/ Clarat / by Julia Naji & Nathalie Merten

Can you google that? How refugees are using the internet

Many refugees do not conduct research on the internet, and they are not aware of the digital projects that are there to help them. Most of them do not know of a single organisation that offers refugee aid. They lack an overview of the digital landscape. Why is this? A team from clarat.org went searching for answers.

Over the last few years, a number of online products have surfaced in Germany, each with the goal of making life easier for refugees. Parallel to this, various studies have collected data about how refugees use the internet, which tools they employ, the apps they prefer and what an online product must be able to do in order to be truly helpful. A team from clarat.org has spent the last few weeks assessing and summarising these studies.

The results of the studies
Refugees in Germany use the internet on a highly frequent basis. However, they access it almost exclusively on smartphones. Unlike tablets and notebook computers, smartphones are, of course, an everyday item among refugees. For most of them, these devices proved to be irreplaceable, at times life-saving aids during their journeys, primarily thanks to GPS and various mapping and translation apps.(1) Once a person has arrived in Germany, communicating with family and acquaintances via WhatsApp and Facebook comes to the fore. People who have fled their homes seek contact with relatives and friends who are still in their country of origin or who live in other countries or cities. The smartphone thus becomes a key tool for maintaining emotional balance.(2)

When they arrive, refugees have to battle through a jungle of laws and rules – none of which are self-explanatory. Naturally, they have a lot of questions. Yet surprisingly, they rarely use the internet to research the advising services and support services that could answer these questions for them. There are potentially a number of reasons for this: It could be due to differing levels of digital literacy among refugees, or, quite simply, to a lack of a sufficient, strong internet connection needed to conduct lengthy research. Trust in information found online is also scarce, as is knowledge of the refugee-specific world of online help.

The studies that focused on refugees in Germany revealed that the frequency with which the internet is used depends on factors like the country of origin of the person being surveyed: 80% of Syrians and Iraqis use the internet every day, whereas less than half of refugees from Central Asia (Afghans, Pakistanis, Iranians) do. Communication and accessing pre-installed apps are the main activities carried out online. 71% of Syrians, 60% of Iraqis and 52% of refugees from Central Asia also use the internet to obtain information, predominantly via social media channels (WhatsApp and Facebook groups) rather than via classic online research; here, the relevant ‘know-how’ is often lacking.(3) Interestingly, the rate of internet use also depends on gender. Refugee women tend, on average, to go online less than men do. The assumption here is that women are frequently tasked with other duties and have less time available to spend online.(4)

Evidently, levels of digital literacy vary among refugees. However, this only becomes a decisive factor if refugees have the possibility to use the internet freely and without interference or network dropouts. Secure internet access is, unfortunately, not a given in all shelters, leading to more analogue forms of research.

In fact, refugees often gather much of the information they seek via direct contact; they ask other refugees, in particular, about their experiences (in person or via social media), as well as volunteers or staff members on the ground. What is surprising is that less trust is placed in information from other refugees than that from volunteers or workers.(5) Here, fear of misinformation appears to be a relevant factor. In light of this, the need for trustworthy information is immense. Refugees want clarification on topics like possible paths of action they can take to become independent (career, vocational training, housing, etc.) and regarding the laws and rules in Germany. As a supplier of information, the internet does not convey the necessary level of trustworthiness.(6) Which channels are reliable? Where can proper, serious information be found? Many refugees are not aware of the digital projects that already exist and could help them. 80% do not know of a single organisation that offers refugee aid. They lack an overview of the digital landscape. Why is this? These products have either not yet reached refugees or they are not appealing enough.(7)

However, a few initiatives have managed to strike the right tone and have stepped outside of the online jungle. One such initiative is Handbook Germany, an information portal that regularly publishes written, photo and particularly video content that contains information and reports of people’s experiences. Likewise, Arab Almanya, an online platform founded by a Syrian, posts news and information in Arabic. Both have high click rates and a large number of followers on social media. These organisations demonstrate that it is possible to galvanise and reach refugees online: with information and guidance via the popular social media channels that is coherently prepared, appealingly presented and translated into languages that are relevant to refugees.

(1) Dr. Sina Arnold, Stephan Oliver Görland, Samira Abbas: Digitalisierung und selbstorganisierte migrantische Logistik, in: Solidarität im Wandel. Hrsg. vom Berliner Institut für empirische Integrations- und Migrationsforschung, Berlin 2017
(2) Martin Emmer, Carola Richter, Marlene Kunst: Flucht 2.0. Mediennutzung durch Flüchtlinge vor, während und nach der Flucht, Hrsg. vom Institut für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft der Freien Universität Berlin, Berlin 2016
(3) Emmer, Richter, Kunst, Berlin 2016
(4) Ben Mason, Lavinia Schwedersky, Akram Alfawakheeri: Digitale Wege zur Integration. Wie innovative Ansätze der Zivilgesellschaft Geflüchtete in Deutschland unterstützen, Hrsg. von gut.org, Berlin 2017
(5) Mason, Schwedersky, Alfawakheeri, 2017
(6) Emmer, Richter, Kunst, 2016
(7) Mason, Schwedersky, Alfawakheeri, 2017