Monday, October 14, 2013

Big Data and Migration- What's in Store?

Unless you've been assiduously avoiding the internet the last few years, you've probably heard the term "Big Data" thrown around and witnessed the breathless speculation that generally accompanies its discussion. Interestingly, I haven't yet seen anyone talking about what the implications of the imminent big data revolution will be on migration studies, an area which is defined by a distinct lack of data. By way of starting a conversation, allow me to offer my predictions on what the impact will likely be.

I posit two main impacts of big data on migration studies/policies/ politics. One positive, one negative.

Positive: 1. It will allow scholars, NGOs and activists to track flows of migration like never before, making humanitarian interventions easier, allowing us to fight back against fear-mongering false statistics in the media, and providing new ways of preventing statelessness and human trafficking.

Negative: 2. It will allow governments to track undocumented migrants with an unheard of ease, prevent refugee flows from entering their countries, and track remittances and travel in ways that put migrants at new risks.

In short, this proliferation of knowledge could easily cut in both ways. In the following, I will describe the above scenarios in greater detail, and offer my opinions as to how we can (attempt to) avoid the downsides of the impact of big data on migration.

How Big Data Provides Information about Migration

In Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live Work and Think, authors Viktor Mayer-Schonburger and Kenneth Cukier describe how a proliferation of data, thanks largely to the internet, has made new advances in prediction and analysis possible (and exploitable by those quick enough to grasp how to use it.) For example, Google, by analysing search data from past flu outbreaks, is able to make predictions about the next flu outbreaks with more accuracy than the CDC could ever have previously dreamt. Facebook uses your likes and interactions (along with other metrics) to guess what products you might be most interested in, just like Amazon, compiling the buying history of millions of customers, is able to make a much better guess about what you are going to buy than your book club.

The point is, having access to massive amounts of data can often be a more accurate predictor of behavior than the traditional polls or surveys, which rely on random samples or other means. The power of big data to predict is far from being totally harnessed, but as more people use the internet and offer up information about themselves, their interests, moods, and consumer behavior, the analysis becomes more accurate.

So how exactly does this relate to migration data? In several ways:
  • Self-provided information: Ever changed your location on facebook or twitter to reflect a move? Tagged pictures from your European vacation with each country and city you visited? Signed into FourSquare?
  • Passively Collected Information: As you've probably realized post-Snowden, information about flights, wired money transfers, international emails and text messages, and even GPS locations are stored, and available to some for analysis. 
  • Searches: If you have auto-complete turned on for google, take a look at popular migration-related search chains. "Moving to San Francisco", "USA immigration requirements" "EU asylum lawyers"- all of these could be indicators of intent to migrate or move. This information is also collected and saved.
By using combinations of these data types, it boggles the mind what might be possible. For example, why not compare official state statistics of individuals from say, Romania, registered in say, Berlin. Then compare this against facebook profiles that have hometowns in Romania and current locations in Berlin to see who isn't mentioned.
Or, predict the next refugee wave by tracking purchases, money transfers and search terms prior to the last major wave.
Or connect the locations of recipients of text messages and emails to construct an international network and identify people vulnerable to making the big move to join their family or spouse abroad. (If the NSA can do it, why not Frontex?)
Or, an even more sinister possibility- identify undocumented migrant clusters with greater accuracy than ever before by comparing identity and location data with government statistics on who is legally registered.

I know what you're thinking: this might illuminate the behavior of rich kids with smart phones, but for the most vulnerable and poor among us, their interaction with technology is likely to be far more limited. That certainly may be the case, but even the least technologically connected amongst us might well use cell phones and send text messages, shop at companies that utilize data mining, or send money to family members using wire transfers. Further, the nature of Big Data makes this increasingly unimportant- the masses of data that are available make guesses about the rest of the population possible, and can identify trends that include you, even if you didn't contribute to the "research."  As Mayer-Schonburger and Cukier point out, big volumes of data may be "messy" or contain lots of red herrings and inaccuracies, but their size tends to make them more accurate than samples regardless.

