Somalis, and more.

These representations only serve to exacerbate existing stereotypes.

The portrayal of said asylum migrants in these digital spaces is often inaccurate, with that of male Middle-Eastern asylum migrants being particularly problematic. Twitter hashtags such as #refugeesNOTwelcome mainly display images of male migrants, fueling their associations with ISIL, terrorism and rape. Another popular stereotype in Internet memes is the labelling of the male Middle-Eastern asylum migrant as “cowardly” and effeminate, questioning the choice to flee their war-torn countries instead of remaining to fight. For example, this is done through the juxtaposition of their images next to those of “Kurdish” women in combat fatigues, questioning why they do not rise to the occasion of war. These representations only serve to exacerbate existing stereotypes that do nothing for the public except polarize and divide. Downplaying the prevalence of women and children migrants in the media erases the vulnerability of the asylum migrant’s state, rendering their experience invisible.

In 2015 and 2016, the European migrant crisis was given overwhelming media attention. Today, despite its persisting urgency, the issue has been tabled on the media, public, and political agenda. This response reflects the ebb and flow of the media’s temporal nature, and its failure to bring timely and appropriate salience to the most pressing issues of our generation. How do we create change in a system that seems so impenetrably static? Despite the smallness of our existences, collectively, action can be taken. Perhaps, from 23 to 26 May 2019, one just might be able to choose representatives that hold efficient views on European migration and asylum policy in the upcoming European Parliament elections, the EU’s solitary mechanism of direct democratic participation. Perhaps.

Cover: Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash
Editor: Mana Reed Stutchbury

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