Challenging the rhetoric around migration and digital technologies: Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference 2020 Panel Discussion

The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted more than ever the double-edged sword that digital technologies represent for migrants. These technologies offer not only access to information and networking for migrants but also create new vulnerabilities and exacerbate inequalities in the context of increasing securitisation of borders and rising xenophobia online. These inequalities relate not only to digital divides in terms of access and use but also outcomes that all too often mirror existing structural inequalities. Against this backdrop, we convened a special panel session at the Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference on 16th September 2020 that sought to challenge the rhetoric around migration and digital technologies. The panel, which I chaired, was linked to our ongoing research and practice relating to migration and digital technologies, part of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) funded MIDEQ Hub. MIDEQ, the South-South Migration, Inequality and Development Hub, brings together over 60 researchers and several partner organisations from around the world to examine the complex and multi-dimensional relationships between migration and inequality in the context of the Global South.

Migration has long been ‘appified’, and the recent digital responses to, and indeed the ‘appification’ of, COVID-19 highlights the opportunities as well as the risks associated with digital technologies for marginalised people, in particular migrants around the world. So, what are the key issues affecting digital migrants? What roles are international agencies and regional/local civil society organisations playing in this space? How do we ensure that digital technologies do not harm vulnerable people? These were some of the issues we addressed in the panel which brought together five distinguished speakers from around the world:

  • Tanja Dedovic – Senior Regional Thematic Specialist on Labour Mobility and Human Development for the Middle East and North Africa, International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Tanja spoke about the how IOM, the UN agency that advocates for migrants, is leveraging digital technologies to promote safe and orderly migration through its MigApp which provides information and humanitarian services to migrants and government agencies. She also highlighted new projects that are using blockchain technologies to prevent contract substitution which sees migrant workers being forced into work that they did not sign up for. Tanja further noted the importance of complementing such efforts with proactive communications strategies and conducting due diligence of employers.
  • Antonio Diaz-Andrade – Associate Professor, AUT University, Auckland. Antonio shared insights from his recent research into how refugees in New Zealand use digital technologies in their everyday social practices in unfamiliar information environments to exercise their agency. Refugees were seen to be using digital technologies to exercise their agency and to participate in their new host society while at the same time being socially connected to their friends and families in home countries and as well as in other parts of the world. A snapshot of his research is available here.
  • Evan Easton-Calabria – Senior Research Officer, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Evan’s talk centred around her recent study for UNDP, The Migrant Union – Digital Livelihoods for People on the Move, which examined the livelihoods opportunities and challenges from digital technologies, focusing particularly on digitally-mediated and remote work opportunities for refugees. She raised important questions in relation to refugee self-reliance and digital labour: are we truly training some of the most vulnerable people in the world for digital work or are we facilitating low-paid, low-skill work in the global gig economy which is subject to little or no regulation? Can we become more ambitious in the quality of work that is being offered to such workers? How can humanitarian agencies, intermediaries and employers ensure ethical safeguards for migrants in relation to digital work? How can the right to (or not to) work be protected? And how can the gender divide in relation to refugee digital workers and digital entrepreneurs be addressed?
  • William Gois – Regional Coordinator, Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA). William spoke about the work of MFA, a regional network of NGOs, associations and trade unions of migrant workers, and individual advocates in Asia that seeks to promote migrant rights. William cited several digital interventions that MFA has been part of including the Recruitment Advisor, which helps share recruitment experiences of migrants with a view to promoting fair recruitment practices and Hamsa, an online system for reporting migrant worker abuse. William challenged the rhetoric around the promise of digital technologies and their so-called pervasiveness by highlighting some of the structural and systemic barriers that prevent vulnerable groups such as migrants from accessing and benefitting from these technologies. He concluded that because digital technology is not an equaliser and they often increase inequalities, it is important to use both online and offline methods to connect with what are essentially a very diverse range of migrant groups.
  • Tim Unwin, Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, Royal Holloway, University of London. Tim spoke about the work he and I are leading on digital technologies, inequalities and migration within the larger MIDEQ project. He highlighted the key stages of our intervention work package which puts migrants at its core: first, seek to understand from migrants the ways in which they use digital technologies; second, explore with them how they understand notions of inequality within the migration process, and how they think technologies might be able to reduce them; and ultimately, work with migrants and digital developers to develop one or more digital technology interventions that can be used to reduce such inequalities. He also introduced two key findings from our early work which shows that while in some countries migrants are afraid of using digital technologies due to the harsh political conditions affecting migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, they rarely use apps designed specifically designed for them in many others. These findings highlight the need to protect migrant rights while developing digital technologies that addresses their needs and aspirations.