The Good News for Migration Studies
All this proliferation of data would be a marked departure in the field of migration studies. As Jeff Crisp wrote in his well-known 1999 article, "Who Has Counted the Refugees":
Despite the centrality of statistics to the field of refugee studies, scholars working in this area have been remarkably inattentive to the issue of quantitative data. While all of the standard works on refugees are replete with numbers, few even begin to question the source or accuracy of those statistics. Scholars have generally been content to rely on figures offered by the two leading producers of refugee statistics - UNHCR and the US Committee for Refugees (USCR) - despite the fact that the figures presented by the two organizations very often differ!
Now, more than a decade later, a lack of statistics on migration and ethnicity continue to plague the field of migration and human rights more generally. We still rely on UNHCR estimates, and undocumented migrants are no closer to being counted in official registers than before. The Open Society Foundation has long been pushing for European governments to collect racially disaggregated statistics in order to comply with European law and illuminate inequality. In a recent blog post for Open Society by Costanza Hermanin ("Making 'Big Data' Work for Equality"), she pointed out the irony of the PRISM scandal when European governments can't seem to collect basic data:
As the recent PRISM program scandal in the United States highlighted, corporations and governments can gather information of any kind about us. Your emails, the foods you like, where you travel, and your shopping preferences are all examples of personal data that can be mined for profiling purposes. It’s ironic, then, that when discussing ethnic minorities or people with disabilities in Europe, “no data available” is a common excuse for not doing more to fight discrimination and inequality.
In addition to making it more difficult to fight discrimination, a lack of statistics (or just as bad, incomplete and inaccurate data) can easily be exploited by irresponsible media or right wing politicians. As I pointed out in a recent article, when it came to media coverage of a supposed "influx" of Roma from Bulgaria and Romania in Germany, the thrilling headlines and distorted statistics may have had real-world consequences for citizens of the two countries.

I don't have the space (or will) to elaborate on all the different ways that more accurate quantitative data could impact the study of migration, but I think its no exaggeration to say the impact could be major. In addition to proving evidence of discrimination and taking the air out of anti-immigrant hyperbole, it could mean any number of advances, such as identifying people at risk for human trafficking, determining what is most needed in a refugee camp,  and learning much more than we now know about identity, diasporas and remittances.

Needless to say, much of this information could also be used for less than noble purposes by governments, corporations, and hate groups, so let me now turn to the downsides of big data.

The Bad News and What to Do About It
via Indymedia

If you've followed me for this far, I have no doubt that the thought has crossed your mind that this whole Big Data thing could also be really bad news for migrants. After all, one of the reasons that we are lacking statistics is because so many migrants, stateless persons and refugees are forced to live in the shadows, unable to claim recognition at the state-level in fear of deportation under restrictive immigration laws. If its bad now, how bad will it be when governments have practically unlimited means for tracking people and their movements? (I don't want to get into the many possibilities for unethical behavior here, lest I be charged with giving them ideas.)

Far be it from me to dissuade you from letting the Gattaca-like scenario unfold in your head. I certainly do think that this may be where we are heading. But that is why it is so important that the "good guys"- people interested in studying rather than criminalizing migration, as well as human rights advocates- are ahead of the curve and preparing for what Big Data will mean for us.

I would argue that this unprecedented opportunity to gather real-time information about migration might illuminate all sorts of policy alternatives to detention and deportation. If immigrant-rights advocates get the jump start, we may have the chance to change minds and hearts, even laws, before the data is used in ways that violate human rights.

And to the extent that isn't possible, it will be necessary to prepare. From a legal perspective, it will be crucial to determine in what ways tracking and identifying of migrants is possible so that we will know what sort of threat big data poses to due process, privacy and the right to freedom of movement. We will need to be familiar with techniques used for tracking migrants or preventing family reunification so that can develop strong arguments against them, even at the same time as we wish to access many of the same stats ourselves for study. We will need to know all the legal justifications for data mining, as well as all the possible legal protections to prevent it. (A few good PhDs on the subject would be a good start.) In short, in order to fight the dangers of big data, it will not do to turn a blind eye and hope that governments do the same.

