03 / 16 / 2022

Refugees and digital tools: opportunities and challenges

article by Massoud Sharifi – Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)

Digital tools and social networks play an increasingly important role in shaping the response to the recent refugee development. The rapid spread and increasing transformation of digital technologies and social media platforms have had a significant impact on the experience of many refugees. In contrast to physical spaces, the internet and digital tools are often presented as a borderless space, which can potentially provide means to confront the various challenges faced by refugees. Electronic devices, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops, are used by refugees to browse, search for trusted sources of information, keep in touch with family members, friends, and other refugees, but also to seek support and guidance from international organisations and civil society institutions that support refugees and asylum seekers. Digital connectivity and access to technology could pave the way for greater empowerment of forced migrants in transit and those who have already made the journey. Indeed, digital connectivity could improve access to health services, education, information, and be useful in accessing resources, skills, competencies, and employment opportunities.

Furthermore, digital technologies could be seen as a valuable resource to facilitate interaction between refugees and local communities. They are used by refugees not only to communicate with their country of origin but also to establish links with local communities. They can be used as an essential tool to highlight commonalities and bridge cultural and ethnic divides. Social media can stimulate and reinforce the concept of community, which means that they can facilitate encounters of people with different cultural and social backgrounds.

While digital tools are recognised as being very useful, they have also given rise to a series of controversies. The results of research we conducted in 2020 on the use of digital tools and social media in refugee-related activities revealed that the use of these tools faces several challenges.

At the policy level, the main problem is the insufficient strategic attention given to the use of new technologies in the process of the inclusion of forced migrants. The main priority of the authorities continues to be addressing the basic needs of asylum seekers and refugees. The lack of such interest in different policy sectors often results in a lack of necessary resources, which makes it difficult for stakeholders involved in refugee protection and support.

The main factors preventing NGOs working with refugees from using more digital tools and adapting integration projects to digital media are the lack of funding and resources for staff training. The principal challenge for NGOs when it comes to including technology in their working practices is to be supported by professionals to develop and then maintain the digital tools with which they can conduct their activities.

As regards refugees, the issues of unequal access to digital tools and the digital gap are major challenges. Unequal access to digital technologies and social media can reproduce existing social inequalities shaped by socio-economic status, gender, education levels, language barriers, age, different abilities, and certain health conditions. It should be noted that If refugees do not have access to digital networks or devices equitably and sustainably, the use of new technologies can present new challenges for their inclusion.