BlogDigitisation & Mobilities

Digital Technology in the Daily Lives of Urban Refugees

Charles Martin-Shields

Political Scientist, German Development Institute

Katrina Munir-Asen

Migration Law Expert, Consultant to UNHCR, Red Cross & German Development Institute

23. Jan.



Key Words:

urban refugees

Further reading:

Martin-Shields, Charles, Sonia Camacho, Rodrigo Taborda, and Constantin Ruhe. (2019) “Digitalisation in the lives of urban migrants: Evidence from Bogota.” DIE Discussion Paper 12/2019. Bonn, Germany.

Kuala Lumpur (KL) is home to refugees from Myanmar, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries, who have built networks of support and protection in a country that does not formally recognize their status as asylum seekers or refugees. Digitalization and internet access in this environment play a mix of roles; they keep families in contact, connect refugees to wider community networks, and are a channel for UNHCR to share information with asylum seekers. At the same time, digitalization cannot break down the political and legal barriers that prevent refugees from leading fully engaged lives in KL.

Thus, digitalization simultaneously presents a set of new opportunities, as well as a series of reminders of the legal and political limitations refugees face. We explored the sociological and political dimensions of digitalization and refugeehood in KL through interviews with refugees, hearing their perspectives on how digitalization affected their lives in the city. An article on our research is forthcoming later this year.

Digital Lives in the City

The legal and policy environment creates a permanent level of uncertainty for refugees in Malaysia. There is no legal framework for refugees since Malaysia is not a signatory to the refugee convention, so in effect all refugees are irregular migrants in the eyes of the law. UNHCR has a country office that the Malaysian government essentially leaves all refugee issues to, and there are networks of NGOs that provide support, and digitalization is shaping new ways that communities self-organize to provide services and maximize their voices. In a city the size of KL, with communities spread across multiple suburbs, WhatsApp groups that are managed by community leaders are a key way refugees quickly share validated information. This has its limits though; the volume of need, especially from a legal perspective, placed on UNHCR far outstrips the resources available to help everyone. Indeed, the instantaneous nature of social media and internet-enabled communication can create expectations within urban communities that even the most focused international organization could never meet. While digitalization shrinks time and distance, it cannot change how many resources are available to meet everyone’s needs.

According to the UNHCR there are  153.8 thousand refugees (as of 2015) living in Malaysia and many of them  live in the capital city Kuala Lumpur
Transport, urban planning, and housing infrastructure all shape the ways that information flows within communities and how people seek services and jobs. Refugees we spoke to talked about how much time it took to visit the UNHCR offices, and the costs involved in losing a day of work and being overcharged by taxi drivers. While digitalization could present opportunities for refugees to control travel costs and time with ride sharing apps like Grab, registration on the app is complicated by many refugees lacking official identity documents. This is one example of how digitalization provides a solution to the spatial and economic issues inherent to transport in KL, but cannot be used by those who need it most due to political and legal factors. In terms of housing and job-seeking we heard similar stories – it would be great to have access to formal online job services or apartment rental sites, but digitalization does not break down the legal barriers refugees face in daily life that prevent them fully engaging digitally.

While digitalization is not going to change the structural political factors that are barriers to refugee livelihoods, we heard interviewees talk about how critical the internet was to maintaining family networks and connections to home. Respondents described finding family members in KL who had been separated during the journey, linked up through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. One respondent explained that after crossing the Thai border with his family he was separated from them and forced into agricultural labor. They continued on to KL, but contact was lost and after months with no information they thought he was dead. Nearly a year later he arrived in KL and as he networked into the Myanmar Muslim community, he connected with people who knew his family and was reunited with them. The city is a dense hub of networks that magnifies the likelihood of connections – for refugees, digital networks can be the avenue by which someone effectively returns from the dead.

Passengers rushing through a train station in Kuala Lumpur for urban refugees quotidian mobility is limited

Putting it into Practice

So how do organizations that aim to help refugees get the most out of digitalization? In many ways, staying off of social media and chat channels can be key. Refugee communities are extraordinarily adaptive when using digital platforms to organize, but in many cases these channels can lead to an overload of information for a single organization, such as UNHCR. Instead, large organizations should focus on lowering the political and legal barriers to education, work, and social connections that refugees face, creating the space for refugees to fully engage digitally, and make the most of the cities they have adopted as home.

While digitalization shrinks time and distance, it cannot change how many resources are available to meet everyone’s needs.

Digitalization cannot break down the political and legal barriers that prevent refugees from leading fully engaged lives

This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.
Charles is a political scientist at the German Development Institute in Bonn whose research focuses on the relationship between technological change, migration, and economic development.

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Charles Martin-Shields

Political Scientist, German Development Institute

Katrina is a migration law expert based in Bonn, Germany. She has worked on protection and refugee response for UNHCR in Malaysia and the Red Cross in Australia, and co-founded the organization Lighthouse Partnerships.
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Katrina Munir-Asen

Lawyer, Co-founder Lighthouse Partnerships, German Development Institute

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