Is big data a double edged sword? Absolutely. But we ignore its potential impact on migrants and migration at our own peril. After all, at the end of the day we are just talking information here. Data is neutral, its all in how its used that makes the difference. If we allow ourselves to overtaken by governments and their contractors in the race to access and shape that information, then we are taking a giant risk that governments will use big data for good- a bet that historical experience suggests is extremely naive.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and criticisms in the comments. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Europe's Birth Registration Stumbling Blocks

Last week, the European Network on Statelessness posted a guest blog written by yours truly. I'm re-posting it here for my own records, but definitely go check out ENS! 
It is well-established that one of the best ways of preventing statelessness is by ensuring universal birth registration of all children, regardless of the status of their parents. As Plan International notes, “registration means proof- not only of identity, but of existence.”  Even in countries where being born on the territory of the state does not confer citizenship this documentation can be crucial to later gaining nationality, and is a first step towards ensuring basic human rights.

For instance, in some countries, citizenship is granted on the basis of having been born there and then living there for some continuous amount of time. (For an example of such a policy, see the UK.) In that case, proof of birth is a crucial step in the process. In addition, countries that have ratified the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness have the obligation to grant citizenship to children born on their territory who would otherwise be stateless (under Article 1.) In this case as well, birth registration is a crucial piece of evidence for accessing rights- particularly when the citizenship in question is not granted until many years after the birth.

Unfortunately, many countries in Europe have “stumbling blocks” to birth registration for non-citizens or persons lacking complete documentation. What I mean by that is, although they allow for undocumented or stateless people to register in theory, in practice they have bureaucratic procedures established which make it difficult- or in some cases, expensive or impossible- for people lacking documents to register. As UNCHR points out, these “inadequate birth registration” measures may be one of the diverse causes of statelessness in Europe.

Here are some examples of policies which may pose a barrier for stateless or undocumented persons in registering their children at birth:
  • Requiring extensive documentation: Most countries have a list of documents to be presented at the time of birth registration for proof of the identity of the parents. When this requirement is mandatory, it makes it impossible for people lacking those documents to register.  Some countries will carry out an investigation or require court intervention when documents are missing, which adds additional barriers to the process. A better practice is to allow for alternative forms of proof of identity, such as a sworn statement, the statement of witnesses or identity information from humanitarian documents.
  • Requiring expensive translations of documents: If a country requires translation of identity documents prior to registration, this can become a hidden financial barrier for indigent individuals.
  • Linking Registration to Immigration:  If a lack of proper immigration documents at the time of birth registration can be held as a reason for parents to be referred to immigration enforcement, this may prove an impossible choice for parents wishing to register their children who may be at risk for deportation.
  • Fees or punishments for late registration: When countries have strict time requirements and pose fees for late registration, even within the first year, this can have a “chilling effect” on parents who did not manage to register their children on time, who may decide not to do so later for lack of funds.
(More specific information on birth registration policies can be found at the website of the International Commission on Civil Status and in Statelessness Mapping Projects sponsored by UNHCR.)

It is not clear whether these “stumbling blocks” have impacted a large number of people trying to register their children (more research would be required to determine that.) However, as UNHCR well documents, there are thousands of asylum-seekers, IDP’s, and stateless persons in Europe and the number is growing as refugee crises in the Middle East and flows from Southeast Europe increase. These people, like any others, will continue to have children and need to be able to register them without facing barriers from complicated birth registration laws. European countries would do well to face this situation proactively and ensure that universal birth registration is available to all persons on their territory, regardless of the immigration status or lack of documents of the parents. If not, the potential is there for leaving many children at risk of statelessness.

Countries must ensure that their birth registration practices provide an opportunity for all children born in the country to be registered, and make the process as streamlined and barrier-free as possible for families, regardless of their legal status. This is required not only by common sense (isn’t it best for everyone to know how many babies are being born in the land?) but also by international law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that states ensure birth registration and the right to an identity under their laws.