The interactive panel session led to thought-provoking conversations from both panellists and through the forum chat. A key take-away for me was that when it comes to digital technology and migration, we need to begin with the migrants and seek to understand their needs and priorities. Actors in this space need to work ‘with’ migrants and not ‘for’ them! The pandemic has laid bare digital inequalities both in terms of digital exclusion and the potentially disempowering impact of these technologies through securitisation and surveillance. We need a relentless focus on the potential risk to marginalised people from digital technologies both in terms of ethical use and in terms of how they intersect with existing structural inequalities.

G Hari Harindranath

Work Package Lead, Digital technologies and inequality, MIDEQ

The Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference 2020 Summary Report

The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was delighted to convene the first Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference on 16th September 2020 (#virtualict4d2020). COVID-19 had meant that it was impossible to hold the original ICT4D Non-Conference that had been scheduled for 15-17 September, and so we decided instead to bring together all those whose papers and demos had been accepted for a day long conversation – the Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference. All of the posters and demos were made available for participants to read before the event, and to have open on their own devices during the various sessions (these are still available for people to access at the Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference site).

The Programme

The full programme ran for eight hours live on Zoom from 09.00-17.00 UK time on 16th June. In line with the emphasis of the original non-conference, no presenters were permitted to use slide decks for their presentations. Fifteen posters and four demos were presented during the day, with there being more countries represented amongst the authors than there were presentations (because several papers had multiple authors from different countries). Eight were presented by women, and two of the six moderators were women.

Details and highlights of the day included:

  • Opening ceremony, with speeches by:
    • Tahir Naeem (COMSATS University, Islamabad, and Executive Director, Inter-Islamic Network on IT) on behalf of partner organisations, and
    • Jose Maria Diaz Batanero (Head, Project Support Division, ITU) on behalf of the ITU
    • And a moving musical interlude by Gameli Kodzo Tordzro while we reflected on all those whose lives had been transformed by COVID-19
  • Thematic sessions from:
    • Asia
      • Business perspectives, employment and health (Moderated by Vigneswara Ilavarasan)
      • Content, learning and the darker side of technology (Moderated by Akber Gardezi)
    • Africa and Europe
      • Government, security and indigenous perspective (Moderated by Azra Naseem)
      • Health (Moderated by Uduak Okon)
      • Education (Moderated by John Traxler)
    • The Americas (Moderated by Jose Maria Diaz Batanero)
  • Special session on migration and technology, moderated by Hari Harindranath, including five distinguished speakers from across the world.
  • Closing ceremony, with reflections by Revi Sterling, Hari Harindranath, Sallie Gregson, David Banes, and Lorenzo Cantoni

The awards

Emerald Publishing generously offered a £1000 award to be split between the top three posters presentations. A panel of reviewers read all of the posters in advance, and a subset of these reviewers also attended all of the sessions; 62.5% of the final score was derived from the poster itself, and 37.5% from the actual presentation and wider

The standards were high, and the three prize-winning posters and presentations were (in alphabetical order of first name):

Three poster presentations were also commended:

Participation and feedback

Approximately one hundred and fifty people had registered to participate in the Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference, and between 40 and 80 people participated at any one time during the day. The morning (UK time) sessions were scheduled for Asia, the middle of the day for Africa and Europe, and the afternoon for the Americas. This was so that the time zones were as convenient as possible for people to attend from across the world. We think that the country further east (from the UK) from which participants attended was New Zealand and the furthest west was the USA. Most participants came from South Asia and Africa.

The Virtual Non-Conference programme page received 600 views on the day (and 1331 views since 1st August; see map of September site views up to 19th below) with the posters submitted by Azra Naseem, Marcelo Fornazin, Djenana Jalovcic and Bushra Hassan each being downloaded more than 110 times.

We are delighted that participants also seemed to enjoy the event so much, not least as reflected in comments on Twitter (#virtualict4d2020):

  • “Thank you! Congratulations for the amazing Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference!
  • “It was an honor for me to discuss about my poster at #virtualict4d2020 along with all the panelists and being moderated by P. Vigneswara Ilavarasan”
  • “This was a milestone achievement during this COVID-19 pandemic. There were Great engaging and interesting debates all through. I was proud to have been part and parcel of the presenters and participants”
  • “Indeed a great success.Brilliant ideas were shared.Thanks so much for organising this wonderful and inspiring conference!!!”
  • “having a great interactive experience and the audience are so disciplined. #virtualict4d2020
  • “Feeling grateful for this #ICT4D community and events like the #virtualICT4D2020 to share, discuss and learn”
  • “A day full of discussions on what’s to me the most exciting subject in this world”
  • “This #VirtualICT4D2020 promises virtual walks together during breaks, sharing of music and other virtual treats. AMAZING!”

Looking to the future

Comments such as these inspire us to think about doing another Virtual ICT4D Non-Conference next year! We very much hope that we will indeed be able to meet up face to face before too long, but if not let’s plan to meet again in a year’s time for another virtual event! Thanks to everyone for making it such an enjoyable, interesting and exhausting day!