Digitizing Refugees: The Effect of Technology on Forced Displacement


This paper examines broadly the role of technology in the lives of refugees and its influence on the trajectory of forced displacement today, a topic that has been covered extensively by the media but has not been as discussed in academic literature. I first examine the positive and negative effects of recent technological advances on the lived experiences of refugees. Technology has benefited refugees in allowing them to maintain relations with friends and family over large distances with improved communication apps and banking systems, in raising awareness about the challenges they face through social and online media, and in making it easier for them to receive aid from humanitarian organizations through the use of modern databases. However, technology has also been used to institute new forms of governmentality over refugees through the process of registration and has created new obligations and pressures on them from relatives still in the homeland. I then look at how states and humanitarian organizations have leveraged technology in formulating policy that deals with displaced people and provide some suggestions on how this can be further done, focusing on three specific sectors: aid distribution, education, and the private sector. At a time when the refugee crisis is reaching unprecedented heights, technology is shaping and will continue to shape in significant ways how states, humanitarian organizations, and refugees themselves are dealing with forced displacement.


In response to complaints going around on social media that Syrian refugees cannot be poor because they have smartphones, British journalist James O’Malley wrote an op-ed in The Independent entitled “Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you’re an idiot.” The article was published on September 7 last year and quickly went viral. O’Malley argues that we should not be surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones, given that these phones are now relatively cheap and mobile phone penetration was high in Syria at 87 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2014, according to the CIA World Factbook. In fact, smartphones might be even more important for refugees than for people who have not been displaced; as O’Malley points out, “If you had to give up many of your possessions and live on $1850/year, after clothes and food, what would you buy next? It is hard to think of a more useful thing to own than a smartphone, especially if you’re fleeing your home.” While perhaps crassly titled, O’Malley’s op-ed makes a number of important points about the role of technology in refugees’ lives.

This paper investigates how technology is shaping the lives of refugees—Syrian or otherwise—and the trajectory of forced displacement today. In this context, technology is defined as “the use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). While newspapers and other forms of popular media have discussed refugees’ use of technology quite extensively, the role of technology in the context of forced displacement has not been the subject of much academic research (Leung et al., 2009, 2). This article aims to add to that discussion and does so from two directions. I discuss the effects of new technologies on the lived experiences of refugees of the present day: while technology has had positive effects in allowing refugees to keep in touch with and send money to friends and family over large distances and making it easier for them to receive aid from humanitarian organizations, it has also had negative effects of instituting new forms of governmentality and creating new obligations and pressures on them. I also outline the different ways these technologies are affecting the policies of states and humanitarian organizations dealing with the displaced and offer some suggestions on how they can leverage technology to better served the displaced.1

As O’Malley points out in his article, refugees have been making use of technology to keep in touch with friends and family, those still in their country of origin as well as those in the diaspora. In the 21st century, improved technology in the form of mobile phones and the Internet has had a positive effect in providing new ways to keep in touch that were unimaginable even decades ago. While long distance calling has been possible for a long time, new smartphones are capable of a lot more: instant messages services like Whatsapp, voice over IP (VoIP) services like Viber, and video calling services like Skype or Facetime. Not only have these services become readily available, they have also become readily accessible and affordable in recent years. As Dianna Shandy, Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College, writes about African refugees in the United States, “Communication is now much cheaper and speedier, and accessible to a broader swath of the population, and African refugees are well aware of this technology. The recently resettled and much-publicized Sudanese youth, or Lost Boys as they were dubbed in the media, arrived in the US requesting internet-based technology to get in touch with the relatives and friends from whom they were separated” (2003, 7). The ubiquity of mobile and smartphones is a relatively recent phenomenon, as demonstrated in research published in 2010 by Linda Leung, senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney. Leung found through her interviews with African refugees in Australia that many of them still kept in contact with relatives in their homeland by postal mail or by calling them over public phones. Only the “‘wealthy’ few” among them owned mobile phones and would rent these phones out to other refugees (5). Contrast that to today, where so many refugees have smartphones that they have been the subject of criticism on social media. The ease of keeping in touch with relatives from home provides refugees with a broader, if virtual, social network, and may prove especially important for refugees who are not well-integrated into their host communities, such as Somali refugees in Amman. These refugees have the lowest levels of bridging social capital (ties between refugees and host communities) among refugees from different countries in Jordan (Calhoun, 2010, 6) and thus might find bearing the effects of displacement easier with the ability to remain in contact with family and friends who are still in Somalia. While this might not be as positive a development if the ultimate goal of these refugees is resettlement within the host community, overall, the availability of new technologies to maintain relationships with relatives in the homeland has been a major boon to displaced persons.

