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

Posted on:
December 17, 2018

Abstract

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. 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.

Scholarly attention for migrants’ use of smartphones and social media prior to and during migration has grown in recent years. Social media have become popular channels of communication that make prospective migrants more informed about possibilities to migrate and destinations to settle. Particularly mobile devices such as smartphones are widely used among migrants. The “polymedia” affordances of smartphones go beyond calling and texting.

Smartphones also offer an Internet connection, Global Positioning System (GPS), and a digital camera, featured in various apps. The title of this article refers not only to this popular device but also to what migrants gain from using this: information and communication resources that enable them to develop “smart” strategies. Smartphones provide access to strategic information that is disclosed via social media that can be used prior to migration and also during the migration journey. However, studies also describe obstacles and risks in social media use, related to access and the circulation of misinformation.

Conclusion and Discussion

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 (cf. Misztal, 1996, 2000).

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 (Burt, 2001). 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” (cf. Prensky, 2001), online ties in well-known online communities or platforms may have become part of this group of trusted ties.

Additional findings:

  • Social media have become an indispensable source of information for today’s refugees.
  • 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.
  • Studies describe specific obstacles to, and risks of, social media usage by asylum migrants who undertake a perilous journey, indicating a situation of “information precarity” concerning access to and trustworthiness of social media information. Social media information in migration networks includes unverified and instrumentally relevant statements which can be characterized as rumors.
  • Accessing this social media information comes with obstacles and risks, and validating information becomes paramount. By studying how asylum migrants use and evaluate social media information prior to and during migration, this article has focused on the agency of asylum migrants in dealing with information precarity.
  • the use of smartphones and social media information makes asylum migrants less dependent on smugglers and network ties in Western Europe
  • it would be fruitful to study how border control agencies adapt to newly available social media data by surveillance and big data analysis. Governments increasingly monitor social media data and take social media data of individual asylum applicants into account in the immigration procedures.

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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