AI, Digital Identities, Biometrics, Blockchain: A Primer on the Use of Technology in Migration Management

June 15, 2020
Astrid Ziebarth
Jessica Bither
3 min read
Photo Credit: Talukdar David / Shutterstock

Digitalization and technological change are rapidly transforming every aspect of our societies and economies, and the migration and refugee policy space is no exception. Technology is already affecting migrants, refugees, and people on the move in many ways, but policymakers have yet to systematically address the different uses of technology in the migration management field. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to accelerate these digitalization processes, making fast policy adaptation crucial.

Technological changes range from broader developments, such as increasing digital connectivity in general — via smart or mobile phones, messaging services and web-based applications, or app-based systems — to more tech-centered applications: Karim the Chatbot X2AIi has provided virtual psychotherapy to Syrians in Zaatari refugee camp; AI-powered Free Robot Lawyers is offering legal help to migrants and refugees; and the non-profit REFUNITE (with more than 1 million registered users) helps refugees to find missing family members via mobile phone or a computer. Digital connectivity is providing new options for migrants and refugees to gain access to training or education via online learning platforms and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or to services delivered virtually by NGOs, international organizations, or governments. Combined with the global spread of social media use, this connectivity has also created new (dis)information ecosystems in the migration space that policy makers must grapple with.

AI and machine learning, biometrics and blockchain- based technology, are already being employed in key areas  of migration management.

AI and machine learning, biometrics and blockchain-based technology, are already being employed in key areas of migration management. This primer seeks to serve as a first orientation for stakeholders to tech tools and approaches in key migration policy areas, also those areas where technology is advancing rapidly. We outline the potential to better predict migration through AI-powered analysis of big data sources and the increasing use of digital identities, in particular in humanitarian settings. Biometric borders and automated decision making, and the employment of technologies in asylum processes, are other crucial areas covered. Finally, we look at digital financial transfers of remittances (and access to them), and how new forms of work in the digital age may transform (labor) migration models.ii

These technologies and their usage are part of greater political tides of our time, the pull of geopolitical shifts and their technological component, including competing regulatory approaches of the United States, China, and Europe and diminishing multilateralism. Ultimately, policymakers and other actors must consider the use of emerging technologies in migration and refugee policy within the context of fundamental questions related to democratic values in a digital age, including personal freedom and privacy, what type of data governments should be able to access on their citizens, and issues related to basic human rights. The migration and refugee space is also one where individuals often are exposed to particular vulnerabilities, as well as to the dangers of discrimination and bias. Digitalization in migration management, in this regard, will both open up opportunities and pose new risks, and actors in the policy space, including migrants and refugees themselves, should be part of the discussions that shape it.


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