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Leveraging Technology for Refugee Integration: How Can We Help? (2016)

Posted on:
August 12, 2020

What is this research/panel about?

Refugee integration has surfaced as a hot topic of debate within political and social spheres with numerous stakeholders urging for swift solutions to resolve the refugees’ crisis. Not surprisingly, the effective deployment of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is often mentioned in conjunction with refugee’s integration as a means of facilitating and even expediting integrative efforts.

Beyond its sheer scale, the current refugees’ crisis is distinct from previous ones in a very crucial aspect – the unprecedented reliance of refugees on technology.

Particularly, smartphones have emerged as an instrumental piece of technology central for refugees, considering their reliance on mobile devices, Internet, and social networks in guiding refugees on their arduous journey to Europe and building new lives in their host country (Fitch 2016). Among others, refugees rely on smartphones to communicate with families and friends they have left behind; to access geo-location services; as well as to learn the language and societal norms of the host country. For many, smartphones represent the one and only information access point for information. Together with Apps and Internet access, smartphones allow refugees to navigate through the complexities of bureaucratic and socio-economic structure in their new homes. Considering the critical relevance of information access, it does not come as a surprise that Internet traffic of many refugee asylums exceeds that of major airports (WeltN24 2016).

Yet, the question of how ICT can be deployed for refugees’ integration is difficult one to answer. Despite the urgency and the potential risks of this issue, there is not only little consensus among stakeholders as to the type of technological solutions to aid refugees’ integration, but they are also divided over how such solutions could be deployed in an adaptive and culturally sensitive manner. Against this background, the goal of this panel is to initiate discourse and deliberation by experts (Safa’a AbuJarour, Jane Fedorowicz, Sebastain Olbrich, Chee-Wee Tan, Cathy Urquhart, and Viswanath Venkatesh) on how the knowledge accumulated by the IS community can be leveraged to design targeted technological solutions to tackle this crisis and avoid the potential risks associated with it. In this sense, the topic of our panel is situated within the domain of the Bright ICT Initiative – a set of concerted research directions promoted by the AIS to achieve greater impact of the IS discipline (Lee 2015).

What do you need to know?

Specifically, researchers found that the following four areas of ICT deployment are especially relevant to refugees’ integration, but at the same time, are often neglected or hard to get access to:

  1. communication with the government;
  2. social connectedness;
  3. participation in educational programs, as well as,
  4. integration and social inclusion.

At the same time, these areas give direction how to support refugees through ICT and how ICT could be misused to jeopardize this vulnerable group. Panelists discuss about the limits of ICT and ethical issues in the refugees’ crisis. While broadly overlapping the refugee-relevant capabilities of ICTs identified by Andrade and Doolin (2015), their themes introduce the chances and challenges of ICT utilization by refugees at an operational level.

What did the researchers do?

In preparation for this panel, 15 face-to-face interviews with Syrian refugees have been conducted in Berlin, Germany in March 2016 (nine males and six females, ages ranged from 20 to 42 years). The length of the interviews was between 40 minutes and 2 hours. All interviews were conducted Arabic. The goal of the interviews was to elicit insights from refugees on how they have utilized various forms of ICT as well as their needs in terms of technological solutions. Preliminarily findings from our thematic analysis motivated the panel by providing key directions for structuring the panel discussion.

What did the researchers find?

Communication with the Government

Communication with local authorities is one of the focal tasks to be accomplished by refugees upon arrival. There is a need to open communication channels between governmental institutions, and integrate the ICT in their processes. Furthermore, public information websites have not been designed to meet the needs of this new audience. As one interviewee noted: “It is so useful to visit governmental websites and find the information also provided in Arabic. Unfortunately, this service does not exist so far. We hope it will be there in the future. This would be very helpful for us, and will save us time, efforts, and money.” Cultural adaptation of the governmental websites is almost non-existent.

On the other side, governments can abuse technology to infringe on the rights of refugees. Although in many countries security checks of asylum seekers are already part of a standard procedure, information technology makes it easy to gather extensive and intrusive personal data on this vulnerable community.

Social Connectedness

The sense of social connectedness plays a critical role in one’s perceptions of well-being and serves as a buffer against stressful life events (Baumeister and Leary 1995). Forced to leave their homes and relocate to a new environment which is often hostile and stressful, refugees rely on their smartphones for social support, communicating with the families and friends whom they have left behind, as well as to organize social gathering and events offline. One of our interviewees noted: “My daily call with my family in Syria is much more important to me than food and water. [...] My call is also important for them, because this is the only hope for them.” (This quote is echoed throughout the 2017 paper ‘As Important to Me as Water’: How Refugees in Rome Use Smartphones to Improve Their Well-being).

