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Information and Communication Technology and the Social Inclusion of Refugees (2016)

Posted on:
August 19, 2021


"The social inclusion of newly resettled refugees is a significant issue confronting both refugees and their host societies. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are increasingly  viewed as a useful resource in programs that provide settlement services or promote participation in society. This paper moves beyond the conventional discussion on the digital divide to  explore what people are actually able to do and achieve with ICTs. We draw on an analysis of the use of ICTs for particular purposes by more than 50 resettled refugees to develop an explanation of the process by which ICT use contributes to their social inclusion. We propose that ICT constitutes a resource from which a set of five valuable capabilities is derived:

  1. to  participate in an information society,
  2. to communicate effectively,
  3. to understand a new society,
  4. to be socially connected, and
  5. to express a cultural identity.

In realizing these capabilities through ICT use, refugees exercise their agency and enhance their well-being in ways that assist them to function effectively in a new society and regain control over their disrupted lives."

The Capability Approach

"Identifying exactly how ICTs contribute to a process such as social inclusion represents a challenging analytical exercise. Sen’s (1999) capability approach, which conceptualizes development as individual freedom, has been suggested as an alternative conceptual apparatus to analyses of economic impacts or digital divides (Kleine 2013; Zheng and Walsham 2008). Sen (1999) is interested in “the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of lives they value—and have reason to value” (p. 18). His approach shifts our focus from the resources that a person has access to,  toward the uses that a person can make of the various resources available to them (Clark 2005). Sen (1999) refers to these uses as functionings: “things a person may value doing or being” (p.  75). Capabilities are the set of alternative functionings from which a person is substantially free to choose (Sen 1999). Capabilities can be thought of as the potential functionings that a person values, but they must represent real opportunities or freedoms to achieve particular functionings (Alkire 2005). The existence of capabilities presupposes the availability of resources, which  provide the means to achieve an end. Whether people are able to realize particular functionings depends on a range of personal, social, and environmental factors (including social structures and cultural values) that influence both their substantive freedom to do so (their capability set) and the choices that they make (Clark 2005; Robeyns 2005; Zheng 2009)...

Our focus on social inclusion links refugees’ use of ICT with their capabilities to participate in society in ways that they value. We take as our starting point Wilding and Gifford’s (2013) concern with the potential of ICTs to empower refugees “in their quest for agency and control over their current and future circumstances” (p. 497). We argue that, for our participants, social  inclusion is the extent to which they are able to effectively participate in their new society and regain control over their lives. We are concerned with how ICT use contributes to their capabilities to achieve such a life...

Thus, the focus of our empirical research is on exploring resettled refugees’ actual ICT use, how this is of value to them in their lives in their host country, and what this suggests about how such use contributes to their opportunities for social inclusion."

Andrade and Doolin - the contribution of ICT to the social inclusion of refugees


"We approached the identification of capabilities associated with refugees’ ICT use by examining what our participants reported they were actually able to achieve (and valued achieving) using ICT. Our analysis highlighted five categories of achieved functionings and their corresponding capabilities that ICT use offers refugees:

  1. To participate in an information society. Being able to use ICT in everyday activities in a purposeful and selective fashion gives many of our participants a sense of accomplishment and a  degree of control in managing the day-to-day aspects of their lives. The importance of this capability is reflected in the emphasis that various participants placed on themselves and their  children becoming integrated into a global information society (Mansell 2002).
  2. To communicate effectively. A lack of proficiency in the English language represents the largest barrier to the majority of our participants’ effective functioning in New Zealand society  (see Caidi et al. 2010). E-mail offers a communication channel that reduces both the possibility of misunderstanding and the stress involved in everyday interactions in the English  language. Online tools and resources were proactively used by some participants to improve their competence and confidence with the English language, arguably signaling a desire to be  able to participate more fully in New Zealand society.
  3. To understand a new society. ICT offers access to orienting information that can assist newcomers in transitioning and integrating into a new environment. As Lloyd et al. (2013) note, “A  prerequisite for social inclusion is knowledge about the social, economic and community dimensions through which any society is constituted” (p. 122). Such ICT use can suggest a desire for a deeper understanding of and engagement with a new society.
  4. To be socially connected. Our participants use a range of ICTs to communicate with family and friends in New Zealand and other countries, to seek and obtain information on the fate and  lives of persons important to them, and to interact with others from their ethnocultural background in formal and informal social and support networks. The maintenance of transnational  ties is a source of emotional support and psychological comfort that reduces emotional stress and social isolation in a new environment (Benítez 2012; Caidi et al. 2010; Hiller and Franz  2004). Such ICT use alleviates the burden of forced displacement and disrupted lives (Gifford and Wilding 2013), enabling refugees “to better link together the places and communities that have become fragmented through their movement” (Wilding 2012, p. 503). ICT also plays a role in establishing new relationships and support networks that contribute to refugees’  ability to become integrated into and function in a new environment (Caidi et al. 2010; Hiller and Franz 2004). Participation in these transnational and local networks speaks to a human  need for relatedness and a sense of belonging to a social group (Vansteenkiste et al. 2008). Such networks play a critical role “in maintaining a ‘good life’ and in structuring the meaning  of inclusion and participation” (Cass et al. 2005, p. 551).
  5. To express a cultural identity. Our participants still identify as members of the communities from where they originated and found ICT a valuable means of maintaining attachments to  their cultural backgrounds. While mindful of their current circumstances and trying to respond to the challenges of life in a new environment, the disruption and displacement in their lives spurs a desire to maintain bonds with their past and reaffirm who they are. This need for cultural belonging is manifested in the consumption of online cultural content and news in their  own languages, strengthening cultural values and creating a symbolic closeness with their countries of origin (Benítez 2012; Caidi et al. 2010). Such ICT use fulfils a need for individuals  who have resettled in an unfamiliar cultural environment that does not necessarily offer all that they may require. It enables adjustment to the new environment and “a sense of rebuilding  by emphasizing continuity between the new and the old” (Hiller and Franz 2004, p. 741). Similarly, an online forum or website offers an outlet for the creation and expression of cultural  identities, enabling refugees “to expand their social space and by so doing challenge the restrictive boundaries imposed by dominant host societies” (Panagakos and Horst 2006, p. 118).  While the use of ICT to express a cultural identity in these ways could be viewed as backward-looking, it helps refugees to resist assimilationist pressures that may accompany their  settlement in a new society (Gifford and Wilding 2013).

While “the sort of participation people are likely to value is  unlikely to fall into neat, separate categories” (Notley 2009, p. 1211), we feel that collectively, these five categories of functionings and their corresponding capabilities are a good reflection of  the multidimensional nature of social inclusion for these potentially disadvantaged people."

"Our research has a number of implications for policy and programs on social inclusion. First, social inclusion is a multidimensional, relational, and dynamic process, in which the agency of  those to be included is a central concern. Interventions that ignore this are susceptible to the imposition of dominant societal norms and values in ways that do not recognize diversity in human  lives. Second, any consideration of social inclusion in an information society needs to include the ICT-enabled capabilities that individuals value in constructing meaningful lives. Third, for  many individuals in contemporary society, ICTs facilitate the maintenance of transnational connections and identities that matter to them. The promotion of social inclusion for such people,  therefore, needs to recognize that their lives are not restricted to their local context. Fourth, the social inclusion of displaced people such as refugees is more than an information problem; it  involves communicative and expressive activities that repair disrupted social and cultural lives."

[pdf-embedder url="" title="Information and Communication Technology and the Social Inclusion of Refugees Diaz Andrade, Antonio and Doolin, Bill. 2016"]


The social inclusion of newly resettled refugees is a significant issue confronting both refugees and their host societies. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are increasingly  viewed as a useful resource in programs that provide settlement services or promote participation in society. This paper moves beyond the conventional discussion on the digital divide to  explore what people are actually able to do and achieve with ICTs.