Migration in the Age of WhatsApp

Migration in the Age of WhatsApp

A rainbow arcs over the Jungle migrant camp in Calais, France, on Oct. 22, 2016.

SourceJack Taylor/Getty

Why you should care

The same apps you use to procrastinate can save countless migrant lives.

When Abel’s boat reached the shores of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, the 17-year-old Eritrean had only one thing in mind. And it was not finding shelter or food — it was getting a smartphone.

He managed to borrow a phone from a local woman and place a WhatsApp call to his brother in Paris. In just a few minutes, they had organized a way for Abel’s brother to send him money to buy his own mobile phone. The young refugee’s face lit up with a huge smile as he hung up. “All is good now,” he said. “He knows I’m OK.”

Migration is one of humanity’s oldest traditions, and the reasons behind it have changed little over time — whether it is fleeing from danger or looking for greener pastures. Yet communication technology has evolved so radically in the last couple decades that platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Viber are now guiding the journeys of almost every migrant on the planet.

As a refugee, your sense of certainty has been shattered. Having access to information empowers you to make your own choices again

Lucy Carrigan, International Rescue Committee, Lesbos, Greece

Smartphones provide migrants with all the tools they need to ensure a safe journey. Besides the fundamental Google Maps service, they provide up-to-date news, security alerts and even comic relief in the form of YouTube videos. Yet these same platforms are also being used to lure migrants into all kinds of traps — from modern slavery to incarceration.

Whether good or bad, this is not a passing trend. According to Godfried Engbersen, professor of sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, “technology is actively transforming the nature of migration networks.” In his research about social media platforms and migration, Engbersen has found that new technologies are empowering migrants in a number of unprecedented ways — like being able to find job opportunities from strangers or staying in touch with loved ones on either end of the route. Access to the internet can not only boost migrants’ emotional well-being but also give them a much-needed sense of control. That’s what Lucy Carrigan noticed while working as the regional manager of communications for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Lesbos, Greece.

“As a refugee, your sense of certainty has been shattered,” says Carrigan. “Having access to information empowers you to make your own choices again.”

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Refugees use mobile phones to take pictures of a map upon their arrival on Eftalou beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos on Sept. 21, 2015.

Source Iakovos Hatzistavrou/Getty

Nonprofits and tech giants are fast realizing the power of these tools and trying to develop migrant-specific mobile-first solutions. Google, Microsoft and Cisco have all partnered with IRC to run Refugee.Info, an online platform and app that delivers up-to-date, factual information to asylum-seekers. What began three years ago as a trial program in Greece has since amassed close to 100,000 Facebook followers and expanded to four other countries, with plans to launch in Italy by early 2018. “Information is lifesaving,” insists Carrigan.

Indeed, communication can save many from dying, especially on such perilous routes as the Mediterranean crossing. This summer, a boat carrying 25 migrants was sinking off the Spanish coast when one of the passengers managed to send an SOS message on WhatsApp with their precise location. Soon after, the coast guard arrived and rescued them all.

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Migrants charge their mobile phones in a restaurant near Belgrade’s central bus station.

Source Oliver Bunic/Getty Images

Yet there’s also a dark side to these technologies. With hundreds of Facebook and WhatsApp groups dedicated to aspiring migrants, callous smugglers and human traffickers have no trouble finding desperate people to extort money from.

Anita found her recruitment agency through a Facebook group in Ethiopia. It promised well-paying jobs for domestic workers in Lebanon, and she needed money to pay for her ill mother’s treatment. So she took the gig. Once in Beirut, she realized her job paid a third of what she was promised, and her employers were physically abusive. “They treated me like their slave,” she says. Still, when Anita finally managed to escape and use Viber to call her mother, she didn’t tell her about the abuse. “I didn’t want her to worry.”

This tendency to embellish reality is feeding a dangerous loop of misinformation. Migrants are attracted by glamorous images of success abroad, and if their own journey does not go well, they feel pressured to pretend it did. Meanwhile, traffickers continue to cash in.

Granted, such stories vary widely from one nationality to the next because there’s still a massive technological divide between countries like Turkey — where 72 percent of people use the internet — and Ethiopia, where only 8 percent do. Yet as the digital gap closes, more migrants will inevitably embrace the power of the smartphone. Yes, inaccurate information will likely continue to spread like wildfire online, causing some migrants to try and jump the wrong fence or asylum-seekers to miss an important deadline.

But when it comes to fake news, Engbersen says migrants are fast improving their fact-checking skills and becoming adept at telling truths from lies. After all, their lives may depend on it.

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