The link between migration and technology is not what you think

Smartphone refugees 2018

Syrian refugee Bushra sits with her children in Jordan in 2015, showing them images and text messages from their father, who left months earlier for Europe. © UNHCR/ Tanya Habjouqa

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Marie McAuliffe Head of Migration Policy Research Division, International Organization for Migration


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fundamentally reshaping our economies, social interactions and collective security. Alongside these changes, and most obviously in the political sphere, international migration is increasingly being described as one of the defining issues of our time. It is understandable, then, that the use of technology around migration is a hot topic. There are several highly pertinent connections between migration and technology, and yet the strongest is probably not what you think.

One high-profile issue in the last few years has been migrants’ use of information communications technology (ICT) during migration journeys. Sparked in part by mass migration events, researchers, policy-makers, analysts and law enforcement agencies have invested time and energy in understanding how ICT is being used to facilitate migration, most especially irregular migration involving smugglers.

The use of apps to share information in real-time, including to support clandestine border crossings, together with the consolidation of social media platforms to connect geographically dispersed groups with common interests, has raised valid questions concerning the extent to which technology has been used to support irregular migration, as well as to enable migrants to avoid abusive and exploitative migrant smugglers. The ‘appification of migration’ has become a topic of intense interest.

There has also been a strong focus on migrant tech, including on how migrant workers use ICT to adapt to new communities, new workplaces and new cultures, while maintaining links to their families and societies back home. This has involved apps – developed by migrants themselves, thanks to the ever-increasing access to emerging technology at low cost – to support better integration, as well as to ameliorate the perceived gaps in existing integration support services and systems. We are also starting to see the use of sophisticated algorithms, based on decades of data, to place refugees in communities in which they are statistically most likely to integrate successfully. In Switzerland, algorithmic decisions have replaced a system that was based on random placements by case officers.

The focus on migrant tech builds on a much larger body of work that has assessed over time how international migration acts to support and limit the transfer of technology and knowledge, often working in tandem with investment and trade flows along historical, geographic and geopolitical lines between countries and communities.

We are also witnessing the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) in migration debates, on the margins of discussions around the ‘future of work’, a topic which has rightly gained the attention of governments, employers, unions and the international community in recent years. The consequences for domestic labour markets, and the long-term challenges of ensuring that employment and other livelihood strategies are available to future generations, loom large in policy deliberations as AI is progressively taken up in key sectors.

Discussion of AI’s implications for migrant worker flows, and its related impacts on home communities, may have a lower profile, but these topics are areas of focus for policy-makers in origin countries. They came into sharp relief when Saudi Arabia bestowed citizenship upon the robot Sofia at the 2017 Future Investment Initiative conference.

More recent discussions have turned to blockchain technology and what that might mean for migration, most especially for remittances, but also for digital identities and global mobility. The use of blockchain technology in a Jordanian refugee camp, for example, is enabling refugees’ lost identities to be re-established. The broader implications for migration and mobility are still at the exploratory stages, although some argue that blockchain will have a huge impact on our lives in the future.

Nevertheless, a larger issue of much more immediate concern is already upon us. It is having a substantial effect on migration policy and practice around the world, as well as on the lives of migrants and non-migrants living in host communities. It involves the utilization of social media technology to impact the politics of migration, and ultimately the policies of governments.

We have seen this occur in specific areas of public policy, typically involving traditional activists seeking change for reasons of social justice, environmental protection or human rights. The social media campaign against the Australian government’s super trawler policy is an example of a successful campaign for policy change. We have also witnessed the centrality of social media in political change, such as during the Arab Spring.

However, a new report by Dublin City University involving big data analysis of 7.5 million tweets during the mass migration events of 2015 and 2016 to and through Europe shows a surge in far-right online activism. Far-right activists used accounts to influence framing during and following these events in negative and racist ways for political purposes, the research shows. Largely, they were successful in influencing the political debate in Europe, making it much harder for proportional, reasonable responses to be enacted around migration. At the time, many assessed that there had been somewhat of a failure of politics. However, this masks more systemic and darker forces at work.

We are likely seeing another surge in far-right activism on social media platforms, focusing on the Global Compact for Migration, especially in Europe. While it will take time to analyze the metrics, the same modus operandi appears to be in play, and it appears to be effective. Some European countries have withdrawn their support of the Compact after far-right activist campaigning. Again, we are seeing commentators point to the failure of politicians, rather than acknowledging the efficacy of the far-right activists as they wage an online battle based on fear and lies. In an era in which those who make the most noise get their way, sometimes regardless of the facts, the harnessing of social media platforms for specific policy change has well and truly arrived.

We must keep foremost in our minds that this is happening, in Europe and elsewhere, at a time of relative prosperity and peace. There is no global financial crisis; economic fundamentals are strong; diversity has never been greater; social cohesion is largely working; and peace prevails. The latest Global Peace Index shows that peace in Europe and elsewhere continues to be high.

We have entered an era of disruption, in which some of the most significant battles over values, ideologies, policies and power are being undertaken virtually, using new technology. The well-crafted analyses, initiatives and responses of experts, scientists, policy-makers and practitioners based on facts, evidence and insightful analysis are not cutting through in political and policy debates anymore. Instead, the bigger game is now playing out on our smartphones.

For the moment, the disrupters who peddle outright lies are in the ascendency. It’s time to reassess the ‘problem’. Let’s be clear: it is not migration. Similar to other complex policy issues, international migration is not without challenges, despite its significant economic and social benefits. But recent studies and events have revealed the ability of disrupters to attack reasonable and measured policy responses on false grounds.

The biggest issue in migration and technology is that newer forms of social media activism are increasingly enabling disrupters to set the migration agenda, based on fear and lies, in a quest for power. It’s time to focus our collective efforts – technological, intellectual, political, social, financial – to implement effective ways to minimize the impacts of this growing problem.

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