Literature Review

When European leaders said in 2016 that the refugees crisis was over what they meant was that they thought it was over for them, not for the refugees. It is true after that their agreement with Turkey the number of refugees arriving in Europe has diminished, but Europe remains the deadliest destinations for migrants (Leurs and Shepherd, 2017). While EU policies concentrate their efforts in pushing back and surveilling refugees through databases and other digital tools, some researchers search for the human experience in a mainly datafied and anonymous management of European immigration. In this literature review we present why such an effort is essential, especially considering that digital tools have changed the way refugees make their journey and that an understanding of the potential and threats of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is crucial for their safety.

Forced migration

Quick definition: when in this literature review I refer to forced migrants, I include asylum seekers, refugees, standard migrants, child migrants, and the internally displaced (Leurs & Smets, 2018). The need to abandon their homes as the only possibility to build a dignified life, or just to survive, is what drives all these individuals to undertake an uncertain journey to a safer space.

Digital migration studies

Digital migration is an emerging field of study for scholars coming from different areas (Leurs & Smets, 2018) and this new interest is justified by significant developments in both migration patterns and (ICTs).

By 2015, the Libyan Revolution that started in 2011 had caused 200,000 casualties and forced four million people to flee their country. Many of them went to live in Lebanon, Egypt or Turkey (BBC, 2016). Only in 2015, when one million forced migrants crossed the European border, the EU declared a refugee crisis when in fact it had started years earlier (Anderson, 2017). The refugees coming to the EU found a Schengen Area impossible to penetrate, a fortress inside of which its citizens could freely circulate but with very strong external borders (Aas, 2011b).

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Around the same time the proliferation of ICTs had reached most of world’s population. In relations to the refugee’s experience, ICTs transformed it (Latonero & Kift, 2018). In this “space of flows” (Castells, 1999, p.295) refugees go on their media journey (Gillespie, Ampofo, Cheesman, Faith, Iliadou, Issa & Skleparis, 2016), or digital passage (Latonero, 2016), relying on a digital infrastructure made of smartphones and their applications, social medial, wire money transfer online services, and translation websites, an infrastructure that in order to function needs a “material anchoring”, such as Wi-Fi spots and charging stations (Latonero & Kift, 2018, p.4).

Infrastructure of the Digital Passage: Tensions and Complexity

Forced migrants are not the only actors that rely on ICTs around borders. Other groups of people use them too for different, if not opposite, reasons. We can not consider the digital infrastructure, whose platforms are owned by corporations whose business is to collect and sell data, as either beneficial or damaging per se. It has to be considered in relation to the particular user and his or her goals (Latonero & Kift, 2018). Leaving on the side actors such as artists, activists, and those that use this space of flows to organize anti-immigration movements (Ekman, 2018), I focus the attention on the refugees and the EU agencies.

Researchers at The Open University interviewed fifty-four Syrian and Iraqi refugees to examine smartphones affordances (Gillespie et al., 2018). The findings show that these affordances (for example of connection, mobility, and locatability) are “lifelines as important as water and food” (Gillespie et al., 2018, p.1). But by making the refugees “visible, connected and networked”, (Gillespie et al., 2018, p.10), smartphones can also expose them to risks.

ICTs allow refugees to connect with friends and families and search for real-time information. Online maps help them navigate their route, and GPS makes them locatable when in need of help. But these affordance can become constraints (Gillespie et al., 2018). Smugglers use the same tools to offer their services (Interpol and Europol report, 2016, Saleh, 2015), misinformation travels as fast as trustworthy information (Wall, 2016), and the refugees’ location is also tracked by actors that want to capture them. Refugees must navigate this “dialectical dynamics of opportunity and vulnerability” (Gillespie et al., 2018, p.1), a disorienting condition typical of what Gillespie et al. call a liminal space (p.2), a space in-between where refugees have already left their homes but have not reached a safe space yet.

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For those who cross the EU border, uncertainty is not over. Through the years EU’s leaders have established increasingly more efficient ways to detect, and monitor refugees. Their most powerful tools for border control and migration management are Eurosur and Eurodac (Latonero & Kift, 2018). The European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur) uses satellites and drones to surveill the Mediterranean sea. It is not designed to detect individuals who need help crossing the sea, but to uncover groups of people in order to push them back (Latonero & Kift, 2018). EU authorities are not interested in the individual identities of the refugee until they crossed the border.

At that moment, all forced migrants that cross the border illegally or that apply for asylum become data subjects. Their fingerprints are inserted in the Eurodac database allowing authorities to monitor their movements (Leurs & Shepherd, 2017). To make it inside the European fortress doesn’t guarantee safety since the migrants are constantly threaten of deportation and carry the border on their own body.  As Aas (2011a) said, “A border is no longer simply a wall around a nation-state territory but rather a distributed network of myriad checkpoints, technologies, and actors which can be situated inside or outside a given territory” (p.296).

Reinstating the People

In this datafied scenario there is very little space for transparency and accountability. The refugees do not have the resources to refute the allegedly objective decisions of the database, a tool that seems to work more like a “truth machine” that automatically and autonomously decide which refugee has to be deported (Leurs & Shepherd, 2017, p.216) rather than representing a responsible commitment to each human case.

More emphasis is needed on the human experience to counterpart the European indifference towards the human element (Latonero & Kift, 2018). Researchers can help unveil the European apartheid (Balibar, 2004) by exposing the hidden algorithms that justify discrimination towards the refugees (Leurs & Shepherd, 2017, Pasquale, 2015).

So far few digital migration scholars have focused their research on the human experience while examining the role of ICTS. The concepts of information precarity (Wall, Campbell, & Janbek, 2017), digital deportability (Trimikliniotis, Parsanoglou, & Tsianos, 2015), and refugee media journeys (Gillespie et al., 2016) highlight the refugee’s needs. These approaches also contribute to consider the refugees “active agents” rather than “passive victims” (Borkert, 2018). Finally, institutions that build technical solutions to support the forced migrants, for example Techfugees and Infomigrant.Net, must make sure they know what the refugees really need (Latonero & Kift, 2018).


The subject of digital migration studies is the fusional interconnection between humans and technology in a very delicate setting. The ambiguous nature of this relationship, one that can guarantee both the success and the failure the refugee’s journey, a difference translatable in terms of life or death, calls for ethical considerations that go far beyond those that protect the reputation of the institutions involved in the research (Leurs & Shepherd 2017) and must embrace what Tronto (1994) calls ethics of care. This shift is necessary to stop considering the forced migrants as alien elements of a temporary crisis and granting them the right to become lasting members of a society that they can, and must, actively contribute to shape.


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