"How are technologies facilitating – or complicating – the adaptation process of refugees?"

Dr Amanda Paz Alencar is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media & Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she specialises in media and migration and intercultural communication. She does research in the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil and recently also in China. “There should be more dialogue among newcomers, refugees, forced migrants and those who are managing the integration process about how to make better use of these tools.”

What is your research about?

“My main research is about the intersection between technologies like social media and migration, with a specific focus on forced migration. For example, I research how technologies facilitate but also complicate the adaptation process of refugees. How do social media platforms facilitate – or not – their mobility process and the information they get while on the move?”

From your research paper ‘The smartphone as a lifeline’, we can conclude that smartphones play an important role in a refugee’s life or flight?

“I interviewed around 20 Syrian male refugees already settled in the Netherlands. The study was about the journey – how their mobile phones were useful tools for them to cross, to leave Syria and travel through different countries like Jordan and Greece, to finally reach the Netherlands. The conclusion was that mobile phones played an important role in their mobility. I would say: of course the phone was an important tool. If you’re going on a journey, you also check your phone for directions and information about places.

But there were also some difficulties with respect to the use of smartphones. For example, the Syrians challenged the perception that many people had of refugees: because most of the Syrians who come to Europe are highly educated and have the newest smartphones. So, first, there was this image thing of people saying: ‘They have all the technology, why they are coming here?’

On the other hand, the phone was sometimes a tricky tool as well. They had to cope with a lot of misinformation on the internet. And they have to deal with surveillance from the Syrian state, as well as surveillance at borders. The digital traces they leave can be used against them. There were many issues attached to the use of phones. It’s not as simple as mobile phones are great.”

"Some people found jobs, others found romantic partners."

What do you study in Brazil?

You might have heard of the Venezuelan refugee crisis, although strangely, it’s not covered very much in Dutch media. The number of people fleeing from Venezuela has risen to over four million, due to a complex humanitarian crisis. Brazil is one of the countries they go to. Since 2017, I’ve been visiting shelters and camps and the border, and I firstly research all the precarity of access to technology they have in those places. Most of those refugees share mobile phones, they don’t have easy access to the internet or to connectivity. In this context, it’s interesting to see how this precarity works, but also the way they resist it – and the creative ways they access technology anyway – and help them create a place for themselves and find ways to earn money, for example. They don’t get jobs easily, often don’t have a permanent place to stay, many people live on the streets.

We did a study for six months in which we managed to get 20 phones with internet and credits on it, and we could soon see how much having a phone helped these people. Some people found jobs, others found romantic partners. One of the disabled participants found a support group online. While at the same time there were also complicated issues like sexually related traffic or selling illicit items; certain people were so desperate they would connect to certain networks.”

What can you conclude about smartphone use worldwide as a tool for migration?

“In China, I have a PhD student who is studying internal displacement in China. Here we look at rural migrants and their use of technology. If we compare access to technology around the world, it’s not homogeneous. Many people have limited access to digital connectivity. Yet, they still have some access, just in another way. And digital technologies are used very creatively and innovatively.”

How can your research be of value for migration problems?

“The message I’m trying to communicate with my research is that these technologies are serving people as everyday tools: they need them to make their place, or to connect to their family. Technology is part of our – yours and mine – daily life. In separating the use of technology between migrants and non-migrants, you are already marginalising people, and I want to avoid that perspective. As researchers, we should be careful with this frame. Having access to technology is a human right. And yes, it can be used in specific ways among this population of refugees, but also amongst stakeholders and governments in a more coordinated manner. There should be more dialogue among newcomers, refugees, forced migrants and those who are managing the integration process about how to make better use of these tools. I would like to create this dialogue. In the context of Brazil, I would also like to raise awareness about the fact that Venezuelans really need to have more access to technology and to the internet.”

"The Marie Curie grant gives young scholars total freedom to develop their own research project for a period of two years. It’s an opportunity to become an independent researcher."

You work together with professional organisations, local municipalities and stakeholders in several countries. How do you manage these collaborations?

“I work with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, IOM, but also with organisations at the national and local level. For example, we organise workshops and media literacy courses for students with refugee backgrounds living in the Netherlands. For collaborations to work well, you need to create ways that are meaningful for the parties involved. I invite several people from these organisations to give guest lectures at university. We also create ways in which students can help them by creating campaigns or by researching certain topics.”

How did you get the Marie Curie fellowship?

“Once you get your PhD, you can apply for that grant. The Marie Curie grant gives young scholars total freedom to develop their own research project for a period of two years. It’s an opportunity to become an independent researcher. I did a project on the role of news media for intercultural integration among different groups of migrants and refugees. I obtained my PhD in Spain and started with my Marie Curie fellowship at the University of Amsterdam in 2014. If you want to apply for it, you have to make sure your profile as a researcher fits into the project you are researching, but also that you choose to work with an appropriate research school for the development of the project. Valorisation activities are very important. I strongly recommend applying, because you can devote these two years to research. And you can establish a lot of academic connections. I currently serve as a reviewer for the Marie Curie fellowship, which is also very nice.”

Assistant professor
Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication