Social media is a new public sphere in the daily lives of millions. Social networking sites (SNSs) enable individuals and communities to share, discuss, organize, plan and co-create in a digital space. Some see it as the savior while for some it is the devil. It changes the nature of communication among the individuals and within the society, hence, reshapes our social lives. The invention of these alternative communication channels is surely invaluable for migrants who decide to leave their families, friends and their home behind. Thanks to the advancement of information and communication technologies, migrants that were once described as “uprooted” now became “connected” (Diminescu, 2008). Basically, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Skype serve to maintain strong ties with the home country, construct and sustain transnational networks, rapidly spread information and ensure clearer linkages within the diaspora. The transnational networks constructed by migrants in a digital space could both negatively and positively impact migration processes and migrants themselves. Some areas that have been scrutinized by migration researchers studying the impacts of social media are; migrant (dis)integration, decision to migrate, new platform to find potential clients/victims for human smugglers/traffickers, source of unofficial information about the planned journey or the receiving country, tool for diaspora engagement, political activism and organization of asylum-seekers, tool for policy makers on migration and integration policies and a tool for research on migration.
In this article, I will discuss some of the positive and negative implications of SNSs on the offline worlds of migrants and migration processes. I will specify it down to three topics of my choice; migrant integration, diaspora engagement and the use of social media in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis.
In the migration discourse, there has been an inconclusive debate on whether social media hinders or facilitates migrant integration. Access to daily contact with loved ones on social media creates a vital source of emotional and psychological support. The migrants no longer fear not seeing their left-behind family members like they did 10 years ago and the decision to migrate became much easier. In the context of migrant integration, this kind of emotional support could increase the psychological well being of migrants and encourage them to make more social contacts in their offline worlds. In addition, the use of SNSs could also reinforce stronger ties with new people in their host countries. In other words, migrants could have better chances to develop relations with their new society through these digital networks. Furthermore, social networking platforms could reduce the hardships of migration by providing access to all sorts of information on how to navigate their way around a new society (Elias & Lemish, 2009) and access to critical resources. For instance, Iranian refugees in Turkey have a strong network on social media, which enables them to get the ‘streetwise’ information about life in Turkey. Particularly for newcomers, these transnational networks represent a gateway to the new society they are surrounded with. Syrian migrants, young refugees and Afghan refugees living in Turkey also have similar networks in the digital space where they share daily information including news regarding their status in Turkey, news from UN agencies as well as from homelands and event organizations. All these online networks aim at finding solutions to their common problems and facilitate integration of migrant communities in Turkey through improvement of living conditions.
Contrary to the potential positive effects, Komito (2011) argues that migrants are less likely to make social contacts in their new society because of the strong emotional support received from their community on social media. This argument, however, highlights a slightly negative consequence of a strongly positive act (being in touch with loved ones) and we simply hope that migration policy makers will never draw on this argument for the purpose of “better” integration.
Following the Syrian crisis, there is no doubt that migrant integration policies will be on the top of political agendas for many European countries in the next few decades. In this regard, social media could serve as a crucial tool for migration policy-makers. Recently, social scientists started to cooperate with information technology specialists in order to develop tools that analyze the social media content (e.g. UniteEurope). Based on the data gathered from social media, the policy makers are able to identify major policy areas for migrant integration. Therefore, it is advisable for policy makers to benefit from these newly developed tools and prepare for the intake of more people instead of focusing on building a higher fortress on their borders.
By creating a new kind of diasporic public sphere, advancement of information and communication technologies and the diffusion of the Internet add a complex digital extension to the traditional character of diaspora and serve as a potential facilitator for diaspora engagement. The anonymity afforded by the Internet and the resultant freedom of expression enable migrants to openly claim an identity that was previously denied to them in their homelands. Kurdish diaspora represents a very good example, as they became a unified force in Europe by means of technology. Now, the Kurdish diaspora in Europe is capable of bringing tens of thousands of people out to the streets for demonstrations, thanks to social media. Similarly, many diasporas benefit from social media in one way or another based on their diasporic character. On 24th April, 2015, the Armenian diaspora led a social media campaign to mark the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire by sharing the stories of those they lost in 1915. Social media could also enable its migrant users to stay connected to and participate in the policy making and economic development back home. An example is the African diaspora using social media for fundraising in community development projects.
The power of social media is not limited to rooted diasporas. For instance, Syrian diaspora is a relatively young diaspora in Turkey but they are rapidly growing and strengthening their ties, thanks to social media. On September 2015, the Syrian asylum seekers organized a protest in the Turkish city of Edirne, near the border to Greece, appealing for passage into Europe. The event gathered thousands of refugees from all around the country and made it to international news. But it went unnoticed that this movement was made possible through creation of a simple Facebook event “We are just passers-by”. During this gathering, media campaigns on Twitter with hashtags #Crossingnomore and #marchofhope have called for refugees to be allowed to travel by land to Europe rather than taking the risky sea journey. Despite the blockage by Turkish police forces and the failure to cross the border, the demonstration proved to be powerful in making migrants’ voice heard. Soon after, the Prime Minister of Turkey made a statement and called the migrants to end their protests. “The voices of our Syrian brothers have been heard by the entire world. They must now return to a normal life”, he stated.