Another positive effect of new technology has to do with monetary remittances, which are an important part of social ties between refugees in the diaspora. These transactions have been made much easier and much faster through the improvement of formal wire transfer systems and informal banking systems. According to Stephanie Riak Akuei, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University College London who has conducted fieldwork among Sudanese Dinka urban refugees in Cairo, “remittances provided by refugees resettled and residing in Western countries to kin who are in urban areas of Africa and the Middle East, have become an important source of support in the overall income essential to meeting their daily subsistence and other critical needs” (2004, 1). While important for immediate subsistence needs, these monetary remittances serve social functions as well. For example, Sudanese refugees send remittances to their kin elsewhere not only for the latter to “buy food to supplement UNHCR rations or to supplant a meagre harvest” but also to invest in education by paying the school fees of younger siblings and to support betrothed fiancées living with their families in the homeland (Shandy 2003, 1). In both these situations, new technology in the form of better systems of monetary transfer has helped refugees maintain social ties more cheaply, more quickly, and more efficiently than before.

The rise of Internet media as well as transnational social media networks like Facebook and Twitter have also, in some cases, had positive effects on refugees’ lives, the least of which is to raise awareness of the refugee crisis. In September this year, a video that showed a Hungarian camerawoman intentionally tripping a Syrian refugee—who was carrying his son in his arms—as he ran across the border from Hungary to Serbia sparked international outrage as it spread quickly across the Internet. The backlash against the N1TV camerawoman, Petra Laszlo, was immense, and the company condemned her actions and fired her. As for the man who was tripped, Osama Abdul Mohsen, he “was invited to join the National Center for the Education of Coaches (Cenafe)—Spain’s national soccer coaching academy—in Madrid, after media outlets reported that Abdul Mohsen had been a soccer coach at the Al-Fotuwa club in Deir el-Zor in eastern Syria” (Ma 2015, emphasis mine). Another photo that quickly went viral over the summer was of a Syrian refugee, Abdul Halim al-Attar, selling pens in Beirut as he carried his young daughter in his arms. An online journalist based in Norway, Gissur Simonarson, saw the picture and began a crowdsourcing campaign for the family, which raised $191,000 over a period of three months. Although disbursement of the funds has been difficult, al-Attar has managed to use the money to move his family from a one-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom apartment and to begin three businesses in Beirut in which he is employing 16 Syrian refugees (NBC News 2015). Both of these refugee “success stories” would have been much less likely to occur without social media networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as media outlets that operate online, pointing to the positive effects that new technologies can have on the lives of refugees today.

New technologies have also made it easier for refugees to receive aid from humanitarian organizations, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that is providing aid to millions of displaced peoples all over the world. Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, for instance, now receive financial assistance by way of ATM cards distributed by UNHCR (Crisp et al. 2009, 13) rather than cash or food handouts, which allows them to withdraw money according to their needs and reduces the need for them to make regular visits to UNHCR offices. This particular move has also had the unintended benefit of restoring some agency to people who have lost autonomy in many other aspects of their lives. Refugees are also now registered by UNHCR within the proGres Refugee Registration Platform, the result of a collaboration between UNHCR and Microsoft Corporation. ProGres makes refugees “eligible for first-line humanitarian aid such as the provision of food and medical aid from the UN and partner organizations while the details of their individual claims to asylum are assessed” (Marr 2015). As the asylum process can take a long time, these platforms are crucial for refugees to access immediate assistance. Their registration within ProGres can also mean that they no longer need to carry as much documentation if they were to move elsewhere as their details will have been kept within the standardized database, which points to the positive effect new technologies can have on refugees’ lives.

