By Tim Unwin, Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, Royal Holloway, University of London
UN agencies, donors, and civil society organisations have invested considerable time, money and effort in finding novel ways through which migrants, and especially refugees, can benefit from the use of digital technologies. Frequently this has been through the development of apps specifically designed to provide them with information, advice and support, both during the migration journey and in their destination countries. All too often, though, these initiatives have been short-lived or have failed to gain much traction. The InfoAid app, for example, launched by Migration Aid in Hungary amid considerable publicity in 2015 to make life easier for migrants travelling to Europe, posted a poignant last entry on its Facebook page in 2017: “InfoAid app for refugees is being rehauled, so no posting at the moment. Hopefully we will be back soon in a new and improved form! Thank you all for your support!”
However, new apps continue to be developed, drawing on some lessons from past experience. Among the most interesting are MigApp (followed by 93 668 people on Facebook) developed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a one-stop-shop for the most up-to-date information. Another is RedSafe developed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which enables those affected by conflict, migration and other humanitarian crises to access the services offered by the ICRC and its partners. Other apps seek to be more local and focused, such as Shuvayatra (followed by 114 026 on Facebook), which was developed by the Asia Foundation and its partners to provide Nepali migrant labourers with the tools they need to plan a safer period of travel and work abroad.
Our work with migrants nevertheless suggests that in practice very few migrants in the 12 countries where we are active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, ever use apps specifically designed for migrants. Moreover, most of those who claim to use such apps name them as Facebook, Imo, or WhatsApp, which were never originally intended as “migrant apps”. A fine balance therefore needs to be made when developing relevant interventions in combining the professional knowledge (often top-down) of international agencies with the more bottom-up approaches that focus on the digital tech already used by migrants.
Our wider research goes on to highlight four broad areas for action to complement the plethora of activities around app development:
First, there needs to be much more information sharing and collaboration between international organisations working in this field. While an element of competition between agencies may be seen as positive in encouraging innovation, there remains far too much overlap, duplication and reinventing the wheel. The creation of a global knowledge-sharing platform on digital tech and migration could provide a first port of call that any organisation considering developing a new initiative could go to for ideas or potential collaborative opportunities.
Second, our research has shown very clearly that use of digital tech by migrants varies considerably in different areas of the world and between different groups of migrants. There is no one-size-fits-all, and context matters. Hence, practitioners should be careful when making generalisations about how “migrants and refugees” use, or want to use, digital tech.
Third, it is important to remember that actions and policies are much more likely to succeed if they are developed with rather than for migrants. This fundamental principle is too frequently ignored, with well-meaning “outsiders” too often seeking to develop digital interventions for migrants without fully understanding their needs and aspirations. As our own research has shown, though, it is far from easy to appreciate and understand the underlying needs that different groups of migrants prioritise and how best they can be delivered.
Fourth, it sadly remains as true today as it was twenty years ago that many of the poorest and most marginalised still do not know how to use digital technologies effectively, appropriately, securely and safely. Many migrants contributing to our research own a smartphone or have access to one, but frequently they only have a rudimentary knowledge of how to use it optimally. Some aspire to use digital tech to learn and acquire skills, while others wish to enhance their business opportunities; in both cases, many do not know how best to do so. Few also sufficiently appreciate the very significant security, privacy and surveillance issues associated with using digital tech. The development of basic training courses – preferably face-to-face – may be one of the best investments that can be made in assisting migrants to help themselves when using digital tech.
Looking to the future, the power relationships involved in the migration process mean it is likely that migrants will become increasingly controlled and subject to surveillance through the use of digital tech. In some circumstances, it might even be wiser for migrants to avoid using any form of digital tech at all. However, there are exciting opportunities to develop novel ways through which migrants might benefit further from digital tech. One of the challenges faced by many migrants is the sadness associated with being away from family and friends. While video calls can go some way to mitigate this, new developments in haptics may soon enable us to feel someone’s touch or hug.
Likewise, inserting microchips into our bodies is becoming increasingly widespread, and in the future this practice could offer real potential for migrants for example to have their qualifications and other documents actually within their bodies, or for their families to be able to track them on the often dangerous journey to their destination. Countering this, of course, is the likelihood that most authorities would use such technologies for surveillance purposes that would threaten migrants’ privacy.
As with all digital tech, it is important to remember that it can be used to do good or to harm. Many migrants are especially vulnerable, and it is incumbent on those seeking to support them that migrants are able to make their own informed decisions on how they choose to use digital tech. Often, the best interventions might well be built around improving existing ways through which migrants use apps and other digital technologies, rather than developing entirely new solutions that may never be widely used.
I am particularly grateful to G. Hari Harindranath and Maria Rosa Lorini, as well as the many other people and migrants with whom we are working, for their contributions to the ongoing research practice on which this post is based.