It is understandable that some European states do not wish to enable fraud by making the birth registration process easy to manipulate. However, the human rights issues at stake are just too important –and state obligations too high- to allow fear of misbehavior by a few to dictate policy for all.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Poverty Migration to Germany- Social Problem or Straw Man?

I wrote a brief analysis piece for Balkan Insight on the topic of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants being portrayed as "poverty migrants." Here it is, with added embedded links to most of the documents mentioned. 
Reports about the number of impoverished migrants from Bulgaria and Romania are alarming Germany - but how accurate are these claims?

German society is up in arms following an alarming recent report about a dramatic rise in the immigration of unqualified and unemployed migrants from Europe’s poor Southeast.
But some experts are now calling the report, and its use by media and politicians, into question.

The furor started in February, when the media started to publish stories based on an upcoming report from the German Association of Cities, the St√§dtetag, an association representing the interests of German cities at the federal and European Union level. The stories suggested that the report would contain worrying statistics about a rise in “poverty-driven” migration from Southeast Europe, in particular from EU members Romania and Bulgaria.

Even before the actual report emerged, a flurry of articles demonstrated the media’s willingness to believe such a narrative, with titles like “Influx from the Southeast: German Cities Complain of High Immigration,” from Der Spiegel.

Meanwhile, following the release of the report, titled “Position Paper of the German Association of Cities on the Question of Migrants from Romania and Bulgaria,” many newspapers gave persuasive coverage to its central claim, which is that an influx of poor, uneducated jobseekers pose a threat to Germany cities, many of which already struggle with high unemployment and problems with the integration of foreigners. The headlines were provocative: “Migrants: German Cities Sound the Alarm!”; “The Fight Against Poverty Refugees”; “The Flood?” and “Number of Poor Migrants Doubles”.

Even more problematically, some newspapers conflated the issue with the already hot topic of Roma migration, such as Die Welt’s article, “Roma: Big Cities Sound the Alarm about Poverty Migrants.” The report itself only hinted that some of the migrants were of Roma ethnicity, since statistics on the subject don’t exist.

“The federal government must recognize that social balance and social peace in cities is endangered to the highest degree,” the report warned.

Citing statistics from the Ministry for Foreigners, the Association noted that in 2011 alone some 147,000 new migrants from Romania or Bulgaria arrived, with the first months of 2012 already showing an increase of 24 per cent over the previous year.

This apparently means that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians migrating yearly more than doubled since 2007, when the combined number of migrants from both countries was around 64,000.

Even more troubling, the Association noted, is that a large number of these migrants were clearly not integrated into their own country and so arrived in Germany with low educational and job skills, making them eligible for social assistance and vulnerable to a backlash. The report raised the possibility of dangerous reactions to migration from xenophobic, right wing groups. “The first signs of this are evident,” it states.

From the Daily Mail
The report urged the government to take more note of the problem, formulate a strategy to deal with migrants and push for the greater integration in the home countries of disadvantaged persons who might find the prospect of migration tempting.

Following the loud declarations of the newspaper headlines, some experts have since questioned whether these statistics are indeed accurate.

Some say not, including the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, the vice-president of the Rhine Westphalia Institute for Economic Research and the director of the Institute for Economic and Social Statistics of TU Dortmund. In a joint statement from February 28th the three called the numbers in the report their “Non-Statistic of the Month.

Meanwhile, the Integration Media Service, Medien Dienst Integration, an office dedicated to providing journalists with accurate information on migration and integration funded by (among others) the German Ministry for Migration, Refugees and Integration, pointed out that the actual numbers were “much less dramatic” than was being reported.

Using contextual evidence left out by the German Association of Cities, the two groups say the way the information was presented within the report and the media is confusing and incomplete.

The majority of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria are not unemployed and uneducated, the “Non-Statistic” Press Release maintains.

Using micro-census data, they say some 80 per cent of migrants arriving from the two countries since 2007 are now gainfully employed. Of these, about 46 per cent are qualified and 22 per cent highly skilled.

That’s not counting the number of people entering Germany as university students; according to the Integration Media Service, some 7,000 from Bulgaria alone in the winter semester of 2011/2012. “A blanket classification of all migrants from these countries as poverty migrants, exaggerating the problem of migration for the German social system, only does harm,” say the release.

