Forced Migration and Digital Connectivity in(to) Europe

Forced Migration and Digital Connectivity in(to) Europe

Forced migration and digital connectivity in(to) Europe” is the title of a recent special collection of articles edited by Koen Leurs and Kevin Smets for the open access journal Social Media + Society. In this blog post, Leurs and Smets introduce the rationale for this collection.

To put it summarily, electronic mediation and mass migration mark the world of the present not as technically new forces but as ones that seem to impel (and sometimes compel) the work of the imagination. (Arjun Appadurai, 1996, p. 4)

The impact of the interlocked phenomena of human mobility and digital mediation – described by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai already two decades ago – has accelerated in recent years in Europe and beyond. Digital migration has emerged as a contentious topic during the recent so-called “European refugee crisis.” The wide circulation of news images of smartphone carrying Syrian refugees, and Syrian refugees taking selfies upon their safe arrival on European shores, became resources for various actors in Europe to imagine themselves and their relation to incoming others. Focusing on the context of Europe, in the special section of Social Media + Society we sought to historicize, contextualize, empirically ground, and conceptually reflect on the impact of digital technologies on forced migration.

We positioned our intervention in response to the recent upsurge of popular and emerging academic debate on refugees and digital technologies, and it was our specific ambition to recover and foreground again a shared commitment toward social change, equity, and social justice.

A rich body of scholarship exists that has charted how media and communication technologies have historically played an essential role in the everyday lives of migrants across the world. Migrants have maintained networks and relationships across distance and borders through exchanging letters and audio-cassettes, setting up diaspora newspapers, transnational radio stations, accessing satellite television, engaging in transnational telephone conversations and sending remittances. Scholars have also documented how satellite dishes, Internet cafés and more recently smart phone usage by migrants and selfies taken by refugees have been projected in populist, right-wing and anti-immigrant discourse as symbols of threat, exclusion, and the supposed failure of integration and multiculturalism.

The continuous re-appropriation of Anas Modamani’s selfie with the German chancellor Angela Merkel on Facebook is an illustrative case in point. He took his selfie in September 2015, when Merkel visited the Berlin shelter where he was then living. Modamani is a Syrian refugee who fled from Darayya. After posting the selfie online, he has repeatedly been falsely linked to terrorism. On the basis of physical resemblance, he was for example wrongly accused of being involved in the bombings in Brussels (March 2016) and the recent attack at a Berlin Christmas market (December 2016), see BBC (2017).  

Over the course of the last decade, the scale, intensity, and types of migration and digital mediation have drastically changed and accelerated. Notwithstanding persisting digital divides, the international proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has greatly impacted upon a variety of migration dynamics, most notably for forced migrants.  

From a top-down-perspective we can note that in Europe and elsewhere in the Global North, governmental border control and migration management by state authorities increasingly rely on digital technologies, for example to surveil the Mediterranean and detect unwanted “irregularized” migrants (as part of EUROSUR - the European Border Surveillance system), to algorithmically process asylum seekers’ biometrics through datafied discrimination (through the European Dactyloscopy database - EURODAC), for deterrence campaigns in print media (like this advertisement by the Danish government in Lebanese newspapers) and on social media (Australia for example publishes anti-immigration Facebook ads to deter would-be asylum seekers), and to scrape social media data for the purpose of predicting migrant flows at the borders of Europe.

From the bottom-up perspective of everyday experiences of refugees, smart phones, social media platforms and apps are mobilized to access information, resources and news; for purposes including communication, emotion-management, establishing intercultural relations, identification, participation, political protest and sending/receiving remittances.

The plans for this collection date back to 2015, when we realized smart phones, selfies and ICT’s were increasingly mobilized as new means of “symbolic bordering” (Chouliaraki, 2017) between Europeans and newcomers. News media, policy makers, and academics were in agreement that forced migration and digital connectivity were increasingly intertwined. However, the usages, experiences, and implications of digital connectivity in the lives of forced migrants largely remained uncharted. We envisioned fostering a dialogue between scholars from various fields, including science and technology, media, gender, cultural and communication studies, as well as migration and refugee studies, law, anthropology, sociology and geography, by drawing on qualitative, mixed, and quantitative methodological approaches.

In our call-for-papers that circulated in February and March 2016, we explained our rationale:

Approaching forced migration as a complex societal, political and cultural phenomenon, we seek to consider different aspects of digital connectivity, such as the use of social media by migrants, activists and trolls, issues of affectivity, representation, materiality, mobility, solidarity, political economy and the communication industry, as well questions related to gender, race, sexuality, nation, class, geography and religion; identity; diaspora; media literacy; policy; legislation and human rights.

The overwhelming response from researchers based across the world confirmed a growing transnational and multidisciplinary interest in this pressing issue. After initial selection and several stages of double-blind peer review this special collection consists of 14 pieces: alongside our introduction, there are 10 original research papers included, as well as 3 thematic book reviews that include a Q&A dialogue with the authors of the reviewed books. Our authors draw on online and offline fieldwork and empirical data covering various forced migrant communities including Syrians, Somalis, Palestinians, Tamils, and Iraqis across contexts including Austria, France, Germany, Sweden, Somalia, the Netherlands, and Turkey.

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We seek to demonstrate in the collection that digital migration has triggered a “plurality of imagined worlds” (Appadurai, 1996, p. 5) in the context of the so-called European “refugee crisis.” The digital has been mobilized and imagined in contrasting ways by different groups of state actors: for example, as a way of understanding contemporary migration, as a way to control mobility, as a way to attack it, as a way to esthetically capture it, and as a way to address questions of agency.

Table adapted from Leurs & Smets (2018, p. 3-4).

Table adapted from Leurs & Smets (2018, p. 3-4).

This non-exhaustive overview indicates that both “migration” and “the digital” in digital migration are not singular but plural assemblages. Digital migration means different things to different groups of actors. Moreover, digital technologies do not magically fix “the crisis,” neither through top-down government implementation, nor in bottom-up everyday use. Rather, they can actually exacerbate the situation: halting mobility, dismissing voice, and surveilling connectivity. However, when centering emerging new digital coalitions, we can also uncover glimpses of hope for transformation and for greater social justice. For the foreseeable future, the challenge for digital migration studies will be to embrace these paradoxes and to account for ambiguity.


Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chouliaraki, L. (2017). Symbolic bordering: The self-representation of migrants and refugees in digital news. Popular Communication, 15(2), 78-94.

Leurs, K. & Smets, K. (2018). Five questions for digital migration studies. Learning from forced migration and digital connectivity in(to) Europe. Social Media + Society, January-March 2018: 1–16

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