Urban Refugees and Digital Technology

Using case studies of refugees’ digital and technological behavior in Bogota, Nairobi, and Kuala Lumpur, my book project uses mixed-methods and historical analysis to re-examine the relationship between technological change, urbanization, and the role of refugees in the politics and economies of cities in the Global South. The manuscript will be completed by the end of 2022 and is under contract with McGill-Queens University Press, with the working title Urban Refugees and Digital Technology: Reshaping Social, Political, and Economic Networks .

This project is the outcome of three years of fieldwork which included doing original surveys and interviews with refugees, and working with local NGOs and UNHCR offices to distill initial findings into actionable policy and program advice. The book itself emerged from a much larger multi-year project at the German Development Institute funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development on forced displacement and development cooperation. While the book focuses on a particular historical and theoretical arc about the intersecting ways that urbanization, technological change, and the arrival of refugees shape cities, the data has been used in publications about e-government and migrant integration, the impact of digitalization in refugee response, and refugees’ access to urban transportation. This book wouldn’t be possible without the collaboration of academic colleagues from Colombia, Kenya, and Malaysia, and the logistical support of local NGOs and UNHCR offices. I’m grateful to everyone who contributed in ways big and small during the data collection, the admin of the project, and feedback on ideas and drafts.

Bogota

Along with the people I got to work with, I also had the chance to see huge, bustling cities from perspectives I’d never seen them from before. As someone who loves cities, this was by far the most enjoyable part of this project. To collect data on mobile internet speed in Bogota, I hired a driver and we drove a day-long route around and through the whole city. I explained what we’d be doing (driving to central geographic points in different neighborhoods so I could ping the local cellular network with an app on my phone), and he explained that it would take about eight hours to do this while looking at me like I was deranged. Once we were on the road though, we started ducking into random enclaves, he showed me where he lived, and explained where to take shortcuts through neighborhoods – it was a 10 hour deep dive into everything from high rise business districts, sprawling industrial quarters, to hillside encampments.

Nairobi

Nairobi offered a different experience, one of terror when I realized I had committed to doing a large scale survey in refugee neighborhoods that looked to me like unmappable chaos. Luckily, Abel Oyuke from Afrobarometer was working with us and one Saturday during a planning trip to Nairobi he said “Let’s take a walk in Eastleigh – there is order there, but you need to learn how to see it.” We spent the day walking through the cacophony of Eastleigh First Ave, the Somali community’s business district, then into the residential areas around it. He pointed out how houses were organized, and how NGOs and public health agencies that do survey work understood the organization of households in geographic relation to schools and mosques instead of street numbers. Like my trip through Bogota, this was a long one – almost 7 hours on foot, with stops for snacks at the various roadside stands.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur was another completely different experience. A sprawling metropolis in the valleys of the Selangor region of Malaysia, made up of hubs of high rise buildings. My colleague Katrina Munir-Asen and I were doing interviews with refugees in different parts of the city, and every time we drove through a mountain pass I’d think “this is the end of the city” and then I’d see yet more high rises stretching to the next mountain pass. If the aesthetics of futuristic high rise cities appeal to you, Kuala Lumpur would be your type of place, but it also left me thinking “how do you build a community in a city that is largely high rise hubs linked by freeways?” The communities we worked with showed us how: creative uses of social media to reduce the sense of physical distance, and using the density of the high rise hubs to set up community centers where people knew they could safely meet. Like Bogota and Nairobi, getting a feel for the city involved hours of driving and walking.

The story of the book though isn’t just a descriptive one – there is a history of refugees arriving in cities, finding communities in hidden or far flung enclaves, and playing a key role in the social, political, and economic development of these cities. By drawing on this history, and analyzing it through the lenses of urban theory, science technology and society, and migration/refugee studies, my goal is to understand what the future looks like for rapidly growing cities where refugees find their way into the cityscape digitally instead of through mechanized industrial labor, and what this means for the future outlooks of refugee-hosting cities in the Global South.