Why is digital activism important for migrants and refugees?

As MRCF prepares for its second course on Digital Activism, I have been contemplating why and how digital activism is crucial for our sector.

Let’s start by clarifying definitions…when I write about digital activism I mean the use of digital tools to create social change. This means a range of things: using Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness for an issue, using digital and mobile technologies to track breaking events, or adding your personal voice and experience to a cause. Pessimists often characterise it as slacktivism (internet activities that make the doer feel good but have no real effect on the social cause).

While other sectors might dismiss digital activism as a blip on their pop cultural radar, the migrant and refugee sector should not be so quick. Here are the four reasons why MRCF is investing in Digital Activism with migrants and refugees in London.

[h4]1.Exclusion[/h4]

First and foremost, we as a sector cannot be left behind by the British government’s push to move records and services online. The government set out a timetable to change the way services are delivered–mostly inspired by the rhetoric of digital revolution– by 2011. I particularly enjoy this timetable for ‘transformative government’ that promises ‘radical change enabled through technology.’ (Look at how forced the smiles are on their models!)

We are now in the last quarter of 2010 and still face a large gap in digital inclusion. From research over the past five years, we know that the Internet is not equal (Loader and Keeble 2004, Digital Inclusion Team 2007, Helsper 2008). We know that the Internet is a privledged place in which individuals who are poor, less educated, or from disadvantaged background are often excluded.

In 2008, the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) published a report stating that “three out of four of those who suffer ‘deep’ social exclusion, have only limited engagement with Internet-based services… This extrapolates to about 13 percent of the UK’s population, or about six million adults.” This means that many of those we are working with to overcome exclusion will face additional challenges accessing new online services- ranging from healthcare to banking to housing benefits.

[h4]2. Decisions are being made online[/h4]

The phrase used to be ‘decisions are made by those who show up’ but it seems today decisions are being made by those with a strong online presence. Just as employers use the Internet to check up on an applicant’s CV, policymakers check the reputations of organisations by searching their online footprint.

Does this mean you need the most followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook? No, but it does mean we need to participate in  consultations and debates that are happening online. Don’t miss out on the policy meetings posted on Migrants’ Rights Network’s events calendar and don’t forget to submit online feedback for consultations.

The new phrase should be: ‘decisions are made by those who participate.’ If participation is moving online, we need to too.

[h4]3. Low cost influence, Low cost education[/h4]

It’s no secret that migrant and refugee organisations are underfunded and with the upcoming budget cuts it could get worse. But getting results on a shoestring is nothing new for our sector- enjoy the fact that most digital activism activities are free (after the computer and Internet connection, of course).

Many of the best resources are free over the Internet which translates to a low cost way of accessing online training, education, and knowledge.

The Internet heavy hitters also have some of their services offered for free if you can varify your non-profit or charity status (Google Grants and YouTube Non-Profits).

[h4]4. Democratic and Equal[/h4]

As a relatively small sector, migrant and refugee organisations at their heart value democratic participation and equality. Digital activism is democratic participation in a new form– we have the opportunity to shape this new public space into a more equal and inclusive place.

It’s not there yet… in fact, our communities could quickly be left out. We know from the past that power and money run in similar circles and that Internet and mobile technologies are profitable businesses.

For example, check out what happens when this gets coopted by Corporate America: this Verizon Wireless ad aired in the US (they’re a big mobile company), attempting to capture the Obama-era ‘change’ and sell a few mobiles.

While the commercial’s social change rhetoric is inspirational, the situation on the ground in the UK is different. A report in 2009 by Digiactive suggests that outside of North America, digital activism is far from equal with only 3/10 digital activists being women. In addition, the OII report found that ‘Those who suffer deep social exclusion are up to eight times more likely to be disengaged with the Internet than those who are socially advantaged.’

Digital inclusion is about correcting exclusion. That is why we need digital activism in our communities. We need to keep working until true equality and inclusion exists.


If you or anyone you work with are interested in attending our Digital Activism course, please contact Nick Micinski for additional information (nick@mrcf.org.uk). This six week training course takes place in London and is free. The deadline for application is October 6th.

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