Digital refugees. Transformations of migration routes or how smart phones replaced hand luggage

Simona Zavratnik, Sanja Cukut Krilić

While traditional hallmark of migration was a suitcase, today the luggage of modern migrants consists of a smart phone – it enables them to navigate, to communicate with the family while traversing transnational spaces, look for passable and safe paths, position subversive communication codes transcending the geographical, cultural and political borders, move between visibility and invisibility, and chart new migration maps. An important assumption underlying this book is that in modern societies routes are increasingly becoming primarily digital, which rises a whole spectrum of questions, ranging from the empowerment vs. control of refugees to communication rights and digital inequalities. The digital and spatial routes are undoubtedly uncertain and dangerous, but they are also the spaces of hope, innovative approaches to migration – and of sheer survival.

Changed social circumstances in networked societies have caused an increasing embeddedness of migration into not only spatial but also digital flows determined by technologies, platforms, and networks. Numerous analyses of migrant realities testify of control over their bodies through the use of information and communication technologies. The term digital divide has been coined to describe the social inequalities across gender, generation and class lines in access to such technologies. On the other hand, new technologies raise also questions related to democracy, communication and human rights that are evident in discussions about the autonomy of migration and about the agency of individuals on the move.

Within the complex relation of digitality and migrations, we identify the main protagonist – digital refugee, as well as certain key concepts which help us explain the transformation of migration processes and changes they introduce into modern societies. The thesis about “digital refugees” is explained through the concepts of the strengthening of external borders and selective penetrability of internal ones, vulnerability while on the move and autonomy as a response to border/migration policies. It is not solely smartphones and comprehensive advanced technologies that provide the framework for global mobility. The latter is also defined by the walls enclosing the Wests (be it the external EU border or barbed wires and fences along the border of Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and some other countries at the Schengen periphery), by violence and persecution of migrating people or, in short, structural criminalization of migrations along the geographical dividing lines between the global centre and peripheries.

The book explores such transformations within contemporary migration movements by focussing on the contradictions embedded in the movement of refugees across borders of nation-states. The dilemma is framed through the examination of the notion of vulnerability that offers changed interpretations of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” refugees; and an analysis of classificatory mechanisms that not only construct individuals as worthy/unworthy of international protection, but also fail to capture the lived realities of individuals on the move. Such selection mechanisms are evident, for example in the gendered notions of refugees, the construction of safe countries and in illegal practices of pushing back individuals into the previous state of entry (the latter is evident from practices observed along the so called Balkan route in 2015) Rather than being exceptional practices, they are at the core of contemporary migration and refugee policies. They are manifested also through public opinion polls that are synchronised with political perceptions of migration as a crisis. Such a notion has come across quite strongly also in in Slovenia where instead of a consistent approach to migration, we have witnessed a sort of a crisis management approach to migrants at our “doorstep”. Reflections of climate change and climate refugees also call for a refined approach to vulnerabilities and responses that pertain to spatial and climate justice as well as to the social participation of individuals that have been displaced due to climate changes.

In view of the fact that increased securitization, restrictiveness and criminalisation of contemporary migration and refugee movements are the main culprits behind increased vulnerabilities and insecurities of people on the move, the authors argue for more solidarity and safe passages through the “gates” of contemporary nation-states. In this way, the notion of violent borders that make such passage impossible for the majority of the world’s population could be challenged and re-examined. Modern societies face two choices: we can demand increased mobility for all and higher solidarity, or we can let us become overwhelmed by wires, walls and electronic tracking systems. When choosing one or the other, we essentially indicate which type of future communities we are creating and whether these are in accord with the long tradition of struggles for equality, solidarity and democracy in Europe. Therefore – more migration for more solidarity.

Source: DIGITALNI BEGUNCI. Transformacije migracijskih poti ali ko pametni telefon nadomesti kovček, Fakulteta za družbene vede, Založba FDV in  ZRC SAZU, Založba ZRC, Ljubljana, 2020.

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