Nick Ashton-Hart was the senior permanent representative of the Internet sector to the United Nations and its agencies and member states in Geneva until 2015 and remains active in international Internet policy. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @nashtonhart.
Europe is confronting its greatest political crisis since the Cold War. The mass migration of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others will define the continent’s relationship to the Muslim world. Will Western Europe successfully integrate the more than a million desperate people who have already arrived or will it alienate them and create an underclass of the desperate and disenfranchised? Technology might be the answer to successful integration.
Saying that the migrants and refugees are reliant on technology is an understatement. I’ve seen it personally whilst volunteering on the West Balkans route this past holiday season: the moment a WiFi signal is available anywhere migrants’ mobiles beep and they immediately connect with friends, family and fixers through Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other digital communication tools. The Internet is a migrant’s lifeline to the outside world.
Migrants will need to rely on communities to successfully settle and integrate into their new surroundings. People, not governments, create communities. Governments provide services to communities. Asking the latter to do the former is a recipe for failure, yet that’s exactly what’s happening now. Local authorities don’t have enough housing for the volumes of migrants they have to settle. They don’t have enough doctors, language teachers, social workers. They don’t have enough staff to interact with so many new residents and in some cases can’t communicate with them due to language barriers. The result? Everyone frustrated and angry.
The technology community’s response is promising. There are efforts to help refugees learn coding skills in Germany, NetHope and Cisco’s TacOps provide connectivity to migrant communities especially in temporary camps, and innovative apps for smartphones have popped up in many places. However, what’s lacking is an effort to leverage the tools that migrants overwhelmingly use Europe-wide to help them integrate from the ground up. Below are a few examples of what could be done.
There have been a number of news reports of people across Europe willing to provide housing for migrants. Imagine if local authorities could provide migrants with a digital voucher for AirBnB rentals. This would make it easy for those willing to provide a home for migrants to do so, ensure that officials know where migrants are living, and allow for feedback on problems to make it back to local authorities. It would also give migrants access to a local connection and support network to help them integrate.
Many Syrians entering Europe are well-educated professionals—doctors, lawyers, and architects—and a meaningful number speak English. Meanwhile, there are already many Arabic and Farsi speakers living in Europe. Facebook and LinkedIn could leverage existing features that facilitate meeting people with common interests living close to each other. By making it easy for locals in a town to find the migrants settling near them doctors could meet doctors, architects could meet architects, and people with language skills in common find one another. What about LinkedIn tools to match migrants’ skills with those who need them? What about allowing local authorities responsible for job training and working programmes to help match employers with workers from migrant communities?
Many Europeans are worried that their societies will not be able to integrate migrants because their socioeconomic contexts are so different. The best way to reduce these fears is to make it easy for migrants and the communities they settle in find to common interests and interact. It is easy to fear groups of people you don’t know and haven’t met, but these fears quickly subside when people who have common interests meet. Social media platforms are designed to do this and are heavily used by Europeans and migrants alike.
EUROPOL, Europe’s police force, estimates 10,000 children who arrived as unaccompanied refugees are missing, with real fears for their safety amid concerns people and sex traffickers are preying upon them. There are ways that tech can help solve this problem. National authorities take pictures of migrant children when they enter a country and when they leave. These pictures can be compared to pictures of children in Google’s Person Finder and Facebook’s Safety Check to help identify missing children. Once identified, those pictures can be cross referenced with video feeds from CCTV cameras using facial recognition technology which is a major strength of these services. When there’s a match, an Amber alert notification could be pushed out to local authorities. Such a system would need to involve the collaboration of EUROPOL, international organisations and NGOs working in migration camps and centers and local authorities to ensure that they have the ability to respond when a child may have been located.
All of these proposals are win-wins. The social media platforms and sharing economy services have an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate to Europe that they offer more than convenience and are not just engines for advertising and personal data collection. There’s an upside to data collection if everyone works together and uses it for socially beneficial purposes with proper safeguards. A collaboration with local communities and these services could transform the debate about social media and the disruptive innovation that new services have brought.
Local authorities and tech companies need to step up and take the lead, not await orders from national capitals or Brussels. Perhaps a first step might be for the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) to organise a meeting with social media platforms to see what can be done.
Time is not our friend. When efforts at integration fail, the result is disenfranchised populations like those we see in the suburbs of Paris and Brussels. The good news is that getting integration right has a constellation of benefits for Europe’s aging populations and economies. Tech doesn’t need to be the silver bullet. It just needs to be a part of the solution.