New technologies, then, have clearly made many positive contributions towards mitigating the difficulties of forced displacement. With modern smartphones, improved banking systems, and aid distribution systems, refugees have been able to maintain social ties with friends and family in the homeland—through phone calls and instant messaging as well as monetary transfers—and to access available aid more quickly and easily. However, these new technologies have also had negative consequences on the lived experience of displacement.

The new technologies associated with aid distribution and refugee registration have created new forms of governmentality over the bodies and lives of refugees. Governmentality, in the Foucauldian sense, refers to the processes by which disciplinary institutions such as the state control and shape their subjects. In this case, humanitarian organizations and the states of host countries use modern technologies to govern refugees’ rights, movements, and daily lives, in making registration the prerequisite by which refugees can gain access to essential goods and services, like foodstuffs and healthcare. According to an article from Computer Weekly, until they are registered, displaced persons are not officially refugees and thus “not entitled to protection or eligible for aid—shelter, food, money, healthcare, education—from other UN agencies or the NGOs which fulfill day-to-day operations” (Favell 2015). Julie Peteet, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Louisville, points out that the linking of subsistence to registration literally gives states and humanitarian organizations control over life and death (2005, 53). The issuance of specific identity cards and documents for refugees also serves to restrict their movements and allow states and humanitarian organizations to keep track of them and subject them to surveillance, which refugees interviewed by Leung identified as one of their worries (2010, 5–6). Amnesty International recently reported that the Lebanese state has introduced new criteria for Syrians applying for and renewing their residency permits, as part of a policy to dissuade Syrian refugees from seeking protection in the country (2015, 6); thanks to modern registration systems, it is easier than ever for Lebanon to check if Syrian refugees are adhering to the law or not. While these processes may not be new, new technologies, such as the aforementioned proGres Platform, have made these processes far more intrusive, pervasive, and enforceable.

Furthermore, new technologies have also created new obligations and pressures on refugees, because the flipside of instantaneous cellular communication is that not only can refugees contact friends and family in the homeland immediately, but the latter can contact the former with the touch of a button as well. It has also led to an expanded social network reliant on resettled persons for financial aid: whereas before refugees might have only been financially responsible for their immediate family, new technologies have altered kinship relations such that refugees are now responsible for members of their extended family as well (Riak Akuei 2005, 3). Furthermore, the rapidity and efficiency of banking transactions in the present day has created new expectations in the homeland about how quickly resettled persons can send money back; that combined with the mistaken but common perception that the places of resettlement are overflowing with wealth—Riak Akuei’s informants told her that “at least in America, the streets upon which they will be travelling will be ‘paved in gold’” (2005, 2)—has led her to call remittances “unexpected burdens” (6). To deal with these new pressures, refugees overseas have resorted to using answering machines, not answering phones, and, in some cases, changing their phone numbers entirely (Riak Akuei 2005, 6), all of which can strain relations between resettled refugees and their extended families in the homeland. These new technologies available to refugees have thus had negative effects on them as well.

Given that the advancement of technology is irreversible and likely inevitable as well, perhaps the bigger question is not whether or not technology has had a positive impact or a negative impact on the lives of refugees—for it will always have both—but what its advancement means for the institutions dealing with displaced persons and for the future of displacement writ large. In fact, states and humanitarian organizations have already begun to leverage technology in formulating policy regarding refugees. I discuss these changes broadly and offer some suggestions in three sectors: aid distribution, education, and the private sector.

With regard to aid distribution, humanitarian organizations involved in this effort have made use of technology to maximize efficiency and to reach as many people as possible. The UNHCR, in particular, has made use of new systems of registration and distribution of assistance in an attempt to deliver aid to as many people as possible, whether inside camps or outside of them. ProGres, mentioned earlier, was developed from an earlier registration system and is now a standardized database that operates in more than 300 refugee camps and 75 countries. It allows for accurate determination of the size and composition of refugee populations, and in so doing, helps UN agencies and their partners to coordinate their efforts and provide aid, documentation, and other resources more effectively (Microsoft 2015). With the continued influx of displaced peoples into state territories, efficiency has become even more crucial. A modern database like ProGres also prevents refugees from using deceptive techniques that were prevalent in earlier periods, like when displaced Palestinians listed false names in an attempt to get double rations from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), who was providing them with aid in the Gaza Strip in the immediate wake of the Nakba in 1948 (Peteet 2005, 61). While these techniques were perhaps essential for survival from the refugee point of view, from the perspective of the AFSC, they prevented aid from reaching as many people as possible. Another technological improvement humanitarian organizations can consider for the distribution of aid is the use of mobile money, which has so far only been implemented in limited ways by the World Food Programme in the Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya (Karimi 2015), where a mobile money system called M-PESA was established by Safaricom in 2007 and has been in use since then. Mobile money systems allow users to transfer money to other users on the spot with their mobile phones and reduce the sense of insecurity associated with other cash transfer programs. Rather than replacing ATM cards, these systems will likely complement current banking systems.

