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Taking Refuge in Technology: Communication Practices in Refugee Camps and Immigration Detention (2011)

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Posted on:
May 27, 2020

What is this research about?

When asylum seekers and refugees are displaced, how do they use communication technologies to maintain links with friends and family during flight and forced migration? When they are detained, what role does technology play in the ways asylum seekers communicate with the "outside"?

What do you need to know?

This discussion paper examines an 18-month qualitative pilot study (Leung et al 2009) that explored these questions. The pilot study provided an insight into how asylum seekers use communication technologies during conflict, flight, detention and displacement, to maintain links with their families and friends back home, with diasporic networks from their country of origin and with communities in the country where they are seeking asylum. It was also one of the first studies to examine how communication with the outside world occurs in immigration detention centres and to document asylum seeker perspectives on the communication restrictions encountered there.

It's useful to know that "the study emerged from the author's personal involvement with refugee advocacy groups and in visitor programs to immigration detention centres. As a sociologist of technology [and an outsider to the discipline of Refugee Studies], her interest was in how differences in technology- mediated communication occurred in the restrictive environment of immigration detention, compared with other contexts of forced migration, flight and displacement."

While in 2011 technology use by refugees had minimal investigation, that has certainly changed dramatically since the mass migration movements through Europe in 2015. This study provides some useful perspectives before much academic attention was focused on technology use by refugees.

What did the researchers do?

The research questions asked by the pilot study included: How are communication technologies used in the countries of origin, during forced migration and in the settlement process? How are their benefits and limitations perceived? How are relationships of power surrounding these technologies negotiated? What, if any, virtual communities surround these technologies? How does technology assist refugees in sustaining connections with their virtual communities?

The researcher analyzed 30 interviews and 43 surveys with refugees and asylum seekers about their use of communication technology across both contexts of displacement, detention and refugee camps. Participants were recruited from asylum seeker support networks and refugee communities in Sydney, Australia.

Refugee communities, advocates, international non-government organizations, resettlement services and researchers were invited to a community workshop that would disseminate the report's findings and identify potential solutions and actions that will support refugees and asylum seekers' use of communication technologies in displacement settings and during resettlement in Australia. The workshop focused on the experience of refugees and asylum seekers from Eastern and Western Africa.

What did the researchers find?

At the workshop, a brainstorm of initiatives or actions that could be undertaken in refugee camps and other types of displacement settings generated the following project ideas. The feasibility and merits of each idea could not be fully assessed during the workshop. Therefore, these project ideas are presented for further analysis and development:

  • Centralised communication system
  • Micro-finance loans for small communications businesses
  • Satellite radios
  • Purchasing airtime
  • Letter delivery
  • Support for family reunion
  • Advocacy and education

How can you use this research?

While the context for this study was Australia, there are useful lessons for anyone interested in learning about refugee use of technology. The study's questions are still relevant today:

  • How are communication technologies used in the countries of origin, during forced migration and in the settlement process?
  • How are their benefits and limitations perceived?
  • How are relationships of power surrounding these technologies negotiated?
  • What, if any, virtual communities surround these technologies?
  • How does technology assist refugees in sustaining connections with their virtual communities?

Summary

When asylum seekers and refugees are displaced, how do they use communication technologies to maintain links with friends and family during flight and forced migration? When they are detained, what role does technology play in the ways asylum seekers communicate with the "outside"?
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