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“Smart Migration?” The Power and Potential of Mobile Phones and Social Media to Transform Refugee Experiences
Marie Gillespie

Providing reliable and timely information and news to refugees should be regarded as a humanitarian matter of life or death, not feared as facilitating migration to Europe, and it should be integral to “smart migration” in terms of policy and practice.

This article is based on research that investigated the parallel tracks of the physical and digital journeys of Syrian refugees, and the role played by smartphones in shaping migration movements and the experiences of refugees. The research was carried out by The Open University and France Médias Monde from September 2015 to April 2016. It documented the media and information resources used by refugees via smartphones from the point of departure, during their journeys across different borders and states, and upon arrival in Europe - if they manage to reach their desired destination. The ensuing report ‘Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smartphones and Social Media Networks’ was published in May 2016 [1].

The research identified a huge gap in the provision of relevant, reliable and timely information for refugees. The research team used the research to submit evidence to the European Commission about the news and information resources required to enable refugees to make better-informed decisions. We also appealed to European Member States to fulfil their obligations under the UN Refugee Convention 1951. As signatories to the Convention, they are obliged to provide information about national legislation relating to refugees and to cooperate with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in a timely and ordered fashion. We argue that there is an urgent need for a common European policy and approach to tackling this deficit in news and information.

This article gives an overview of the key findings of our research on smartphone uses among refugees. It points to some lessons learned based on an assessment of state-of- the art digital resources for and by refugees. A set of eight principles are distilled from our research that can be used by any group aiming to provide refugees with digital support via smartphones. Hopefully these may inform future developments in the field. Further reflections arising from our findings are offered on what “smart migration” might mean as a concept and what it might entail for policy and practice – for refugees, humanitarian workers, governments, policymakers, civil society groups and NGOs.

 One Year On

One year on from the height of Europe’s refugee crisis and the situation seems less critical this summer. The EU-Turkey deal has reduced flows of refugees coming out of Turkey to a trickle compared to last August when, for example, on the island of Lesvos alone, two thousand refugees landed daily. Even so, refugees continue to make dangerous journeys to Europe via Libya. Then and now, Greece and Germany have borne the brunt of the responsibility for providing protection for refugees. Most other European nations have turned their backs: they have tightened, closed and militarized borders, and continue to squabble over the low numbers of refugees that they are willing to shelter. European governments and policy-makers have mostly failed in their responsibility under the 1951 Refugee Convention to provide protection and security for refugees. A vital but neglected aspect of this is information security: the provision of timely, relevant, well-structured and clear information and news in appropriate languages to assist refugees to access services and humanitarian assistance.

One distinctive feature of the recent human exodus is the widespread use of smartphones by all those who can afford them. But even the poorest of refugees generally have access to a 2G mobile phone. European politicians, policy-makers and publics have all been taken by surprise by the power of the mobile phone and social media to transform the decision-making, journeys and experiences of refugees. In August 2015, for example, the news media were awash with reports that trumpeted the positive value of the smartphone as a “refugee essential”. But as we discovered in our Open University research on this issue, after the 13 November Paris attacks refugees and terrorists became conflated in the public imagination, and the smartphone became ‘a terrorist essential’ – seen as a threat, just like the refugees. News media questioned whether “refugees wielding smartphones” like weapons could be genuine [2].

[1] For the full report see: http://www.open.ac.uk/ccig/sites/www.open.ac.uk.ccig/files/Mapping%20Refugee%20Media%20Journeys%2016%20May%20FIN%20MG_0.pdf

[2] For further details on the media coverage of these issues, see Chapter One of the Open University Research Report ‘Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smartphones and Social Media Networks’ by Marie Gillespie, Lawrence Ampofo, Margaret Cheesman, Becky Faith, Evgenia Iliadou, Ali Issa, Souad Osseiran, Dimitris Skleparis. Published in May 2016.