Even without these classifications, the numbers presented in the report and the media appear overblown.

The number of people entering Germany from Romania and Bulgaria in 2011 quoted by the report, around 147,000, is accurate, the Integration Media Service says, but it fails to take account of how many people left.

Numbers from the Federal Statistics Office show that a large number of the former came for temporary employment and since returned to their home countries, leaving the total number of those who remained in 2011 at about 58,000, it says. In other words, the number of yearly migration has not doubled from 2007.

Finally, the idea that these migrants come primarily to take advantage of German social benefits is also being queried. Whereas the number of people from Bulgaria and Romania has increased by about a quarter since 2007, the number of contributions to social insurance rose in the same period also by about 25 per cent, suggesting that these persons are paying their share.

Given the misleading character of the data, it is unfortunate that so many media outlets published the results of the report without a thought, sometimes making the issue even less clear by lumping in the separate debate about Roma integration.

Germany no doubt faces real problems and issues when it comes to integrating new migrants from different areas of Europe. But it will make the task more difficult if the debate takes place in an atmosphere of unchecked hyperbole and confusion.

However unintentional the oversight was in creating a poverty-migrant straw man, it now may have real consequences.

The German Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich (pictured), has acknowledged the report in the case he makes against allowing Romania and Bulgaria to join the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone.

“Those who only come to receive social welfare, and thus abuse the freedom of movement, must be effectively prevented from doing so,“ the minister told Der Spiegel.

Thus, phantom hordes of uneducated, unskilled migrants knocking on the doors of the Schengen area could turn into another obstacle for real-world citizens of Romania and Bulgaria as they try to access the same rights as other countries in the European Union

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guest Post: African Migrants to Israel Face Refoulement, Discrimination- by Theodore Baird

I used to be a refugee. In Cairo I had a refugee card. Now I am confused. Am I a refugee or am I with the Israeli government? I just want to know what I am. I need a good visa, a paper to work or to do something good. I don’t get help in Israel, but if I am a refugee, shouldn’t I get help?

Furst-Nichols, Rebecca & Jacobsen, Karen (2011) “African Migration to Israel: Debt, Employment and Remittances,” Tufts University and Feinstein International Center, January 2011: Page 15.

On Wednesday January 2nd 2013 a ceremony was held commemorating the completion of the main section of the border fence between Israel and Egypt. The total length of the border fence is 230 km and reaches a height of 7 meters in parts. The cost of the fence is 1.4 billion shekels, or around 372 million US dollars. It is made of 44,000 tons of building material. It took two and a half years to build. The fence has barbed wire, a dirt road and patrol path, cameras, and radar. The final piece of the border fence is due to be completed in May 2013, and is located near the Taba crossing in a mountainous region near Eilat. The terrain is difficult and is a complex engineering project. Netanyahu reiterated that he is committed to returning Sudanese and Eritrean migrants regardless of international law on non-refoulement. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with either Sudan or Eritrea. Sudan is technically an enemy state of Israel.

Earlier, in July 2012, Netanyahu declared the main goal of the fence and Israel’s policy towards asylum-seekers: “The goal is to turn the tables, and take all necessary actions to have the number of illegal immigrants that leave Israel be larger than the number entering Israel.” Netanyahu was politely reminded by UNHCR in Geneva that returning Eritrean migrants would threaten their lives, and that no country has returned Eritrean refugees from their territory.

Echoing the fears over foreign ‘infiltrators’ in the south, Netanyahu declared that an identical border fence would be built along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Fears over jihadists armed with chemical weapons or pro-Palestinian fighters crossing into Israel from Syria, not asylum-seekers, instigated the plans to construct the fence. Armed with the success of preventing African asylum-seekers from entering Israel in the south through the lawless Sinai, the new border is intended to prevent the entrance of foreign fighters coming from Syria or exodus resulting from the collapse of the Assad regime. If Israel completes the fence project along the Golan Heights, it will be completely fenced in. The Golan-Syria border fence would span about 70 km, with a height of five meters, and fortified with trenches, barbed wire and a patrol road, similar to the Sinai-Negev border in the south.

