Online Writing & Publishing Project

'Facebook Refugees' - Where do we stand?

Jolanda van Grunsven


On September 15th, 2015, the term “Facebook refugees” was used in an article published on CNN. In it, the authors wrote of how asylum seekers made use of technological devices and applications such as “Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Viber” as they embarked on their respective journeys to various European countries (Watson, Nagel & Bilginsoy, 2015). For this project, we are attempting to research and report on the usage of social media in the contemporary migration crisis.

Considering that the Netherlands has had a long history of immigration with guest workers, asylum seekers, refugees and “post-colonial migrants”, we thought that it would be highly interesting to conduct our research based on the asylum seekers who are presently located in Tilburg, Nijmegen and surrounding cities (Hamburg Institute of International Economics, 2007). Through our preliminary research online based on newspaper and scientific articles, we have found that, upon arrival in European nations, asylum seekers continue using new media to maintain contact with families and also, in looking for information on what next to do. Furthermore, we have found that there were certain applications designed especially for asylum seekers such as, Refuchat, Gherbtna, Refugee Buddy and Refugermany. Such locational services found in mobile phones and wifi services provided in refugee camps may work as a double-edged sword in that, on one hand, these may be seen as an informative tool but on another, they can be seen as monitoring tools of asylum seekers.

It is adamant to recognise the complexity of the issue of migration, especially so in this digital age and through this project, we hope to be able to look at it through various perspectives. As such, we will be consulting primary and secondary sources namely, various asylum seekers, experts, application developers,  representatives from the city council of Tilburg, as well as, official statistics.

Hamburg Institute of International Economics. (2007). “Netherlands”. Focus MIGRATION. 11:

Watson, I., Nagel, C. &, Bilginsoy, Z. (2015). “‘Facebook refugees’ chart escape from Syria on cell phones”. CNN:

Summary of what we did so far

  • Literature review - we looked up both scientific and news articles regarding the refugees and the new media, went through them and wrote short summaries of each one in order to organize them more effectively
  • Research of apps designed for refugees - a brief look at their contents and functionality
  • Choice of respondents - we agreed on people who we want to interview for the project
  • Contacting the respondents - we contacted the chosen the chosen people. These were:
    • Paul Mutsaers - a Tilburg University researcher specialising in diversity, globalisation, multiculturalism, minorities etc. - interview scheduled for Mar 16
    • Max Spotti - a Tilburg University assistant professor specialising in ethnography, superdiversity, citizenship, sociolinguistics etc. - waiting for response
    • Asylum seekers - currently living in Tilburg - waiting for response
    • 3 app developers - Mojahed Akil from Gherbtna app, Marius Jeuck from Refugermany and Roek Lips from Dutch Red Cross - interview scheduled for Mar 16, waiting for response from the others
    • Willem de Kleijne - engaged in the work of Nijmegen refugee camp - waiting for response
  • Preparation of questions for the respondents
  • Scheduling a visit to the Oisterwijk refugee center - Mar 26
  • Discussion of the blog format - updating the readers on our activities, after each interview we would tell them that we held the interview, introduce the respondent a little bit, publish one interesting statement of the respondent with a caption: “Do you want to know more? Stay tuned and save the date [of the release of our file]!”
  • Discussion of the file format - discussion about the genres and styles of our articles

Literature Review

Dekker, R. &, Engbersen, G. (2014 or 2013?). “How social media transform migrant networks and facilitate migration”.

I think this article is most in line with our topic and research. They address the use of social media- not only just Facebook but also, forums, weblogs, YouTube, Twitter and, online applications that allow user contributions and are useful for networking purposes. How social media altered the ways migrants and non-migrants with strong ties remained in touch. Communication has become cheaper, more frequent and more media rich. Migrants describe how this has made their life in separation from their families and friends easier. Some respondents suggested that the availability of social media lowered the migration threshold. Social media make available new ways of consolidating weak ties or even of activating latent ties that deliver new information

