#COMCOLLOQUIUM: How Information Precarity Effects Refugee’s Communication Skills

When you think of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, what comes to mind? Displacement? War? I bet cell phones aren’t high on that list. Dana Janbek, Ph.D., has focused her research on the link between the Syrian Refugee Crisis and cell phones in terms of how the refugees receive information. 

Dr. Janbek is a lecturer at BU in the department of mass communication, advertising, and public relations. She is a member of the COM Research center and her interests lie in global terrorism and new media as well as immigrant and refugee representation. Janbek explained that as anti-immigrant rhetoric has increased, her interest in this research topic has strengthened. Janbek was the speaker at the #COMCOLLOQUIUM talk on October 16, 2019 entitled “Refugees, Cellphones, and Information Precarity.”

At her discussion, Janbek began by asking the entire audience to close their eyes and imagine that war broke out in their hometown. She had everyone ponder what three items they would bring with them if they were forced to immediately flee their homes. Some said their pets, others said photos, and there were a couple who chose their cell phones — though nobody thought to bring their chargers! This, Janbek explained, is exactly what the Syrian refugees experienced when war broke out in their homeland. 

Janbek conducted research on the refugee crisis in Jordan in 2013 with Melissa Wall of California State University, and Madeline Otis Campbell of Worcester State University. They travelled to Jordan, which has 650,000 refugees, and conducted surveys and interviews with refugees, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. Janbek’s primary research question related to how refugees use and access of personal and public information was threatened and the ways in which the refugees responded. 

The major takeaway from this #COMCOLLOQUIUM was what Janbek, Otis and Wall call “Information Precarity.” This is “a state in which their [refugees] access to news as well as personal information is insecure, unstable, and undependable, leading to potential threats to their well-being”. Because of such precarity, Janbek discovered that many refugees chose to take advantage of cell phones.

Janbek explained how refugees’ experience information precarity and adapt through cell phones. She started with the disrupted social support many refugees face. As she explained, refugee families are often dispersed around the world. So, they depend on cell phones to maintain transnational ties, as it is difficult for many refugees to create links with locals for fear of becoming a burden. Secondly, as Janbek described, refugees are privy to irrelevant and dangerous information. This often presents itself in the context of trying to cross borders. With incorrect or incomplete information, refugee lives are often at risk. As such, many use their phones to determine where, along the border, guards or police are absent. As one interviewee said “I trust only this phone 100%.” 

The third point Janbek mentioned was image control. Many refugees believe mainstream media incorrectly or incompletely represent their plight, and in some cases, tarnish their image and reputation. As such, refugees use cell phones to locate such news and attempt to correct it. Lastly, refugees often face surveillance. As she explained, they believe they are being closely watched, even if they have fled their homelands. As one anonymous interviewee lamented, “If I say something against the regime or give out too much information, then the Syrian phone gets disconnected.” In some cases, refugees in Syria were detained or arrested when authorities found out they had family in Jordan. 

As Kelci Lowery, BU senior and attendee of the #COMCOLLOQUIUM, explained, “Dr. Janbek’s lecture was fascinating. Nobody really understands what it feels like to be displaced from your home because of something as terrible as war. And if we aren’t told that, then there’s no way we can understand how comforting and necessary something like a cellphone is in that situation,” Lowery added, “If that’s your only access to family, to information on whether or not your hometown is still standing, and one of the few ways for you to assimilate into a culture, then it’s an extremely important lifeline. That’s where Dr. Janbek’s research becomes fascinating, especially for somebody outside of the communications field.”

Overall, Janbek stressed that the use of cell phones for refugees is based on their socioeconomic realities. The main benefit of such utilization is that they are better able to overcome information paucity and precarity and possibly reduce their exclusion from society. 

But because of surveillance and cost, communications tools rarely meet their full potential among refugees, and using such devices could augment refugee vulnerabilities, such as the spread of rumors. As Janbek explained, “Refugees might be told their house was bombed in Syria — that’s the rumor…but their neighbor may text them squashing it or confirming it. In a more gruesome case, some families require cell phone pictures of dead loved ones to prove they are indeed deceased.”

Janbek plans to continue researching the refugee crisis and ways in which communication tools are utilized. She told the audience her next goal is to examine climate refugees, which, in her opinion, will be the next major area of migration.

Eliza Shaw, Staff Writer

Eliza Shaw is a junior in COM studying public relations with a minor in women’s studies. Born and raised in New York, Eliza is very used to the cold and snow that Boston brings (…constantly). She is very passionate about photography, social media, and writing, and hopes to one day be the Leslie Knope of public relations.

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