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Understanding the Role of ICTs in Promoting Social Inclusion: The Case of Syrian Refugees in Germany

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June 22, 2017

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Abstract:

With a number of refugees around the world reaching disastrous proportions, there is a growing pressure to understand which measures are effective in promoting social inclusion of refugees in their new homes. Considering an exemplary IT-savviness of the current refugee wave, there is a growing hope in the power of Social Media and other Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in supporting integration processes. Contributing to this discourse, in this study we build on the qualitative analysis of fifteen interviews with Syrian refugees in Germany. Based on the capability approach, our findings reveal dependencies between properties of ICTs and their use, ICT-enabled capabilities relevant for refugees, and the corresponding contribution of ICTs to the processes of social inclusion. On the theoretical level, our findings extend current understanding of the ICT effects on the processes of social inclusion in the refugee context. From the practical standpoint, our findings provide actionable recommendations for policy-makers in their efforts to achieve integration.

Introduction:

More than a million asylum seekers entered Europe in 2015, with Germany attracting the highest number of them among its European neighbors (BBC, 2016). These developments have triggered a crisis in
hosting countries, with challenges of integration and social inclusion being on the top of the agenda for many political leaders in Europe and worldwide. Defined as “having the opportunities and resources to participate fully in economic, social and cultural life” (Wilson and Secker, 2015), social inclusion is a critical component of any democratic and equitable society. Gains in the level of social inclusiveness have been linked to improvements in mental and physical health on a personal level, as well as greater levels of cohesion on the society level (e.g.; Waddell and Burton, 2006). This is because social inclusion functions as the glue that keeps all population segments together, helping societies to function effectively and fairly.

In the context of refugees, the notion of social inclusion encompasses the goal of granting opportunities for people to settle in, integrate and participate in the new environment. On many levels, social inclusion is a process, in which “excluded” or new groups find their place in the social networks of the hosting society, whereas incumbents are providing them space and opportunity to do so. Recognizing critical importance of these emerging social networks, there is a growing hope in the power of Social Media and other Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in supporting these processes. Indeed, as of this day, there is no larger inclusive system than Social Media, with Facebook counting over 1.79 billion monthly active users worldwide (Facebook, 2016). Social Media Sites may offer a platform for meaningful dialog between disconnected social groups, allowing refugees to efficiently maintain contact with new and existing friends and distant networks of geographically and socially dispersed acquaintances (Ellison et al., 2007; Andrade and Doolin, 2015). Importantly, this potential is likely to be particularly pronounced in the current refugee context considering an unprecedentedly high level of reliance of refugees on Social Media and other ICTs. A significant share of this use is mobile-based, with smartphones emerging as an instrumental piece of technology central for refugees on their arduous journey to Europe and when building their new lives in hosting countries (Fitch, 2016). In fact, the Internet traffic of many refugees exceeds that of major airports (WeltN24, 2016), with most refugees using smartphones to access the Internet (Fitch, 2016).

Existing research offers limited insights into the process by which ICTs may contribute to a greater social inclusion of technology-empowered refugees (Andrade and Doolin, 2015). To fill this gap, we set out to explore mobile-based ICT usage patterns of Syrian refugees in Germany to understand the ways in which ICTs can promote social inclusion. On the theoretical level, we contribute to a better understanding of the ICT effects on refugees, which positions our study within the domain of enriching Bright ICT research (Lee, 2016; Lee, 2015; Fedorowicz et al., 2015). This is because uncovering beneficial uses of Social Media and other ICTs is the first step in promoting the bright sides of existing technologies in the refugee context. On the practical side, our insights may advise hosting governments and other stakeholders in their efforts towards a “smart, sustainable and inclusive world” – an overarching theme of ECIS 2017.

The rest of this paper is structured as follows. We summarize the theoretical background in Section 2. In Section 3, we explain our methodology and introduce our sampling for the study. Then, we introduce our findings in Section 4. In Section 5, we discuss the results of our research. We highlight our planned next steps for future research in Section 6.

Summary

Based on the capability approach, study findings reveal dependencies between properties of ICTs and their use, ICT-enabled capabilities relevant for refugees, and the corresponding contribution of ICTs to the processes of social inclusion.
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