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Briefing Paper 2: Getting to Europe the ‘WhatsApp’ way - The use of ICT in contemporary mixed migration flows to Europe

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The widespread use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and social media during irregular migration journeys is increasingly understood as a key means through which migrants and refugees make plans prior to departing and obtain information en route. It is already known that smartphones are vitally important for migrants and refugees during irregular migration. For example in early September 2015, the International Rescue Committee set out to assess how important mobile phones were to refugees and migrants coming from the Middle East, by checking what they took in their backpack on the journey to Europe. One object was in nearly every backpack: a smartphone. Similarly, a Financial Times article concluded one donation to refugees camping at Budapest’s Keleti railway station proved particularly popular: a solar-powered mobile phone charging unit. In addition, a recent International Organisation for Migration (IOM) survey of Iraqis in Europe found that 23% and 22% of people used social media and the internet respectively to plan their journeys. There are gaps in the literature as to how ICTs and social media are employed by people for the purpose of and during irregular migration, which this paper sets out to address.

Both before but increasingly also during migration, migrants and refugees rely on social media such as: Facebook, Twitter and applications such as WhatsApp, Skype, Viber and Google Maps, to nd out about routes and border closures, avoid police or detection by border guards, nd reliable smugglers and follow the news on government responses to the in ux of refugees and migrants into Europe. By sharing information on social media and using Google Maps to navigate, smartphones provide migrants and refugees with information on where to go next. This paper focuses on the use of ICTs and social media in the migration trajectories of migrants and refugees heading for Europe, coming from the Middle East and from the Horn of Africa (particularly Somalia). While many studies have been conducted on the role of ICTs and social media after migration – related to migrant integration in host countries, to maintaining family relations, sustaining cultural identities and in supporting a family from abroad – the focus of this paper is on the use of social media before and especially during migration. This paper proposes a typology of di erent ways in which ICTs are used by migrants and refugees before, and particularly during, irregular migration. Throughout the paper, examples and screenshots are presented of the actual use of social media by migrants and refugees. These examples are based on internet searches conducted on Facebook, Twitter andYouTube in 2015 and 2016, using various expressions for irregular migration, such as ‘Tahriib’ in Somali. These searches were conducted by Arabic and Somali speaking researchers.

Dekker and Engbersen (2012) argue that new communication channels opened by social media can transform migrant networks and thus facilitate migration through four key functions: (1) by strengthening strong ties with family and friends; (2) by creating weak ties to individuals that can assist in the process of migration (and integration); (3) by creating a network of latent ties; and (4) by creating a rich source of ‘insider knowledge’ on migration.

Largely user driven, social media o ers a place for potential, current and former migrants and refugees across many locations to develop networks and communicate on a range of topics. For instance, they can use ICTs to maintain ties and a nities with their countries of origin and communicate amongst personal networks. Across countries of origin and destination, people have long shared stories about migration to either celebrate success or o er caution. Today social media o ers a level of inter-connectedness that can also in uence decisions about and during irregular migration.

While we argue that ICTs and social media are increasingly used in mixed migration ows, social media access across countries of origin, transit and destination is still uneven. This is commonly referred to as the ‘digital divide’, the disparity that exists in access to ICTs between, for example, countries or regions, communities, ethnicities, gender, or age groups. Some asylum seekers and refugees on the move may also be anxious to communicate with family members in their country of origin using ICTs due to concerns for their safety, as is the case in Eritrea for example where internet usage is strictly monitored.

A recurring theme within the discourse on the European refugee and migrant ‘crisis’ of 2015, was the fact that, limitations aside, many refugees own smartphones, and use mobile applications to navigate their journeys. Potential migrants and refugees seek out virtual networks to gather information about suitable destinations and routes as well as integration in their intended destinations in addition to their friends and relatives in countries of origin, transit and destination. Brokers and smugglers are also providers of information both in person and online. Smuggling routes and procedures in intended destination countries change fast, as has been seen in Europe throughout 2015 with borders closing as people are on the move, and social media platforms have emerged as a means of communication to share information throughout networks about migration in real-time. Connecting potential migrants, migrants en route, and diaspora networks, mechanisms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber allow migrants and refugees to transmit information about the migration process. The uptake of social media can also be explained by the relatively young pro le of irregular migrants, who in the case of Syrians and Iraqis are also largely middle class, and the growing in uence of social media worldwide.

As will be discussed next, social media platforms are used at di erent stages of migration and for di erent purposes such as acquiring passports and legal documents, information about best destinations, routes, information in transit, cost of migration routes, smuggler contacts and warnings about scams and/or fraudulent smugglers as well as closed routes. There is potential for social media sites to in uence migrants and refugees in decision-making as it o ers information, stories and images of the opportunities and risks in irregular migration. Overall Facebook acts as a ‘gateway’, introducing potential migrants to smugglers with further contact continuing through private social media platforms such as Whatsapp or Viber and sometimes phone calls.