Dr Val Colic-Peisker (2005) ‘At Least You're the Right Colour’: Identity and Social Inclusion of Bosnian Refugees in Australia, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 31:4, 615-638, DOI: 10.1080/13691830500109720

This paper is on the resettlement of Bosnians (and other ex-Yugoslavs) . I think it is interesting for us because, we can also look at which asylum seeking groups are given “preferential treatment” over others- maybe in terms of being able to speak Dutch or English or whatever countries that they are seeking asylum in or maybe, if one religion is preferred over another for asylum seekers. In this paper, “The ‘whiteness’/‘Europeanness’ of Bosnians enabled them to remain largely ‘invisible’ in the country they perceived as ‘white Australia’ and to initially claim an ‘insider status’. For many people, however, this self-inclusion is thwarted in the second stage of resettlement when they are expected to find jobs and ‘acculturate’, as the language barrier and their non-English-speaking background become a basis of difference and potential exclusion.” (taken from abstract)

Nadje Al-Ali , Richard Black & Khalid Koser (2001) Refugees and transnationalism: The experience of Bosnians and Eritreans in Europe, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 27:4, 615-634, DOI: 10.1080/13691830120090412

Kind of similar to the Colic-Peisker’s work - identifies a range of obstacles which differentially influence the desire and capacity of the study populations to participate in these activities. I think this article can be useful because they draw distinctions between refugees and economic migrants. It can help in us defining and differentiating the terms

Carl‐Ulrik Schierup (1990) ‘The duty to work’: The theory and practice of refugee policy in Sweden, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 16:4, 561-574, DOI:10.1080/1369183X.1990.9976208

Issues of Swedish immigration and refugee policy. Quite similar to Dutch’s “import of labour market” (562)

Jan Hjarn⊘ (1991) Migrants and refugees on the Danish labour market, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 18:1, 75-87, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.1991.9976283

Something about negativity- “the current situation promotes the maintenance of these prejudices against migrants, while reducing the opportunities Danish employers, workers and customers have to test for themselves the truth or falsehood of these stereotypes. The effects on the migrants themselves are clear. Firstly, they are forced in relatively large numbers into the role of relief clients. Secondly, many of them become defeatist, faced with a set of unfavourable stereotypes which undermine their self-esteem. This in turn fuels the Danes' prejudice, and is one more step on the road to permanent marginalisation of the migrants” (86)

Dr Neil Spicer (2008) Places of Exclusion and Inclusion: Asylum-Seeker and Refugee Experiences of Neighbourhoods in the UK, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 34:3, 491-510, DOI: 10.1080/13691830701880350

Regarding asylum-seekers’ and refugees’ experiences of place, social exclusion and social networks, based on a qualitative sociological study. Interviewees perceived social inclusion as a number of place-specific factors, including security, access to inclusive local resources and services, and migrants’ ability to form supportive social networks. Particular emphasis was placed on social networks with people of the same ethnic or religious identity and other black and minority groups living locally, rather than social bridges with white and majority-ethnic communities. The paper concludes that it is important to understand asylum-seekers’ and refugees’ experiences of social exclusion and inclusion in relation to their experiences of place.

Khalid Koser Dr (2007) Refugees, Transnationalism and the State, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 33:2, 233-254, DOI: 10.1080/13691830601154195

“Are there any configurations of the relationship between refugees, transnationalism and the state that might resolve the crisis”? (251) Author makes the point that it is a global issue, not just happening in European countries. Also states that it is unlikely that migrant smuggling would be solved, asylum seekers will continue to enter industrialized states. Marginalization of asylum- seekers- On one hand, it is important to advocate for a basic set of rights for asylum seekers, it is equally important to recognise that states have a right to control their borders

Liette Gilbert (2013) The Discursive Production of a Mexican Refugee Crisis in Canadian Media and Policy, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 39:5, 827-843, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.756693

