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

Members of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D are part of new UKRI GCRF South-South Migration Hub led by Coventry University

AirtelA group of leading international migration experts – including from the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London – has won £20 m backing from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to explore how South-South migration is affecting inequality and development in less developed regions.

The South-South Migration, Inequality and Development Hub won funding for the five-year project under the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) call to establish interdisciplinary research Hubs addressing complex global challenges. The recipients of the awards were announced on 10th December 2018, and made public on 22nd January 2019.

Dr G. Hari Harindranath (School of Management, and member of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D) and Professor Tim Unwin (Department of Geography and Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D) from Royal Holloway are among the experts who, as part of the Hub, have been awarded £688,000 to investigate how South-South migration – or the movement of people between less developed countries in the Global South (for example between African countries) – contributes to the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals such as ending poverty and reducing inequality.

They will work alongside academics, artists, community leaders, international organisations and policymakers from 12 countries across South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Middle East better to understand international migration patterns and consequences, and to support and influence global migration policy development.

South-South migration is estimated to account for nearly half of all international migration (up to 70% in some places), but its potential benefits have been undermined by limited and unequal access to rights and the economic and social opportunities that migration can bring.

Using a wide range of research methods and creative approaches, the Hub will map, record and draw attention to the experiences of those who move, generating a better understanding of – and encouraging a greater range of policy responses to address – the challenges associated with international migration. It is hoped that the work will re-balance academic and political debates, currently driven largely by the perspectives and priorities of countries in the Global North.

The GCRF South-South Migration Inequality and Development Hub will be led by Heaven Crawley, Professor of International Migration at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, and delivered in partnership with:

  • 20 leading universities, as well as the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and PositiveNegatives;
  • Six international organisations – the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Research Institute For Social Development (UNRISD); and
  • Numerous local organisations in the 12 countries in which the hub will work: Burkina Faso, Brazil, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Jordan, Malaysia, Nepal and South Africa.

Dr Harindranath and Professor Unwin’s work package on ‘Leveraging ICTs to address inequality’ focuses on understanding the extent and ways through which the application of ICTs has alleviated or exacerbated existing inequalities in the context of South-South migration, as well as successes and challenges facing the use of ICT for migrant-related development outcomes. It also considers how the potential benefits of ICT can be leveraged to ensure that the developmental benefits of migration are harnessed and increased, particularly through reducing inequalities in ICT access and use.

 

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