A New “Virtual Wall”
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bought access to a commercial database that tracks cell phones across the country. The report revealed that these agencies are using the database to track undocumented immigrants at the US-Mexico border. Although Donald Trump has not fully executed his plan to build a new border wall, new technologies have given way to a “virtual wall” which has the potential to be an even greater deterrence to undocumented immigrants. Digital technology has grown increasingly complex and has affected our understanding of migration. While it can potentially assist refugees and asylum seekers in their passage to a new country, it has also created new problems as newer technologies also help officials to identify and possibly detain these migrants.
Refugees are legally recognized and protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines them as individuals who have fled from their countries due to a “well-founded fear of persecution” and are unable to return. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are those seeking international protection who have not yet been granted official refugee status. For the purpose of this article, I will use the term “migrant” to encompass both refugees and asylum-seekers.
Expanding Social Networks
Although refugees and asylum seekers face limited choices about where they resettle, they can gather information beforehand about the journey and their intended destination through the internet and virtual social circles. Online platforms such as social media, discussion forums, and communication services like Skype and Whatsapp serve to expand migrants’ social networks. Vast social networks can reduce migration costs and make it less risky by facilitating the transfer of information and resources, enabling them to develop strategies for their journeys. For many stateless peoples, a digital identity can also help them access certain mobile and humanitarian resources.
Non-profit organizations have been using technology and the concept of a digital identity to ensure safe passage for migrants. For instance, MercyCorps developed a website that answers any questions that migrants may have as well as provides long-term settlement support, operating in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Jordan, and Italy. MercyCorps claims that these sites are secure and people who use them will not be tracked. Despite this, many migrants prefer not to use such sites and instead rely on their own connections and experiences. This is because of the increased risk of the authorities finding out their location and causing any hindrances to their journeys.
Smugglers also use technology to ease communication with the people that they transport. For example, social media platforms like Facebook can help smugglers frame their service as a “legitimate travel agency.” Other apps like Whatsapp can also facilitate communication between the migrants and smugglers before and during the journey. Migrants also use the internet to double-check information about smugglers, which creates more reliability and trustworthiness.
Misuse of Digital Technology
The expansion of social networks, particularly those online, can come with a degree of mistrust over the validity of the information shared on them. As a way to dodge potential traps, migrants use various strategies that include checking the source of information, validating information with trusted social ties, and comparing information with their own experience. Technology can often enable surveillance, which is particularly threatening for political asylum seekers whose governments may want to trap them in the country by gathering and sharing their data with neighbouring countries.
There are various challenges that come with the spread of digital technology, including concerns over data sharing, surveillance, AI, and facial recognition tools. Throughout their journey, migrants are asked to provide crucial information such as their fingerprints, official documents, and digital data trails. This information is often exploited by immigration enforcement officers and surveillance companies. For example, private surveillance companies acting in their own self interest often share their surveillance technology with governments, providing with them with an ‘easy’ solution to illegal immigration. In addition, new technologies allow countries to export their borders into other countries by sharing surveillance and private information.
As the number of displaced peoples increases, opportunities for resettlement or repatriation have decreased. So, using technology to learn about new ways to resettle has been a way for migrants to take matters into their own hands. Technology provides a platform to stay in touch with loved ones as well as gather valuable information about their journey and resettlement process. In many ways, digital technology is extremely helpful for migrants, allowing them to expand their social network and gather information on potential risks. However, improvements in border control technology and online surveillance mechanisms provide great risks to migrants whose information and data security is crucial for ensuring a safe journey. As technology continues to evolve, it is likely that the benefits and risks posed to migrants will continue to intensify.
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