Connected migrants

Contrary to common perception, migrants and refugees are often well connected in terms of mobile technology, using smart phones for communications, mapping and social networking during their journeys. Moreover, many economic or political refugees find themselves in camps that sometimes even offer them recharging stations for their devices or a wireless internet connection.

Migrants from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria often use mobile technology to assist them in escaping their fate in their home country and ultimately in finding a new home. Technology might act as a rough guide to destinations and transit points in countries such as Turkey and Greece, as well as providing access to friends and family who can lend them money to continue the journey.

Judith Zijlstra of the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) at the University of Amsterdam and Ilse van Liempt of the Human Geography Department at Utrecht University share details of their case study on the use of mobile technology by migrants on their way to Europe. The article is published in the International Journal of Migration and Border Studies.

The authors have used a research approach known as trajectory ethnography that allows them to understand how mobile technology affects the journey of migrants: “This methodology leads to a more nuanced understanding of irregular migration because it enables us to capture the complex dynamics involved in irregular migration processes and to reflect on decisions taken by migrants throughout the process,” the team reports.

The team demonstrates that mobile technologies and smart phones increase migrants’ mobility by enlarging individuals’ access to online information during their journey and by promoting new interconnections between migrants en route. Migrants try to build contacts with migrants who have already completed the journey, as the information given by them is considered more trustworthy.

Nevertheless, the availability of a smart phone is not a panacea that will always assist a migrant in crossing borders safely or reaching the intended destination. “Differences in educational background, digital literacy and foreign language skills have an important effect on migrants’ ability to actually use and profit from mobile technology,” the team explains. In addition, migrants are still the ones that have to make strategic decisions on the goal and continuation of their trip.

Zijlstra, J. and van Liempt, I. (2017) ‘Smart(phone) travelling: understanding the use and impact of mobile technology on irregular migration journeys’, Int. J. Migration and Border Studies, Vol. 3, Nos. 2/3, pp.174-191.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.