Education is another area in which the rise of new technologies have helped states and humanitarian organizations to deal with the negative effects of forced displacement. 13 million children, of which 700,000 are Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, are currently being kept out of school due to war and conflict, according to a UNICEF report, Education Under Fire, that was published in 2015 (Favell 2015). In the past, children displaced by conflict would either attend local schools in their host community, as a number of Syrian refugee children are currently doing in Jordan, or attend schools set up by humanitarian organizations, as Palestinian refugee children did and have been doing in Lebanon since the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) began establishing schools for them in the years following 1948 (Peteet 2005). However, these solutions have become even more difficult to implement, the former because overburdened national education infrastructures in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon cannot cope with the extra student load, and the latter due to lack of funding and possibly political sensitivities as well. Instead, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has begun experimenting with online learning as an alternative, through a program called Sahabati (“my cloud” in Arabic) which allows students to attend remote classes on Arabic, English, mathematics, and science via a mobile device or a laptop and even be assessed on their performance (Favell 2015). While a stop-gap solution that is unlikely to be as effective as in-person education, a remote education is better than no education at all. Perhaps humanitarian organizations can also look into providing online education and other skills-based workshops for adult refugees as well, such as English classes. In fact, entrepreneurship workshops might prove even more useful for adult refugees, given that many are not allowed to work formally in their host countries and often participate in the informal economy by setting up small businesses and the like, as al-Attar did in Beirut. Such online workshops might enable refugees to do that more effectively.

A third sector in which technology has been leveraged to better serve refugees is in the private sector. In September last year, President Barack Obama famously called upon Silicon Valley companies to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis, many of whom have since offered newer and more innovative ways to offer assistance. Instacart, an Internet-based grocery delivery service, has added an option on their checkout page that allows shoppers to donate money to buy food for refugee families through UNHCR (Buhr 2015). Airbnb, a website through which people can find temporary and often more affordable accommodation, has also “created a dedicated channel allowing aid workers and others working to help refugees to stay close to locations they are needed” (Marr 2015).

In some ways, it is easier to bear the effects of displacement in the 21st century than it was in preceding centuries. The rapid spread of new technologies has seen many positive developments for those undergoing displacement, allowing them to maintain contact with one another and with family members left behind, to keep abreast of latest news and developments, and to more quickly receive aid from humanitarian organizations. Some refugees have even made their way across Europe by following instructions sent to them over WhatsApp by refugees who have gone before them and want to help. At the same time, in the era of big data, technology has also made refugees subject to greater forms of state control and surveillance. Lightning-fast communication apps and financial systems have come with a host of new pressures and obligations for refugees from relatives still in the homeland. States and other organizations dealing with refugees have also leveraged technology in the formulation of policies dealing with the displaced, in using modern databases to expend aid and other resources most effectively, in using remote learning systems to educate displaced students who would not have the opportunity to attend school otherwise, and to collaborate with the private sector to find innovative ways to mitigate the refugee crisis. This article comes at a time where the refugee crisis has reached unprecedented heights—Amnesty International has reported that four million refugees have fled from Syria alone (Marr 2015)—and the situation will likely get worse before it gets better. Technology, for worse or for better, will profoundly shape how refugees manage and are managed going forward.


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1Broadly, I discuss the effects on lived experiences in the first part of the paper and the effects on states and humanitarian organizations in the second. However, there is some overlap between the two: the policies instituted by states and organizations shape the lived experiences of refugees.

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