In 2005, Sudanese refugees in Egypt protested against their poor treatment by Mubarak’s regime. The protest was ended violently by the government and the environment in Egypt for Sudanese refugees became increasingly hostile. In response, Sudanese refugees migrated to Israel from Egypt. Since 2005, the number of African refugees entering Israel has increased to more than 60,000, with 17,000 people crossing in 2011. The southern border fence is deemed a success, with 36 asylum-seekers crossing in December 2012, compared with 2153 entering the previous year. Netanyahu is campaigning for national election on January 22nd. Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to return those asylum-seekers who have entered Israel already: “Just as we stopped completely the infiltration into Israeli cities, we will succeed in the next mission - the repatriation of tens of thousands of infiltrators already in Israel to their home countries.”

Photo by: Oren Ziv/
On October 14th, 2012, Sudanese refugees protested against the building of prisons to detain African refugees, shouting ‘We are refugees, not infiltrators!’ and ‘We need rights right now’. According to the recent Anti-Infiltration Law from January 2012, anyone crossing from Sinai is deemed an ‘infiltrator’ by the Israeli state and is treated as a threat. The original law is the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, which was amended in January 2012, to define all irregular border-crossers as ‘infiltrators,’ subject to detention and deportation, with limited or no access to the asylum procedure. Asylum-seekers may be detained for three years or more without charge or access to legal representation. Punishing asylum-seekers for unlawful entry is illegal under international refugee law.

Amendments to the Anti-Infiltration Law include new legislative initiatives as well as a bill from 2006. The amendments which passed on 10 January 2012 include: preventing the sending of remittances, taxing employers of asylum-seekers, monthly deposits for each asylum-seeker employed to ensure they have funds to leave Israel, expanding police authority over legally resident asylum-seekers, preventing the appeal of a deportation order, and barring asylum-seekers from filing lawsuits in Israeli courts. These amendments are designed to increase the difficulty in employing asylum-seekers and to make incorporation into Israeli society difficult in order to pressure asylum-seekers to leave Israel.

Israel does not recognize refugees, and only rarely processes refugee claims. The public as well is skeptical of African migrants. In a poll from 2012, a majority (52%) of Jewish Israelis regarded Africans as a ‘cancer’ on society. Only 19% of Arab-Israelis considered African migrants to be harmful to society. Most of the Jewish Israelis responded that they did not live near refugees or lived only near a few.

In preparation for enforcing the new law, a new detention center is being built which can house up to 30,000 people, and hundreds have been deported back to South Sudan. After South Sudan announced independence, hundreds of Sudanese migrants were returned there from Israel in 2011. After an Israeli court judged that 1500 South Sudanese were safe to return home, they were rounded up. Numerous difficulties involved in returning migrants have been cited by human rights organizations.

Sinai is extremely dangerous to transit, with multiple evidence pointing to hostage-taking, abuse, and torture of refugees for money by unscrupulous traffickers. Refugees have been criminalized in Israel, in direct contravention of international refugee and Israeli domestic law, and are also vulnerable to torture and trafficking in Sinai. Survivors of torture and abuse are being detained in Israel since the implementation of the new laws in June 2012. Dozens of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants have been prevented from entering Israel or from asking for asylum, and have been illegally refouled back to Egypt, into the lawless Sinai. In July, 40 Eritreans were detained just inside the border and then forcibly returned to Egyptian authorities. Others waited at the fence itself and provided with some water and food by NGOs, and some waited inside drainage pipes in the area to escape the difficult weather. Those crossing Sinai face serious abuse at the hands of traffickers holding them for ransom.

For more information see:
Physicians for Human Rights – Israel

Hotline for Migrant Workers

African Refugee Development Center (ARDC)

Theodore Baird is a PhD fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and Roskilde University (RUC). His thesis investigates refugee smuggling from Sudan and Somalia to the Middle East. More information about his project can be found on the DIIS website at: