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Digital Citizen 4.0: Special Edition on Refugees and Technology

Categories: Activism, Free Expression, Human Rights, Tech & Tools, War & Conflict, Digital Citizen
Keleti WiFi/charging station. Photo by Kate Coyer, used with permission. [1]

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 [2] at Syrian refugees for having smartphones, others have rightly pointed out that mobile phones can be an essential resource [3]. As CNBC reports [4], “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 [5].

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? [6]” 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 [7] 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.

Social Media

In Germany, Facebook has been criticized [11] 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 [12] 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

In other news

Upcoming events

To help refugees in your area, here are a number of organizations [26] that you can donate to.

Digital Citizen is brought to you by Advox [27], Access [28], APC, EFF [29], Social Media Exchange [30], and 7iber.com [31]. 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.