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Refugees Then and Now: Young Syrian Refugees, Smartphones and Social Media

With Dr Marie Gillespie

6:00 – 6:30 pm Exhibition view
6:30 – 8:00 pm Lecture and Discussion

As part of the Wiener Library’s Refugees Then and Now Series in conjunction with our new temporary exhibition, A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s, we are pleased to host a talk by Professor Marie Gillespie (The Open University).

This lecture examines the use of smartphones and social media by young Syrian refugees and asks whether this small ubiquitous device is changing the nature of refugee experiences. The widespread use of smartphones is a distinctive feature of the recent human exodus from Syria but they entail dangers as well as benefits. On the one hand smartphones are a refugee essential : “to make the journey we need a phone, food and water – in that order”, Professor Gillespie was told.

However, the digital traces that refugees’ phones leave behind make them vulnerable to surveillance by government officials, smugglers, traffickers and organized criminals. Governments and organizations can of course use digital data to gather information about refugees that can help better serve their needs but we need to understand the dynamics of trust and risk, security and privacy play for refugees when they are on the move and when they in protracted situations.

The lecture hopes to provide a better understanding of how refugees use smartphones for a variety of purposes: (i) to access information about access to services and resources in a context of ‘information precarity’; (2) to maintain family and social relationships, create transnational networks, engage with the political issues that relate to their situation and their future; and (3) to narrate their own experiences in a context where so much is being said ‘about them’ and done ‘to them.’ Given the risks of using smartphones, one of the most pressing issues concerns how the tensions between the empowerment and surveillance in smartphone use can best be navigated and managed by refugees as well as service providers. How can organisations and refugee support groups best exploit the potential of digital data to offer better service provision – to promote ‘smart migration’?

To understand these dynamics, we must situate refugees’ experiences, vulnerabilities and survival strategies at the heart of our investigation. The lecture is based on research with Syrian refugees in Mytiline, Lesvos as well as in London. Swansea and Paris.

Marie Gillespie is Professor of Sociology at The Open University and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. Her research interests revolve around questions of culture, migration and transnationalism, particularly South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas. Diasporas and Diplomacy: Cosmopolitan Contact Zones at the BBC World Service 1932-2012 is based on a decade of historical and comparative research on international broadcasting. Other research projects include: Shifting Securities: News Cultures Before and After the Iraq War 2002 and a national survey on the changing face of British humour with the BBC. Marie was awarded an AHRC Translating Cultures Fellowship to research the Art of Intercultural Dialogue. Current research projects include: Refugee Journeys, Smart Phones and Social Media Networks; Mapping of the value of international cultural relations in Egypt and Ukraine (funded by the British Council and Goethe Institute); and Russia Today: From Cold War to ‘Information War’? (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council). Further publications can be seen at her profile page.


Professor Marie Gillespie | talks | www


Date and Time:

19 January 2017 at 6:00 pm


2 hours



The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide
29 Russell Square
020 7636 7247

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