To enable refugees to gain the required level of social connectedness, they need regular access to the Internet, which is one of the main technical challenges therein. Although, such connections are vital for the well-being of refugees, they might become a path for them to escape from the cultures of the societies they live in and thus hinder the integration process. Therefore, there is an urgent need to establish best practices to ensure that ICT enables an acceptable balance of social connectedness with families back home and the necessary level of interaction with the locals in the hosting society to foster the integration process.

Participation in Educational Programs

An open education approach seems relevant, because online modes of pedagogy are scalable and can empower learners with control over where, what, how and with whom to study (Kop and Fournier 2010). For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have no prerequisites and fees, have been growing in popularity and are attracting attention of millions of online learners worldwide and give them easy and ready access to education (McAuley et al.2010). Aligned with the fact that ICT can change the nature and raise the quality of teaching and learning (Reynolds et. al. 2003), we observe in our interviews that many refugees have already started learningGerman using ICT: “Without the German language, I can’t move around or talk to anyone. That’s why I installed apps that teach German language and I watch YouTube videos that teach German.”

Challenges remain. Digital literacy is a prerequisite for accessing online educational material. Second, most online courses are directed at adult learners. Third, general awareness of such educational offerings is often typically absent. Fourth, Internet connectivity is another issue.

Integration and Social Inclusion

Defined as “the extent that individuals [...] are able to fully participate in society and control their own destinies” (Andrade and Doolin 2015, Warschauer 2003), social inclusion of incoming refugees is the primary goal of governmental efforts and a major area of concern for participating stakeholders. On many levels, social inclusion is a bilateral social process, in which newcomers secure their place in the social networks of the hosting society, while incumbents provide them with sample space and opportunity to do so.

Undeniably, ICTs can play a significant role in facilitating these processes. One of our interviewees noted: “We joined Facebook groups that help us integrate into the German society and learn German. They include dialogs and language exchange so that we get to know the language, people, and the culture here. We agree on a time and we go to a dedicated location where we discuss things, learn German and exchange with them about cultures, languages, etc.” However, it is also apparent that more opportunities to socialize and learn about one another should be created: “I am ready to get integrated into the society, but I feel that the society is not willing to get me integrate into it” noted one of our interviewees.

How can you use this research?

Different audiences will find useful questions in each of the researchers/panelists 4 themes. It is worth reviewing these questions to see how they can be answered where you are, and if you are making progress in these areas.

Communication with the Government

  • How can we prepare governments for such crises?
  • What steps can we take to relieve the situation at the current moment?
  • Are there best practices that are applicable under existing circumstances?
  • How can we ensure culture-sensitive design of public information portals, especially taking into account the needs and background of incoming refugees?
  • Should ICT be developed to better track and control refugees – what are benefits and downsides?

Social Connectedness

  • Should hosting countries ensure better Internet connectivity for refugees?
  • Should similar or even better policies be applied to the citizens as well?
  • How can ICT support a balanced social connectedness with the home and the host community?
  • What should be the role of platform providers in detecting and eliminating hate speech on Social Networking Sites?
  • When is a strong regulation through political players necessary?

Participation in Educational Programs

  • What formats of open education and which ICT tools might be practically suitable for refugees?
  • How can the “right” programs efficiently be advertised to prevent excessive demands, distraction and missing orientation of refugees?
  • Would it necessary to provide the refugees with the required ICT to utilize open education in their shelters?
  • What measures would be necessary to avoid misusing such infrastructures?

Integration and Social Inclusion

  • How can ICT deployed to support the social inclusion of refugees into the host societies?
  • How does ICT utilization by refugees contribute to their social inclusion?
  • Which forms of usage should be promoted and which ones should be discouraged?
  • How can social organizations support the integration of refugees with the help of ICT?\

Additionally, it is worth noting that this research is part of an ongoing project Digital Integration: The Role of Technology in the Social Inclusion of the Refugees: "In our current research topic, we have been applying research methods to investigate the use of ICT by the refugees in Germany. In particular, our ongoing research revolves around investigating the chances and challenges of smartphones and Social Media use by refugees with the goal of utilizing them to get integrated into the new hosting societies, and how ICT systems should be designed and culturally adapted to help the integration process and the social inclusion of the refugees."


The question of how ICT can be deployed for refugees’ integration is difficult one to answer. This panel looked at how the knowledge accumulated by the IS community can be leveraged to design targeted technological solutions to tackle this crisis and avoid the potential risks associated with it.