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How Technology is Affecting Migration in Asia

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With uneven economic opportunities and recruitment from abroad facilitated by advances in technology and transportation, migration in the Asian region is increasing. The UN’s 2017 International Migration Report estimates 258 million migrants traveled for work last year, with just under a third of them in Asia.

The November Technology Salon Bangkok on How Can Digital Technology Empower Asia’s Migrants and Refugees? was joined by:

  • Dr. Juhee Kang, a researcher at UN University who studies how North Korean migrants use technology in South Korea;
  • Sarah Washburn, Director of Community Engagement at Caravan Studios in San Francisco, who works on mobile apps for migrants in the Gulf;
  • Vivianne Van Der Voorst, a program coordinator at IOM who is using technology for tracking migrant flows between Thailand and Myanmar, among other places.

The discussion touched a range of topics, including:

Technology as both a threat and refuge.

North Korean migrants are transitioning from a virtually no-digital society to a fully digital one in the South. Identities are closely guarded, as retaliation threatens relatives back home.

But integration in the South for those with a North Korean accent can be hindered by stereotypes and preconceptions. Many North Korean migrants in South Korea prefer communication in the digital space, where their accent isn’t the first feature others notice.

Privacy and anonymity.

In the Gulf, an app produced by Caravan Studios gives migrant construction workers the chance to report workplace dangers and welfare issues. The assumption is that those making complaints will want to avoid using their identities, but Caravan has discovered some freely supply their names and email addresses in open response forms that reach company staff.

At the same time, even sharing aggregate data in certain cases can be dangerous. For example, when reporting on migrant flows, IOM has to be careful on the level of detail it provides. Sharing the data that unaccompanied minor refugees are concentrated in a particular area – while useful for humanitarian planning – would be like an invitation for traffickers.

Images from drones or satellites and other geospatial data can be helpful in assessing refugee movements, but when they are shared, resolution must be considered so as not to risk publicizing faces or car number plates.

“Designing for evil”.

Especially when working with sensitive populations like migrants, ‘don’t be evil’ is not enough. It is important to start from the assumption that someone will find a way to use new tools for evil, and design while considering the worst way they could be used.

In some cases, this might mean bypassing certain functionality, such as the possibility for personal responses to workplace complaints. Likewise, Wifi has become almost a standard feature in refugee camps and something refugees depend on to maintain contact with family and service providers.

But in some cases, host governments have infiltrated networks to spy on refugees. Humanitarian agencies often don’t have the technical capacity to identify such surveillance or adapt around it.

The importance of trust.

Apps targeted at migrants can’t be dropped in from above with the claim they’ll make life better. They have to be introduced within an environment of trust between workers, designers and employers – one that can be developed only through face-to-face relationship building.

Apps that are one piece of a wider effort to engage migrant workers and their employers are far more likely to be a success than those designed in isolation.

A built-in feedback loop.

Technologies must do more than extract information from those in risky situations in exchange for a vague promise of aggregate benefit. In Syria, for example, incident reporting by mobile app would go down in areas where there was no increase in humanitarian assistance.

Users would give up that the information they were sending was having any effect. Similarly, if migrants using a tool don’t see rapid impact from using it, they will stop using it.

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