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What Does a Smartphone Mean to a Refugee?

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What Does a Smartphone Mean to a Refugee?


  • After food and shelter, a smartphone is the next essential
  • Asylum seekers would stop their journeys to access free Wi-Fi
  • Tech can be used to transfer funds, or find news of lost family

In an increasingly digital world, after food and shelter, the next necessity that people have is an Internet connected smartphone, says Mark Latonero, PhD, Lead Researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York. Latonero’s work focuses on the implication of new technologies in the human rights space and speaking at the Cornell Tech Law Colloquium last month at Cornell University, he discussed the tensions between emerging technologies and the law, in particular the inadvertent ways in which tech companies have made interventions in the refugee crisis.

“There are challenges and opportunities and technology can make a positive impact,” said Latonero. “It’s complicated. How can you think about technology, not as a thing in and of itself, but an intrical part social context. Digital infrastructures are facilitating the movement of people on a mass scale, but also serve as a mechanism for social control.”

Expanding on this, Latonero spoke about his research among refugees, particularly around 2015 and 2016, when the refugee crisis was at its apex.

“It’s almost too hard to comprehend the scale of refugees, fleeing conflict, particularly Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and in 2015, which was the apex, we’re talking about a million people who crossed the sea and into Greece,” Latonero explained. “What we started hearing about, particularly in 2015, was the role that technology was playing. So my question was, what is the unique value of the smartphone in this context for a population that is essentially fleeing for its lives? I spent a little time in Serbia, in 2015, when about 10,000 refugees were crossing the border of Serbia.”

At that point, the government of Serbia was running a service where refugees could board a bus at the border on entry, and eight hours later – Serbia being a small country – they would reach the border to Croatia and move forward on their journey.

public wifi reuters

“I saw something really unique. I noticed that a number of migrants and refugees were stopping at Belgrade,” he said. “What they were stopping in Belgrade for was the digital infrastructure, which was becoming just as crucial for their movement. They stopped for the free Wi-Fi that the Red Cross set up. They stopped at banks, and Western Union, to get money they might have set up before leaving. So this sort of digital infrastructure was facilitating movement as well.”

The role of the private sector
Some countries had declared that all official communications for the refugees would occur via Skype. In other cases, access to resources and information from agencies was also possible only through digital means. But these weren’t the only reasons for people to turn to the Internet. Like the rest of us reading this at home, the refugee populations also turned to Facebook and other social media, often to keep track of their friends and family.

“So in the same way that we use Facebook or WhatsApp to coordinate with our friends or loved ones, to find directions, those kinds of uses are also for people where – finding people, or finding directions, could be a matter of life or death,” Latonero explained. “But there’s also a negative impact – while Facebook can be used to connect – it is also being used to exploit. So, the advertising of human trafficking and human smuggling is also being done through social media.”

These kinds of services were often highly exploitative, and were not, as one might hope, victimless crimes, Latonero explained. “Now, Facebook didn’t want their service to be used by human smugglers either, so that’s you know, another inadvertent intervention.”

Information and connection
So what were the different ways in which refugees were making use of their phones and apps, we wondered? This was a question Latonero also wanted to answer, and he realised that it wasn’t possible to do this while in New York, and as a result, he joined a research team that went to stay in a refugee town in Greece for over two weeks. The team carried out quantitive and qualitative surveys in this refugee camp, and some of the results are quite illuminating.

One of the questions that the survey wanted to clear up was where people get their information from. “Normally, a lot of the information you receive comes from talking to people, even here [in Cornell] where you’re all pretty digitally connected,” said Latonero. “But the mobile Internet – through free Wi-Fi, or with a data plan – accounted for 75 percent of news and information for the refugees. And 40 percent of the people told us that they use it to keep track of their friends and family, to stay connected to people who are left behind, and 24 percent of the people also said they used social media to track down people who had gone missing.”

whatsapp messaging

Beyond that, the research also found that 95 percent of men owned phones, while only 67 percent of women had a smartphone. This is in some ways in line with what you see in rural India, where in many cases, there is one phone for the family, held by the man of the house. “The ownership issue became quite significant,” said Latonero. “Imagine if you’re an NGO that wanted to get information to women who faced domestic violence. Your idea was to use mobile phones to send information etcetera, but then you realise that less women own phones than men, then it would change how you would design your intervention.”

Another example he gives is that the vast majority of the refugees surveyed used WhatsApp (95 percent) while only 10 percent had Skype on their phones. As a result, many official interventions, and even private interventions, such as Coursera and Skype having educational courses for refugees, would not be accessed.

“Essentially we need to really think about how to responsibly innovate in these very complex issues,” Latonero said, ending the chat, “A straight-up tech solutionist approach doesn’t really seem like it would work, given all we know about the challenges with technology itself.”

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