Syrian Crisis and the Use of Social Media
“Smuggling Into the EU”, “How to Emigrate to Europe”, “Smuggling from Turkey to Europe”, “Immigration and Travel to Europe,” “Wishing to immigrate to Europe through Libya”; these are only few of the Facebook groups you may come across if you are able to run quick search in Arabic. After the Syrian war and the following refugee crisis, millions flee from their homes hoping to reach Europe. Demand created the supply and smuggling became a multi-million dollar industry. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the market for this growing demand is not only in the offline world anymore.
Social media plays a key role in making accessible and available all sorts of information before taking off to this journey along with tips on how to navigate the journey and access critical services upon arrival either with or without a smuggler. Those who opt for finding a suitable deal with a smuggler could go online and can check for an online smuggling “agency”, compare alternative “packages” with different routes and destinations, compare the prices, contact fellow migrants ahead of them on the way and get ready for the journey. Having this kind of information online could have both negative and positive consequences. On the one hand, the ability to compare different sources of information and contact with fellows ahead on the way to Europe could increase the likelihood of taking a more secure route and making more meaningful choices. On the other hand, there is very little migrants can do to verify the trustworthiness of their smugglers on social media. Smugglers advertise their business on social media with a high-profile company attitude, downplaying any hint of risk. This may gloss over the difficulties of the journey, leaving migrants vulnerable to manipulation. SNSs are also famous for creating unrealistic and misleading rumors, like the one circulating in the summer of 2015 claiming that Germany will send boats to Turkey and Lebanon to bring refugees. Alongside the emotional distress and the disappointment it causes to the migrants, this kind of rumors also put under pressure the NGOs and UN agencies working in the field and disrupts the work flow by leading to considerable loss of time.
In addition, success stories of those who made it to Europe spread instantaneously and create a pull factor for the decision to migrate without sufficient consideration of possible consequences.
Internet technologies as well as social media tools prove to be key survival tools also for the people still on the road, providing access to recommended routes by fellow migrants, safety advice, GPS coordinates for family and friends and smuggler boats. Nowadays, many choose to rely on the digital trail of news on social media instead of making an expensive deal with a smuggler. The Facebook group “Asylum and Immigration without Smugglers” having more than 15.000 members, helps migrants navigate their way to Europe individually or collectively without the service of smugglers.
Another group called “Stations of the forced wanderers”, which has more than 100,000 members on Facebook is a platform where migrants could get advice on their status and find solutions to their common problems such as exploitation by smugglers.
Due to increasing border controls, migrants had to take longer and more dangerous routes and the numbers of dead and missing migrants increase accordingly. Many families are torn apart on the way, or left their loved ones back home. Social media became one of the few ways they could keep contact with each other and indeed, find each other. Another Facebook page is called “Search and Find your family for Refugees”, which is a platform that helps migrants find their lost family members by posting photos and stories.
In Lieu of Conclusion
Throughout this analysis, I tried to summarize the impact of social media on migrant integration, diaspora engagement and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Social media has the potential to foster interactions within migrant communities and enable cross-border collaboration for political mobilization, awareness raising and economic development. It has the ability to influence policy makers and it is a valuable tool for researchers as well as a rich source of information for refugees, asylum-seekers and irregular migrants. Despite the profound benefits, the risks social media can pose on migrants especially in times of crisis could be fatal. In the context of the Syrian boat crisis, dedicated individuals at the government or UN level should be responsible for tracking risks on social media, controlling and reporting misleading rumors and take necessary action. Probably, the debate on whether positive consequences outweigh the negative ones will continue in the following years. However, we could all agree that technology and social media transformed the refugee crisis in 21st century and it will continue to transform migrant networks and thus facilitate migration.
Eleni Diker studied Economics at Bogazici University and she holds a master’s degree in Public Policy and Human Development from Maastricht/United Nations University with a specialization in Migration Studies. She is working on the ground with & for refugees and migrants since 2012 at International Organization for Migration in Istanbul. She is also a member of BoMoVu initiative and her work aims at empowering vulnerable groups through sport and body movement activities.
The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of any organization the author is affiliated with.
Image source: Reuters
 In Turkey, unaccompanied minors are under the state’s responsibility and they stay in government-run shelters until they turn 18. They created a union in Turkey and they call themselves “young refugees” upon separation from shelters . Please see: https://www.facebook.com/Union-of-Young-Refugees-in-Turkey-102008639900061/info/?tab=page_info
 Here, it is important to distinguish between human smuggling and human trafficking. Smuggling is a business that delivers a service to migrants and asylum seekers whereas human trafficking is the modern day slavery which involves the exploitation of people through force, coercion, threat, and deception. Human smuggling is not the cause of irregular migration. Indeed, it is a reaction to the militarization of border control policies of European countries. In the media, there is a continuous tendency to blame the smugglers for missing and dead migrants, and there is no doubt that smugglers could be deceivers that try to exploit their customers. However, it should be noted that smugglers are the scape goats of this crisis and combating human smuggling will only cause more deaths and suffering. (read more at http://heindehaas.blogspot.com.tr/2015/09/dont-blame-smugglers-real-migration.html)
de Haas, H. (2015, September 23). Don’t blame the smugglers: the real migration industry. Amsterdam.
Diminescu, D. (2008). The connected migrant: an epistemological manifesto. Social Science Information vol. 47 no. 4, 565-579.
Elias, N., & Lemish, D. (2009). Spinning the web of identity: Internet’s roles in immigrant adolescents’ search of identity. New Media & Society, , 11(4), 1-19.
Komito, L. (2011). Social Media and Migration: virtual community 2.0. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1075-1086. .