Communication is a basic need, a fundamental right. During our fieldwork in Athens, London and Berlin the vitality of communication technologies for well-being and access to resources became repeatedly apparent. The ambivalent nature of communication technology in newcomers’ lives also raises important questions about democratized, equitable and safe digital spaces that protect its users against harm, isolation and surveillance.
For most newcomers, access to smartphones and to the internet fulfilled basic needs both during their journeys and within the cities of settlement: connection with loved ones, access to crucial information, navigation of unknown places, development of new networks of trust and support. As one newcomer told us, ‘The internet is vital for a refugee, as vital as food and water.’
Access to communication technologies emerged as a right not fulfilled. There were very few options for free and reliable Wi-Fi in all three cities. In Athens, this had not always been the case — a local app that had provided free access to the internet had recently been disabled. In London, access to the internet depended on mobile data allowances that are very costly; getting internet connectivity at home, which is more affordable, came with requirements that are difficult for newcomers to fulfil, like having a bank account and proof of address for at least three months.
Having a mobile phone and Internet connectivity is so crucial. My mother has a heart condition and I call her on a daily basis. They have WiFi in the refugee camp where she lives in Iraq. But my wife’s family live in a town with no internet and it’s too expensive to call the landline. She hasn’t spoken to her family in over six months. The Internet is expensive here — 5MB costs 10 Euros. There used to be an app for free access, but this has been stopped. And in Athens, you need the Internet for everything, it’s crucial for surviving here — just like food. Our upstairs neighbour gave us his password to use. I insisted on paying him but he didn’t accept. He’s a very kind man.
(Tareq family, Athens)
The mobile Internet was too expensive to top up all the time, so we had to be economical. We would memorise the maps so we didn’t have to use Google Maps too much. You can’t get WiFi at home until you have three months of bank statements. So we started going to Wood Green Mall to use the free Internet so we could talk to my sisters. Then the three of us would sit down to watch Arabic series on my mobile phone. This was before we got a television, two months ago. Just in time for the World Cup.
Then, we met a Palestinian woman at Lidl who offered to sign us up for home internet in her name. She even paid for the first month. There are many kind people here, thank God.
DESIRE FOR SAFETY AND SECURITY
Questions of access also extended to the right to safe communication. Newcomers raised concerns about surveillance online, both by governments in states they had left and states where they arrived. This was particularly true in Berlin where state authorities are legally allowed to examine a newcomer’s social media content as part of reaching a decision on an asylum claim. Safe access includes what is collected as data, who owns this data, and the very tangible implications of this data on a refugee’s life. In Athens, for example, the collection of biometric data impacted newcomers’ ability to seek settlement status elsewhere in Europe. As one participant in Berlin put it, ‘Facebook is an unsafe resource. It is more of a monitoring tool than it is a social connectivity tool.’
I was on Facebook and an ad for Code Your Future appeared on my newsfeed. I was like, ‘this is strange, they know I am a refugee, they know I like to code. They must be spying on me!’ [laughs] Facebook knows more about me than any other thing or person. If you go to Amazon and then Facebook, you find Facebook ads for what you were searching for on Amazon. It’s scary.
The resettlement route in other EU countries has been closed since the Dublin agreement. My biometrics were registered when I first arrived in Greece and because of that, I can’t settle anywhere else in Europe. Wherever I go they will scan my info and see that I’ve registered in Greece already. I’ve been told there is a way to cancel biometrics data so you can register in another country, but I don’t know how you go about doing that. The main problem is there is no clarity to immigration law, nothing you can depend on to argue a case. I can’t say, ‘under section 2 of law 4 I have a right to...’
Finally, the right to safe communication was also discussed as protection from online harm, including experiences of online fraud and hacking, and worries about the harm young children are exposed to because of the unregulated use of the internet. Some organisations had identified a critical need to provide support around digital citizenship for both adults and young people, not only in terms of protection from harm but also for participating as ‘creators’ of information.
I always feel like I’m losing control, especially of Owais. He has so much access to technology here, it’s so open, too open. I found out he was ordering things online using my credit card. They were mostly games through Google Play, £2.50 each, but I wasn’t checking my account so didn’t notice. Then, one day, a PlayStation arrived at the house. I was furious! He said that he thought if he asked me, I would never allow him to buy one. Because all of his friends have one, he wanted one, too. He has no idea what is worth spending money on and what isn’t.
The legal process is dire and there is no political will for real change. All refugees arriving by land, for example, have to pre-register on Skype. Sometimes it can take months, even more than a year, just to get an initial Skype appointment and so many people don’t have access to reliable Internet. And there are many fake Skype accounts running scams. Many are in Urdu and they present themselves as official sites for pre-registration, and then use the documentation of newcomers to falsely apply for asylum.
Digital impacts how migrants feel welcome in the borough. In the last few years, the nature of life online is changing. It's intense and, unfortunately, increasingly polarised. It’s much easier nowadays to be exposed to your own views than to the views of others, creating an environment where people are stuck within their own echo chamber. It’s important to realise as well that as migrants, we have a space in that digital environment, to not only receive and be fed information, but to be creators of it. Some of our projects emphasise the concept of digital citizenship and how it affects migrant families. It’s not just about how to use Wi-Fi or the iPad, we’re asking them to take that extra step. How can you become a creator of information? How can you share your views widely? How can you participate in digital civic life?
We’re piloting this digital citizenship initiative for young people in Hackney because there's this assumption that the younger generation is digitally native, but we’re recognising we need to support them to become good digital citizens. This is a long-term view, I suppose, but this is the way that we should be seeking to break the cycle of polarisation, of hate crimes. The more agency we have, as migrants and as British people, the more we can create a world that reflects who we are and who we want to be in this space.
You have to have a voice, you have to speak up! I tweeted about Bahrain and I got so many Bahraini activists writing to me, thanking me. Now we’re friends. I love Twitter, it makes me feel like I'm in the heart of the world. I only started while we were in Lebanon because I felt I had things to say about what was really going on in Iraq. My previous account had maybe 40,000 followers, but I was hacked and now I have 2,000. Whenever that happens I have to change the user name but I use the same profile name so my followers can find me again. Recently, I used Google translate to send a tweet in English, and a few foreign people followed me! I’ll do more of that so that they can know more about what's happening. People say you can’t change the world, but I still think you need to try something.
(Ra’ed family, London)