For refugees seeking to reach Europe, the digital infrastructure is as important as the physical infrastructures of roads, railways, sea crossings and the borders controlling the free movement of people. (Gillespie et al 2016:2)
Last year, I worked on an academic report about smartphones and their affordances in providing news and information to refugees. The online and offline ethnographic research investigated how Syrian people on their way to Europe use digital tools such as messaging and calling services, websites, mapping and translation tools, and social media platforms. The experience of migration produces inherent insecurities. Journeys are physically perilous, and refugees are exposed to criminal exploits, precarious living conditions and desperate survival strategies. We found that smartphones are a crucial, empowering infrastructure, as important as roads or railways. Here, security is tied with mobility: the smartphone is an essential tool for Syrian refugees planning and executing a perilous journey. With its affordances, one can feel more prepared, networked and supported, secure and resilient. Indeed, migrant deaths occur ‘in areas with no mobile phone coverage, and most rescue operations are initiated by migrants using their mobile phones’ (Gillespie et al 2016:10).
Yet, this digital infrastructure is simultaneously bound with a more sinister politics of securitization. Smartphones paradoxically also invoke fear, danger and insecurity as refugees – especially political dissenters – are afraid of hacking and surveillance by state and non-state actors. In these contexts, data security is paramount. We found that most Syrian refugees use avatars on Facebook, and closed platforms like WhatsApp are the most used communication spaces. Going digitally underground in this way exposes refugees to greater risks, often forcing them to rely upon unreliable, unverified alternative sources of news and information circulating on social media by smugglers and handlers.
What’s more, smartphones make for a precarious, contingent material infrastructure. As Boellstorff points out (2016), ‘digital ontology depends on the physical: if you pull the plug or let the battery run down, the digital no longer exists’. Refugees are dependent on access to Wi-Fi and charging docks, and rely, for example, on plastic bags to keep their devices dry at sea. Many refugee participants noted the difficulties in obtaining a new functioning SIM card upon arrival in Europe. So, the material infrastructure of smartphones poses an ambivalent dynamic of security and insecurity, and it affords an information-communication infrastructure that poses a paradoxical tendency towards empowerment and surveillance.
Rodgers and O’Neill (2012) propose the concept of ‘infrastructural violence’, which may be active or passive, i.e. there are infrastructural activities made against excluded or vulnerable actors, but also ones that have harmful social consequences indirectly. This Refugee Mobiles research lays bare the multifarious forms of active and passive infrastructural violence suffered by Syrian refugees fleeing war and persecution (such as the hacking and surveillance of vulnerable actors online; the difficulties accessing SIM cards or WiFi). As Rodgers and O’Neill suggest, infrastructure is a powerful site to think about accountability, justice, and the development of ethical frameworks. The report called for the European Commission to convene a partnership between member states, news organisations, tech companies, NGOs and other stakeholders, in order to orchestrate a sustainable, up-to-date news and information strategy for refugees based on its best practise principles. A new platform InfoMigrants will soon launch as a result of the evidence provided by our research. Yet, much more must be done by all these actors to mitigate the profound insecurity of and infrastructural violence against people on the move.
By Margie Cheesman
Boellstorff, T. (2016). “The Digital That Will Be”. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/819-the-digital-that-will-be.
Gillespie, M., L. Ampofo, M. Cheesman, B. Faith, E. Iliadou, A. Issa, S. Osseiran, and D. Skleparis (2016). Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smartphones and Social Media Networks. Access: http://www.open.ac.uk/ccig/sites/www.open.ac.uk.ccig/files/Mapping%20Refugee%20Media%20Journeys%2016%20May%20FIN%20MG_0.pdf
Rodgers, D & B. O’Neill (2012). “Infrastructural violence: Introduction to the special issue”, Ethnography 13(4):401-412.