Facebook, flyers and drone surveillance: information and politics in refugee protection

The European refugee crisis highlights the competing interests of control and protection when dealing with irregular migration. States and refugees have opposing needs for information, while agencies that try to protect migrants sit uneasily in the middle.

Karim - ferry shot

On the Lesvos to Athens ferry, December, 2015. Photo by Karim Ani.

Ghaith, a young law student from Syria, crosses ten borders on his journey from Damascus to Gothenburg. Retold in the New Yorker, his is a harrowing and moving story: Ghaith persists against abusive policemen and crooked smugglers, having to turn around and find a different way time and time again. Equally impressive is the way that he is supported by his family and a network of fellow migrants which grows along the way. The story shows the importance of WhatsApp and Facebook as a means of communication on the move – both to convey the love and support of family at home and to facilitate a refugee’s journey with up-to-date information.

Refugees on the move use social media to communicate experiences and pass on directions. One Syrian stranded in Turkey even ‘turned his phone into a hotline for refugees; he was up late every night, guiding Syrians across borders and sending them annotated maps.’ Oxford researchers R. Dekker and G. Engbersen find that the use of internet-based communication enables migrants to form networks and share vital information. The scholars interviewed a sample of 90 key informants from migrant communities in the Netherlands on their use of social media during the process of relocating. The exchange of information through digital networks facilitates migration because it enables people move where they have no existing face-to-face networks.

Up-to-date information is just as crucial for those seeking to control borders as it is for those trying to cross borders. The European Union (EU) first examined the creation of a unified surveillance system for the Mediterranean in 2008. The initiative to create a European external border surveillance system (EUROSUR) set out three aims: to bring down the number of irregular immigrants, to save more lives at sea and to prevent cross-border crime. Through information sharing between security agencies across the EU and ‘cutting-edge technologies for border surveillance’, such as satellite and drone-based imaging, EUROSUR wants to monitor clandestine movements at sea. Critics say that the “system of systems” does not have an adequate focus on saving migrants’ lives. When the European Parliament signed EUROSUR into law in 2013, it added a clause to require EUROSUR to inform the European border police Frontex whenever migrant boats in distress are sighted. However, there is no obligation on either EU member states or Frontex to start a rescue operation when the system detects an emergency. There is a clear conflict between controlling borders and protecting irregular migrants because people who are determined to migrate will be forced to take greater risks if safer passages are blocked by enforcement. European governments place the priority of intercepting irregular migration above saving lives, which is evidenced by the latest agreement between EU leaders and the government of Turkey. Human Rights Watch condemns the deal and says it violates the international rights of refugees.

Since EUROSUR became operational in December 2013, there have been few public reports on its roll-out and none on its impact. During the 2015-16 large-scale movement of refugees from Syria and the broader Middle East via Turkey to Greece, refugees had to cover a much shorter distance at sea than the previous waves of boats setting off from Libya and heading for Italy. Maritime border surveillance faced different conditions here, as the crossing to the island of Lesvos takes only a few hours and boats were coming at a high rate at the height of the crisis. It remains unclear as to whether EUROSUR has helped to collect information contributing to the protection of refugees at sea.

Within the EU, the challenge to control borders has shifted from Italy to Greece, and until recently, to the newer member states north of the Balkans. On the land route across the Balkans, the dangers to refugees’ health and life come from things that cannot be monitored or controlled by drones and satellite imaging: cold and wet weather, lack of food and sanitation. Aid organisations collect this information for planning purposes in the locations of their work. An example of a farther-ranging effort to collect information is the REACH initiative, run by two French NGOs in cooperation with the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT). It monitors the situation of refugees in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia. REACH uses a mix of standardized group interviews with migrants and key informant interviews with officials, and triangulates results with information from news media and social media. It focuses on monitoring the numbers of people and their most pressing needs to facilitate the delivery of targeted support by the aid organisations that are present in the region.

In its latest situation update, REACH found that for the close to 40,000 refugees stranded in Greece as well as in Serbia and Macedonia, ‘immediate needs have changed from food, shelter and non-food items, to proper bathing facilities and access to information about their travel options and […] psychosocial support.’ The update also found that for many refugees who cannot access support services, the need for information is currently only fulfilled by social media.

Activists and volunteers such as the group Are You Syrious?, who try to provide refugees with critical information, use Facebook to inform refugees about the weather and necessary preparations for the next stages of the journey. Some organisations take a more systematic approach: The NGO Internews collects news reports and tries to dispel rumours about policy changes that go around networks of refugees. The platform RefugeeInfo.eu offers essential information (e.g. transportation and accommodation) for people who newly arrive.

team brit

Weekly update on weather conditions and onward travel produced by volunteer groups on social media and printed out for information at Moria camp, Lesvos, December 2015. Photo by Lali Foster.

UNHCR, as the main coordinating relief agency, is reluctant to provide any information that can facilitate the onward journey, for fear of becoming complicit in illegal border crossings. The refugees themselves, faced with closed borders, sometimes look for just that: information on ways to get around border controls. In March, the hopeless situation at Idomeni in northern Greece led a large group of refugees to rely on sketchy information given on a flyer. The paper instructed them to cross a supposedly dry stream into Macedonia – in fact the stream was an icy river and three people drowned while trying to cross. Without producing any evidence, governments were quick to blame “activists” for having staged the attempted border crossing without considering the danger. But taking into account the dire situation of those prevented from continuing their journey safely, the tragedy shows that governments are in fact complicit in the deaths. Currently, desperate refugees are trying to break through the border at Idomeni again while Macedonian border guards are using teargas and rubber bullets to push them back. This violence could be defused if EU governments were to provide legal options for people to move on – and credible information on when they can do so.


  1. Solomon · · Reply

    Extremely interesting! Any thoughts concerning this issue in other parts of the world global ?


  2. Hi Solomon, look at this page for an interesting platform that monitors and visualises protection issues of refugees and migrants across/out of East Africa: http://4mi.regionalmms.org/4mi.html


  3. Related: a survey of Iraqi and Syrian refugees’ sources on their way to Germany – “interviewees did feel well-informed before and during their flight. The most-trusted information about routes and risks was inter-personal communication with individuals who had freshly arrived in the EU. Traditional media, in contrast, hardly played any role for them.” http://www.mict-international.org/projects/migration-media-usage-survey/


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