Digital Citizen 4.0: Special Edition on Refugees and Technology

Keleti WiFi/charging station. Photo by Kate Coyer, used with permission.

Keleti WiFi/charging station. Photo by Kate Coyer, used with permission.

Digital Citizen is a biweekly review of news, policy, and research on human rights in the Arab World.

As a diverse group of writers, researchers, technologists, and advocates, we have been closely following the discussions around refugees and technology. While not always an issue of digital rights, these discussions are nevertheless about rights. Although our views may differ as to the impact of technologies on society, we agree that technology is shaping both the conversation about and the situation of refugees and have therefore decided to dedicate Volume 4.0 to the aspects of that discussion.

Why does every refugee have a smartphone?

There has been much discussion about refugees’ use of technology, in particular, mobile phones. While some have scoffed at Syrian refugees for having smartphones, others have rightly pointed out that mobile phones can be an essential resource. As CNBC reports, “Phones not only allow refugees to keep in touch with their families, but also to share crucial information about prices, traffickers or how to travel safely through Europe.”

“The first thing people running the Za’atri [refugee] camp in Jordan ask for is not tents and blankets, but where they can charge their mobile phone,” Nagina Kaur Dhanoa, chief information officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC), has said.

The discussion has prompted a flurry of articles and projects investigating how refugees are using technology. The International Rescue Committee’s “What’s in my bag?” project shows what refugees have carried with them—nearly every bag shown contains a smartphone or other device. Germany’s Zeit Online has gone deeper, asking refugees why they have mobile phones and how they use them.

How is technology aiding refugees?

While technology can be an essential resource for individual refugees, it’s also essential to the agencies tasked with registering and housing them. The technologies used by aid and other agencies have the potential to do a world of good…but also come with risks.

  • Iris-scanning technology is being used to register refugees, CNBC reports. The “space-age technology” was deployed after UNHCR saw how it was being used by banks in the Middle East.
  • Forbes reflects on the benefits and risks of the big data being generated by refugee registrations, and on how Silicon Valley companies are contributing to the cause.
  • Computer Weekly reports on how technology is helping to deliver aid to refugees.
  • The BBC reports on how new technology is enabling more affordable and sustainable refugee housing.

Social Media

In Germany, Facebook has been criticized for being slow to remove racist and xenophobic content targeting asylum seekers, and threats against politicians supporting the integration of refugees. Members of the pro-refugee Green party have been attacked on Facebook, while several users were convicted for violating Germany’s anti-hate speech law. The Sun Herald reports that a 34-year-old man in Berlin was fined 4,800 euro for posting: “I’m in favor of reopening the gas chambers and putting the whole brood inside”, while another 25 year-old from Passau in Bavaria was fined 7,500 euro for posting that he would deliver “a gas canister and hand grenade, for free”, to a group of refugees.

The paper also reported that German prosecutors are investigating possible charges against three Facebook managers for failing to act against such comments.

In August, Germany’s justice ministry criticized Facebook for not doing enough, adding that the social networking site reacts faster to remove sexual imagery than it does with racist content. In September, the ministry announced the formation of a task force that includes Facebook and other social networks, and Internet service providers, to flag and remove hateful content faster.

Tools for Refugees

  • Google launched the project “Crisis Info Hub” to provide information for refugees in Europe. The site, which is translated into five languages including Arabic, provides information to help find transit, lodging and medical help in a number of areas in Europe. The open source platform is also available on mobile phones and Google has partnered with a number of organizations to better understand how they can help refugees coming in from the Middle East, Africa and other regions.
  • Refugees in Berlin have created an online map of essential resources for new arrivals, reported The Next Web. The map points to relevant laws, services, and even halal restaurants and cafés.
  • A group of Syrians have launched an app that helps refugees after arrival. The app has information on finding essentials and seeking jobs, among other things.
  • The “Refugees Welcome” site is a project by German organization Flüchtlinge Wilkommen and links up refugees looking for housing with locals who have housing to provide.
  • The EU has launched the ‘science4refugees’ online initiative to help refugee scientists and researchers find jobs.
  • The “Refugees on Rails” project in Berlin offers one-day coding sessions for migrants and refugees.
  • A hackathon was organized in Berlin between October 24th – 25th aimed at finding digital solutions for the refugees in Germany.

In other news

  • Ranking Digital Rights, released the corporate accountability index evaluating 16 telecommunications and internet companies on their public commitments to privacy and free speech rights.
  • Freedom House released their annual Freedom on the Net report.
  • Palestinians in the West Bank are using new media to document abuse and violations by Israeli forces during the recent escalation of violence, reports Raseef22.

Upcoming events

  • December 18th will mark the international migrants day and the International Organization for Migrant is calling on people to remember the migrants that have lost their lives seeking a better life. By holding candlelight vigils across the world to remember the names of those who lost their lives. The hashtag #IamaMigrant will be used as part of this campaign.

To help refugees in your area, here are a number of organizations that you can donate to.

Digital Citizen is brought to you by Advox, Access, APC, EFF, Social Media Exchange, and This month’s report was researched, edited, and written by Afef Abrougui, Dalia Othman, and Jillian C. York and translated into Arabic by Lara AlMalakeh and French by Thalia Rahme.

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