Can social media save migrants?
Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

In September 2014, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) launched a new project called Missing Migrants. It aimed to use statistics and social media to raise awareness about the plight and numbers of migrants attempting the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean.

Initiated by the IOM after 400 people died in two shipwrecks off Lampedusa in October 2013, the report ‘Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration’ was shocking. It was the world’s most comprehensive tally to date of migrant fatalities across land and sea. According to figures collected from statistical data compiled by governments and other agencies, as well as NGOs and media sources, 40,000 had died since 2000.

The report was published just before the official Italian search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, ended despite rescuing an estimated 150,000 people since the Lampedusa deaths. Britain was one of the countries which refused to fund search and rescue missions, opting to replace the Italian operation with one which would have only a third of the resources, Triton, managed by Frontex, the European border agency.

The new Foreign Office minister, Lady Anelay, justified the decision by saying there was an ‘unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossings and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.’ This seemed disingenuous. The latest IOM figures have been released and numbers show – despite the best efforts of governments like the UK to stop ‘encouraging’ illegal migration – that fatalities are increasing while overall numbers have not. Since January there have been 1,600 migrant fatalities (that’s over 85% of those worldwide).

iom stats

Migrant numbers have undoubtedly increased. Trouble in Libya has meant that smugglers have found it easier to circumvent authorities. Additionally, Libya, because of its oil wealth, was once a destination for those from Sub-Saharan Africa. Under Qaddafi, they numbered as much as a quarter of the population. Now they are less welcome.

Desertification, growing populations, unemployment and, of course, continuing civil war and unrest in their countries of origin – most refugees flee from Syria and Eritrea – means that Europe is ever more attractive. It is the responsibility of the governments of individual countries and the African Union to work together to try and make staying in their countries of origin a more attractive option. As the young and ambitious leave, the effects on their home countries are only beginning to be felt: on one hand there is a ‘brain drain’; on the other, some suggest cynically, governments might be benefiting from the remittance from these migrants and the beneficial effect their departure has on unemployment figures.

So how can social media help? The IOM report, whose infographics seemed to have been especially designed for dissemination on Twitter, has garnered a lot of media attention. Hashtags like #missingmigrants, #migrantlivesmatter and #restarttherescue seem to be mobilising campaigns. In the last day, the hashtag #migrantlivesmatter has increased its reach from around 104 thousand to 519 thousand according to data from Tweetreach. It is only under pressure from public opinion that leaders will feel obliged to increase funding for patrol missions. EU leaders have just announced doubling funding to Triton in 2015 and 2016 which is still nowhere near the levels needed to run Mare Nostrum.

However, the policy of increased rescue missions is a band aid, not the cure. If EU countries are going to accept more asylum seekers, there need to be new policies. An easier immigration process would help as well as additional places – there are currently plans for 5,000 resettlement places even though 150,000 arrived in Italy last year. Applications for asylum are usually submitted by those already in the UK; trying to seek asylum in the UK from your country of origin is nearly impossible. The EU need to co-ordinate to resettle the maximum amount of refugees. The Director General of the IOM said, ‘Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people. We need to put an end to this cycle. Undocumented migrants are not criminals.’

Who are the criminals? As they realise they can make big money, illegal smugglers are becoming increasingly ruthless and professional – they are now shifting more migrants, in worse conditions, at higher prices. Destroying boats could exacerbate problems by forcing more migrants on fewer boats. Sharing intelligence internationally on smuggler networks could help. But could information on social media identify the worst culprits? There’s already proof that Facebook pages are being used to attract boat passengers. Perhaps those pages and profiles could be used to identify criminals.

Social media can also help to inform those considering migration or those whose close ones have migrated. The IOM offices worldwide ‘often receive calls and emails from family members seeking news about their missing relatives’. Showing the dangers of migration journeys and how the arrival at the other end is often as much of a trial as the journey itself – and often the opportunities are less plentiful than expected – could deter some of the economic migrants. But for those fleeing from war, even a detention centre on mainland Europe is luxury.

The IOM’s Missing Migrant’s project is revolutionary because it starts to try and track migrants’ journey. Social media could transform them from shadowy hordes to individuals with a past, a future and families. Communication is also perhaps the best way to ensure the security of migrants during the journey. Nawal Soufi, an Italian-Moroccan activist, keeps her phone on to field calls from migrants in trouble. She tells them how to find their co-ordinates on their satellite phone and calls the coastguard. If they are running out of credit, she puts their number on her Facebook page so that others can put money into the account.

Social media allows migrants to stay traceable wherever they resettle or if they are deported. The Mexican human rights activist Ruben Figueroa tracks missing migrants using their digital footprint. Could this be a model for the Mediterranean crisis? A hashtag or Facebook page around which migrants and families could seek to regain contact seems to overdue. Some, unfortunately, are no longer able to communicate. But perhaps social media will be able to put names to some of those anonymous bodies lying on beaches.

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