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From the Editors
  • Emily Arnold-Fernández (Managing Editor), Catherine Meredith (Deputy Editor), Marie Godin and Derya Ozkul (Expert Advisors for this issue)
  • May 2024

Digital technologies are transforming our lives. Forcibly displaced people are using digital technologies in ways that inform and shape their migration and settlement in new places. At the same time, digital technologies are being used on (or against) forcibly displaced people in the public and humanitarian sectors.

‘Digital technologies’ in this issue refers to a range of technologies that together comprise digital systems and the hardware used to interact with those systems. Complex predictive modeling, geolocation tracking on mobile phones, biometric data use and dissemination, digital financial systems and the use of artificial intelligence in decision-making are among the digital technologies discussed. These diverse technologies span the range from promising to problematic. Often the impacts on forcibly displaced people are difficult to predict, and not easily classified as positive or negative.

In their foreword, UNHCR’s Innovation and Digital Services team highlight the opportunities of digital technologies and the dangers of not acting to ensure forcibly displaced people have equitable access to these opportunities. Jessica Bither and Jassin Irscheid of The Robert Bosch Stiftung remind us that decisions being made today will shape the digital architecture that affects the safety, privacy and agency of people on the move – and ask whether we are adequately attending to that responsibility.

The authors in this issue discuss a range of digital technologies that are used by, or on, people experiencing forced displacement. Natalie Brinham and Ali Johar describe Jafar Alam’s experience of India’s digital identity system, where a tool that promised new opportunities was repurposed to facilitate persecution. Kinan Alajak and his co-authors discuss a similar shift, as migrants find the mobile phones they use on their journeys are weaponised by governments to restrict asylum, while Abril Rios-Rivera uses research on CBP One to illuminate how digital dysfunction is used to curtail asylum access.

Other authors address the potential and necessity of digital technologies. Lala Zinkevych discusses the use of digital tools to enable critical service delivery, describing how three digital services have offered lifelines for displaced Ukrainians experiencing gender-based violence. Wala Mohammed describes the impact of digital exclusion on displaced people in South Sudan, while Saqib Sheik and Muhammad Noor discuss efforts to digitally preserve Rohingya cultural heritage in the context of large-scale displacement. Marie Godin and her co-authors describe how refugee-led organisations in Kenya have used digital platforms to create businesses and livelihoods, despite significant barriers.

Meanwhile, Nyi Nyi Kyaw complicates traditional power analyses around the use of digital technologies by describing how refugees in Thailand have used counter-surveillance, and asks whether this model could be replicated. Julia Camargo and Amanda Alencar challenge simplistic narratives about displaced people’s understanding and opinion of biometric data collection, examining responses from displaced Venezuelans.

Power remains a central consideration in understanding how digital technologies are used, and by whom, in relation to forced migration. M Sanjeeb Hossain and his co-authors offer a nuanced exploration of the concept of consent in relation to the biometric data of Rohingya refugees. Francesca Palmiotto and Derya Ozkul examine the strategies and resources needed to challenge government use of automated systems in migration and refugee decision-making. Carolina Gottardo and her co-authors make a compelling case for human rights safeguards to mitigate the risks presented when digital technologies are used to facilitate alternatives to immigration detention, while Steffen Angenendt and Anne Koch remind us that politics may determine the impacts of migration forecasting.

The articles here illustrate that digital technologies are not deployed neutrally. In a world where participation in digital systems is unavoidable, making those systems as equitable, unbiased, and responsive to human needs as possible will help us respond to forced displacement in ways that yield improved outcomes and greater justice for forcibly displaced people. We hope this issue contributes to such efforts.

With best wishes,
Emily Arnold-Fernández (Managing Editor), Catherine Meredith (Deputy Editor), Marie Godin and Derya Ozkul (Expert Advisors for this issue)

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