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Book review: Digital identities, virtual borders and social media: A panacea for migration governance?

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Digital identities, virtual borders and social media: A panacea for migration governance?

Edited by Emre Eren Korkmaz. 2021. Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing. 150 pages.

Contributors: Deniz Yetkin Aker, Roxana Akhmetova, Johanna Bankston, Margie Cheesman, Erin Harris, Emre Eren Korkmaz, Abdullah Mohammadi, Ruta Nimkar, Emily Savage, Aiden Slavin.

‘Technology remains an area of political struggle’ heads the introduction of Digital identities, virtual borders and social media, reminding us that technologies are not necessarily imbued with objectivity, especially in the field of migration. Through six timely chapters, the contributors to this collective work analyse identity and identification technologies, smart borders and other applications of artificial intelligence (AI), the uses of social media by migrants and smugglers, and the motivations of online attitudes. Taking a step back from both resigned pessimism and technochauvinism, this book tackles recent and historical developments of technology, warns against resulting human rights abuses, and points at possible ways for improvement in the public and private management of technological tools related to migration.


The first dichotomy that emerges clearly from this analysis is the coexistence of empowering and disenfranchising uses of technology for migrants.


Social media can open up avenues for empowerment, as irregular migrants planning their journeys can crowdsource information from other migrants, stay in contact with family members, and access a safer marketplace of smuggling services subject to customer reviews and higher transparency demands. New digital tools have also benefited smugglers at the Afghan-Iranian border by facilitating communication within and beyond their networks. After crossing the border, technology can also offer many options for migrants and diasporas to connect and collaborate – there are many examples of these virtual links and their impact in the previous issue of Routed.


On the other hand, technology can also be applied to disenfranchise migrants and undermine the checks and balances in migration policy. This is the case with massive non-consented drone surveillance and data mining at the US ‘smart border’, and the Canadian pilot programmes to make asylum decisions via artificial intelligence entrench the discrimination of new migrants and asylum seekers.


However, the line between beneficial and harmful technologies is not always clear, as some tools that present themselves as empowering do not always uphold their promise and further disenfranchise vulnerable populations. Self-sovereign identification (SSI) is a proposed form of digital identity owned by individuals, granting them greater autonomy from the state and the potential to be recognised by other actors even if they lack traditional papers. Careless implementation, disregard for context, and ulterior economic interests drive SSI efforts to deepen existing inequalities and expose refugees’ data to the authorities they are fleeing. 


Developers and tech companies have become new intermediaries in migration policy. Some of these private actors are extending the extractive model that defines surveillance capitalism and claiming displaced populations as the latest frontier of profit-making, by mining their data while they are on the move or interacting with public services. Other private actors are designated as unwilling intermediaries by means of policy and regulation, such as the EU’s Digital Services Act, which will put social media platforms in charge of policing illegal and harmful content.


Similarly, public actors show diverse attitudes towards using technologies and resorting to intermediaries for migration management. This book highlights two approaches that are not mutually exclusive. While in some cases states and organisations instrumentalise technology to gain further capacities of surveillance and render migrant populations more ‘legible’ in their eyes, others believe that technology is an objective panacea that will automatically solve all the issues where politics have failed. The result is an erosion of accountability and the rule of law – intended or not – that affects the most vulnerable.


Attention to this dynamic is also key as migrants and refugees are the canary in the coal mine of thinning rights and legal experimentation. The Nansen Passport, created in 1922, is a precursor of digital identification systems that use personal information to extend rights and resources to refugee populations, eventually leading to greater control over them. While the Nansen Passport prompted the establishment of the modern international passport, we still have to wait to find out what legacy contemporary identification technologies will leave behind.


Technology keeps spreading into new domains, making it difficult to offer a comprehensive picture of the state of affairs at any given moment. However, this book succeeds in charting an extensive landscape of technological developments in migration policy, law, infrastructures, and behaviours. In an accessible format for academic and practitioner readers, it offers insight into very diverse areas tied together cohesively. As a counterpoint, the last chapter, which focuses on voter attitudes toward migrants where social media plays only a small role, feels slightly detached from the rest of the book. 


On the whole, Digital identities, virtual borders and social media presents sound, scrupulous research into the complexities of technology in migration. As Johanna Bankston writes, ‘narratives of complexity do not serve border securitization goals’ – but they are essential for understanding our present and looking into the future of borders and technology.


The eBook version is priced from £20/$26 from eBook vendors while in print the book can be ordered from the Edward Elgar Publishing website – or found at your local college library.

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Magda Rodríguez Dehli

Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid, studying abroad at UCLA and at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon, and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish civil service. Her two passions are singing in the shower and keeping a close eye on all things political. She is an editor at Routed Magazine.

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