BlogDigitisation & Mobilities
Digital Technology in the Daily Lives of Urban Refugees
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.
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
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
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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