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OU research reveals smartphone hazards for refugees en route to Europe

The lives of refugees travelling from war-torn Syria and Iraq to Europe are made more perilous due to a deficit of vital news, Open University research has found.

What they need is timely, relevant and reliable information and news, the report learned. The research also found that the smartphones carried by refugees pose both a resource and a risk on their journeys, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by smugglers and handlers.

The findings are revealed in The Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smart Phones and Social Media Networks report led by the OU in partnership with France Mèdias Monde.

Marie Gillespie, OU Professor of Sociology and a member of the OU’s Citizenship and Governance priority research area, commented:

Our research suggests that the information and news needs of refugees are not sufficiently taken into account by governments and news organisations as they make perilous journeys from war-torn parts of the world to Europe, and when they arrive

Smartphone route map for refugees

Many refugees used a smartphone map to guide them in their perilous journey to Europe, highlighted by the BBC as part of its World on the Move day :


Refugee charter

But Professor Gillespie says EU member states have failed to develop a coherent policy strategy to deal with refugees entering Europe:

News and government agencies are effectively reneging on their responsibility under the UN Refugee Charter to provide information and news that can assist their search for protection and safety because they fear that they might be accused of facilitating and encouraging refugees to come to Europe. It’s now such a politicised issue.

The research uses an innovative mix of methods including serial interviews with Syrian and Iraqi refugees as they make their journeys. It also analyses news media coverage of refugees and conducts a “big data” study of refugee social networks on Facebook and Twitter. It involves interviews with staff at the European Commission, among international broadcasters and NGOs. Finally, provides a best practice guide for those providing digital resources for refugees.

Smartphone threat

The report shows that refugees access the news and information they need through their mobile phones mainly via links sent by trusted friends and family, as well as by smugglers. The smartphone is both a resource and a threat on their journeys. It is an essential navigation, translation and networking tool but it is also a threat as the digital traces refugees leave behind make them vulnerable to surveillance by extremists and smugglers. The smartphones also contain an ever-expanding photo album of violence and abuse that they may have witnessed.

The need for security forces refugees to go underground digitally where they use avatars and encrypted services to get vital information from smugglers and handlers whom they have to rely on and sometimes trust more than government sources and mainstream media.

 Quick tech fixes

“Tech companies are trying to plug the gap and they have created hundreds of apps for refugees, some very innovative but most are not sustainable. Quick tech fixes don’t work”, said Professor Gillespie. NGOs, organisations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and charities like BBC Media Action do what they can, but they don’t have the resources to deliver what’s needed in this crisis.”

The OU calls on the European Commission to seize the initiative.

“We urge them to bring Member States together with news organisations, tech companies NGOs and other stakeholder to develop partnerships and orchestrate a coherent and sustainable news and information strategy for refugees in their home countries, on their journeys, and when they arrive in Europe based on our recommended best practice principles,” Professor Gillespie concludes.

Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smart Phones and Social Media Networks was produced by The Open University and France Mèdias Monde.

Read more about the research and the OU’s research into Citizenship and Governance.


About Author

Christine is a manager in the Media Relations team within the Marcomms Unit at the OU. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She has a BSc in Social Sciences with Politics from The Open University; she focuses on STEM stories and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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