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Datafied Refuge

Navigating New Digital Border for Refugees in the City

I'm an asylum seeker, with $200 cash and a mobile phone without a data plan, and I'm trying to cross the border. I glance around, watching men and women passing; who among them will help me—whom can I trust? And who might crush my hopes for safety and freedom?

I had reason to reflect on my own good fortune—for I was safely ensconced in a hotel ballroom in Tunis, at Rightscon, in a workshop session called "Datafied Refuge," devoted to exploring digital solutions to the pressing informational needs of migrants. My questions merely gamified and hypothetical, part of the role-playing exercise that opened the session. Attendees each received a card outlining a role—asylum seeker, trafficker, social worker, family member—with the expectation that we move about the room and pursue our avatar's safety, service, or profit by interrogating and importuning one another. We struggled to discern allies and enemies without putting ourselves at risk. The process was fun—more fun than seeking asylum, surely—and posed a question at the heart of the session: how do refugees access crucial information without exposing their own precarity? Is there an app for that? and behind this question, an implicit proposition: that platforms, apps, and services might cut across identity, social context, and the stages in migrants' journeys.

In the workshopping that followed the role-play, participants picked this proposition apart. A seasoned cohort, largely drawn from activist and advocacy organizations, they were well-positioned to explore this problem, with the guidance of a panel (including BKC's own Dragana Kaurin, whose Localization Lab focuses on technology development for communities). 

In the panel discussion, Kira Allmann of Oxford argued persuasively that information needs and resources for refugees are embedded in the social and technical contexts of migrancy, where tech-world norms like scale and extensibility rarely apply. And in the ensuing breakout discussions, as groups of participants considered data-driven responses to challenges in housing, employment, and ID, the challenges of localization remained a persistent matter of concern. 

One thread of hope, however, was picked up in conversation: digital experiences that brought residents and refugees together in community might help to break down barriers for information seekers, and make communities more open and welcoming, both for in-transit refugees and those seeking a permanent home. And we discussed an example drawn from my own experience on a metaLAB project: in a workshop with migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, we invited locals to team up with migrants to record the soundscapes of the city Mytilini and the refugee camps on its margins. They discovered shared soundscapes, overlapping meanings, and resonant experiences, which they shared with families and communities through digital media—a different kind of localization, paving the way not only to easier sharing of information, but a common world.

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