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Smart Refugees: How Syrian Asylum Migrants Use Social Media Information in Migration Decision-Making

Posted on:
February 22, 2020

This article discusses social media use by asylum migrants prior to and during migration. This study is based on in-depth  interviews with 54 Syrian asylum migrants who recently obtained refugee status in the Netherlands.

Syrians were the largest group of migrants applying for asylum in European Union (EU) member states in 2015 and 2016. The findings show that the majority of Syrian asylum migrants have access to social media information before and during migration, often through the use of smartphones.  Besides uneven access to technologies, fear of government surveillance restricts the smartphone use of asylum migrants. The results of this study indicate that Syrian asylum migrants prefer social media information that originates from existing social ties and information that is based on personal experiences. Generally, this information is considered more trustworthy. Asylum migrants use various strategies to validate rumors that are present on social media and come from unknown sources. These strategies include checking the source of information, validating information with  trusted social ties, triangulation of online sources, and comparing information with their own experience.

Overview

Social media are increasingly popular channels of information on which migrants base their decisions on whether to migrate and the destinations where to settle. While social media offer a relatively cheap, easily accessible, and media-rich means of communication, their use is not without challenges for asylum migrants. Various studies describe issues with access and evaluation of the truthfulness of available information for this specific group of migrants.

The authors present findings on Syrian refugees’ access to social media information—mostly via smartphones. This adds to existing theories on social media use during migration and risks of and impediments to social media access. Subsequently, this study explores how Syrian refugees evaluate the trustworthiness of social media information and how  hey validate information by various strategies. This provides insight into how information from social media was assessed in migration decision-making. From the perspective of the migrant, the study gives insight into online contact with smugglers, the reception of government information, and the evaluation of other networked information. These accounts of assessment of social media information contribute to theories on “information precarity” and “rumors” in migration networks.

Conclusion and Discussion

This study shows that a majority of Syrian refugees had access to social media information prior to and during their migration, often through the use of smartphones. We can characterize them as “smart refugees”—referring not only to “smart” phones with distinct polymedia affordances but also to what asylum migrants gain from using this device: information and  communication resources that are essential for developing “smart” strategies of migration. These resources empower asylum migrants when dealing with more powerful actors such as smugglers or border control agencies.

The authors' analysis demonstrates that asylum migrants have developed strategies to maintain access to social media, to avoid government surveillance, and to validate social media information. The majority of our respondents expressed doubt about the trustworthiness of certain types of social media information. Information coming from known social ties and information from  government authorities and NGOs are trusted the most. Also for asylum migrants, the existing social ties are still the most highly trusted source. Information that is publicly   available on social media and comes from unknown sources was less trusted and often labeled as “rumors.” This is an interesting finding as closed information networks of known sources might just as well sustain rumors and prevent external validation. Future research should focus more extensively on which social ties are considered to be trusted. In traditional migrant networks, these are mostly strong ties of family and friends whom they know in person. For the generation of “digital natives”, online ties in well known online communities or   platforms may have become part of this group of trusted ties.

The findings support the conclusion that the use of smartphones and social media information makes asylum migrants less dependent on smugglers and network ties in Western Europe.

Summary

This article discusses social media use by asylum migrants prior to and during migration. This study is based on in-depth  interviews with 54 Syrian asylum migrants who recently obtained refugee status in the Netherlands.
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