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For Refugees, a Digital Passage to Europe

D&S Fellow Mark Latonero considers the digital infrastructure for movement of refugees — the social media platforms, mobile apps, online maps, instant messaging, translation websites, wire money transfers, cell phone charging stations, and Wi-Fi hotspots — that is accelerating the massive flow of people from places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to Greece, Germany, and Norway. He argues that while the tools that underpin this passage provide many benefits, they are also used to exploit refugees and raise serious questions about surveillance.

Refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable people. Studies have shown that undue surveillance towards marginalized populations can drive them off the grid. Both perceived and real fears around data collection may result in refugees seeking unauthorized routes to European destinations. This avoidance strategy can make them invisible to officials and more susceptible to criminal enterprises. Data collection on refugees should balance security and public safety with the need to preserve human dignity and rights. Governments and refugee agencies need to establish trust when collecting data from refugees. Technology companies should acknowledge their platforms are used by refugees and smugglers alike and create better user safety measures. As governments and leaders coordinate a response to the crisis, appropriate safeguards around data and technology need to be put in place to ensure the digital passage is safe and secure.