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

Working with, not for: migrants, technology and inequalities

CraftingMIDEQ provides an opportunity to do things differently. It has the potential to change our understandings and influence policy, but only if we truly listen to the voices of migrants in the many different contexts where they live and work.

Research led by colleagues in the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London, will focus on ways through which technologies can be used to reduce the many intersecting inequalities associated with migration.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), or “digital technologies”, have frequently been designed “for” some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people, with the stated intention of reducing poverty or delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, this is one of the reasons why so many have failed to be sustainable, go to scale or even help to reduce poverty.

Digital technologies are almost always conceived in research labs or the Research and Development departments of global corporates and start-ups alike. But without a deep understanding of poor people’s or migrants’ knowledges and needs; they are designed for, rather than with, these people.

Prototypes are trialled with a sample group or through a pilot project, and then revised iteratively until they are good enough to go to market. They are, though, designed and produced by people who have particular interests (usually commercial or financial) for specific purposes. Those purposes are rarely truly emancipatory or empowering for the poor and marginalised.

Migrants know far more about migration than so-called “experts”, be they researchers or techies. Migrants are the experts in migration. For technologies to be crafted and used in ways that are truly emancipatory, they need to be created collaboratively “with” migrants not “for” them. Anything we design together must primarily serve their interests.

Our research has been designed in a threefold manner to try to live up to these aspirations. The first stage begins by listening to how migrants, as well as their families and employers, already use technologies and for what purposes. In the first two years we will focus on four of the six migration corridors to helping us better understand the interface between migrants and technology. Questions about technology use will also be asked in a survey being undertaken in all twelve countries in which MINEQ is working. This will give us a broad understanding of the many contexts and contrasting experiences that migrants have with digital technologies.

The second stage (years two-three) will build on this and involve more focused research, probably in two or three corridors, using qualitative methods to explore with migrants what they understand by inequalities and how digital technologies might be used to reduce these. This will take time, especially because we want to be led by the migrants, and better understand the diversity of ways through which they could help design technologies that do this.

The final stage (years three-five) will work carefully with migrants and local tech developers to co-create technological innovations that migrants can use to reduce the inequalities that they see as being associated with the migration process. We have no ideas yet about what these will be. Perhaps we may find similar issues across all of the migration corridors where we are working; perhaps we will need to focus on different issues in varying contexts.

We hope that this approach will enable those with whom we are working to change the balance of power that is usually associated with the use of digital technologies in development. Above all, we aspire to work “with”, rather than just “for” migrants so that they can lead lives they think are better.

UKRI copy  GCRFsmall  MIDEQ logo

 

[Originally posted on MIDEQ site on 14 October 2019]

Participating in MIDEQ’s Executive Group meeting and training programme, Nairobi, 22-30 September 2019

The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is leading the work package on the interface between digital technologies and migration within the UKRI-GCRF South-South Migration Hub, now known by the shortened name MIDEQ.  Hari Harindranath and Tim Unwin were therefore delighted to participate actively in the Hub’s Executive Group meeting on 23-24 September in Nairobi, followed by numerous meetings with the corridor leads and other work package teams, as well as participating in and leading some of the training sessions held from 26th September to 1st October.  As well as discussing important issues around our progress so far, communications strategy, governance, operations and migration survey, the evening of 24th September included a digital launch event followed by dinner and story telling, led by Tawona Sitholé, around a campfire.  The week of meetings provided an invaluable opportunity to get to know the many partners and new researchers in the Hub.  We are all now in a much better position to start engaging in field research together once the inception phase is over.  Hari and Tim are especially eager to get involved on the ground working with colleagues in the China-Ghana, Ethiopia-South Africa, Haiti-Brazil, and Nepal-Malaysia corridors.  The pictures below provide just a glimpse of the diversity and energy of the gathering…

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Many thanks are due to all of the colleagues who worked so hard to put the programme together and helped to ensure that it was a success.

The opportunity for Hari and Tim to be in Nairobi also provided a great chance to catch up with old friends in the city and make new contacts of wider interest to the work of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D.  We would like to say especial thanks to them for making the time to meet up and exchange ideas about the uses of digital technologies in Kenya and beyond.  We also spent a magical half-day escaping to the Natiional Park near the airport in Nairobi (see some of our pictures here)!

GCRFsmall     UKRI copy  MIDEQ logo

Why migrant technology research needs ‘values’ at its core

In a world where the fundamental human values of liberty, equality and fraternity are being challenged by digital technologies, research on how these technologies impact inequality and migration has never been more pressing.

Digital technologies are often implicated in stories around migration. Mobiles and mobile apps offer a lifeline for migrants in vulnerable situations; a means to connect with their past and to engage with their present.

But in many countries, digital technologies are also at the centre of state surveillance and anti-migrant propaganda. Access to technologies and capacity to use them effectively also vary across communities and individuals. Digital technologies create a kind of paradox: they empower but also create vulnerabilities and even inequalities.

How we use digital technologies to address the migration-inequality-development nexus matters. The values that underpin these efforts matter more. Migrant technology can only genuinely claim to address migrant concerns when it starts and ends with those affected by these technologies – the migrant themselves.

But this raises a couple of questions. How are the problems that migrants face being addressed by digital technologies? Will these technologies create other problems, vulnerabilities or inequalities? How can we fundamentally shift the focus of migrant technology research from the technologies that underpin it to the values that underpin their use?

Answers to these difficult questions aren’t easy. As we embark on a five-year project to understand the role Information Communication Technology (ICT) can play in addressing inequalities in the context of South-South migration, here are three key principles driving us:

  • There is nothing inherently good about digital technology. It can be used to do good or harm.
  • Digital development interventions are often technologically deterministic and have unintended social consequences. Both can lead to failure. Therefore, we must address not just the technological aspects, important as they are, but also the social processes that underpin their use in particular contexts. Different migration contexts may have different needs, and may likely need different kinds of technological interventions.
  • Development outcomes and meaningful user engagement are not inevitable in technology-related interventions. We must find ways to engage users in their context to ensure that interventions are both relevant and sustainable, while maximising positive outcomes and minimising negative social impacts.

Migrant technology research needs to put values at its core. It must reflect the values that we privilege, particularly when we are required to make difficult trade-offs.

When freedom of choice is constrained by the socio-political and legal context, when equality of access is constrained by the cultural context, or when fraternity is impeded by privacy concerns in risky and vulnerable contexts – these values will be integral.

Ultimately, recognising the multifaceted nature of the migrant context means being particularly mindful of the values we may seek to promote through technology interventions.

 

[Originally posted on MIDEQ site on 31 August 2019]