I thought this was interesting for us also because it showcases a different country’s refugee crisis- namely, Canada and Mexican asylum seekers. One thing that came up was the “fear by numbers” and, the Canadians who saw that Mexicans were unfairly deserving services and resources, stealing jobs (in this case, it is seen as a double fold because a lot of work is exported out of Canada because it is cheaper for production and, Mexicans are coming into Canada to so-called make use of Canadian resources) - “I am very upset that we are welcoming Mexican refugees and providing food and shelter plus social assistance. I have spent my entire life in Windsor. I have always worked and paid taxes . . . All of our work is being sent to Mexico for cheap labour and in return the Mexicans are coming here”(831)

Missbach, A.(2014). “Doors and fences: Controlling Indonesia’s porous borders and policing asylum seekers”

This one also showcases a different country’s refugee crisis. This article examines border protection and the policing of asylum seekers through state-society cooperation in Indonesia. Indonesia serves as a gateway to Australia. Similarly, Turkey and Greece also serve as a gateway to the rest of Europe. 

“Whatever border protection measures Australia and Indonesia might think of and agree upon in the future, asylum seekers will find ways to cross the borders despite greater risks for their lives. As Leanne Weber (2007) and others pointed out, deterrence only works for people who have choices. For asylum seekers who cannot return to their countries of origin and who lack any viable options to integrate into transit countries, the only chance left is to ‘move forward’. In a figurative sense, boundaries might exist only to be crossed. Therefore, the solution to the dilemma of irregular cross-border mobility might not be found within stricter border control and law enforcement to interrupt the flows of asylum seekers, but rather in more appropriate ways to faster assess their claims for protection in Indonesia, which in turn might make these dangerous border crossings less inevitable.” (240)

Wendling, C., J. Radisch and S. Jacobzone (2013), “The Use of Social Media in Risk and Crisis Communication”, OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, No. 24, OECD Publishing.

This article doesn’t really link to our topic but they do address small issues about social media. I just included it in here just incase we would like to take a look at it. “It explores different practices of risk and crisis communications experts related to the use of social media and proposes a framework for monitoring the development of practices among countries in the use of social media for risk and crisis communications. The three step process spans passive to dynamic use of social media, and provides governments a self-assessment tool to monitor and track progress in the uptake of effective use of social media by emergency services or crisis managers”. But more importantly, they ask the question “Are social media reliable?”

Yigit, M. F. &, Tarman, B. (2013). “The Impact of Social Media on Globalization, Democratization and Participative Citizenship”. Journal of Social Science Education. 12(1): 75-80

This paper is about the Arab spring but they address the use of social media, which may be useful to us- Social media tools have been used intensely to inform people in all around the world about what is going on in a region. It is crucial to increase the civic and political participation during the process of democratization and globalization. Another thing that they came up was- “freedom of using Internet and social media tools are restricted mainly as a result of the dictatorial practices. In countries, where dictators control every aspects of daily life, not only Internet but also other tools, like TVs and newspapers, are under the control of the central government. Those governments restrict the use of such tools by all people regardless of race, color, and religion. Only those pro-government people might have access to those tools easily compared to ordinary people. In Egypt, for example, the use of Internet was restricted both for Muslims and Christians. In Syria, no matter from which religion people are, they are not allowed to use Internet and Newspapers freely. However, even though those governments restrict the use of those tools, people have achieved to a certain level to benefit social media channels that spread their words to other people within those countries and also to the world. Measuring the effectiveness of social media tools on citizenship rights is not an easy task especially if the units of analysis are countries where having reliable information about social media is difficult. One should rely on the information given by national authorities or the international organizations. But both sources might be misleading as one might try to show the system transparent whereas the other part might try to show it as problematic as possible. This point should be taken into consideration while analyzing social media tools and citizenship activities” (79)- I think this may be particularly interesting for us. May be able to link to idea of applications provided and Facebook may not be readily available for all and to take it a step further, perhaps providing wifi in all the refugee camps may not be such a good thing, more surveillance etc

Komito, L. (2011). “Social Media and Migration: Virtual Community 2.0”

“This article reports on the social media practices of non nationals in Ireland. The research explored the effect of these practices on long distance relations of affinity and community by interviewing over 65 Polish and Filipino non-nationals currently resident in Ireland over a period of 2 years. Quantitative and qualitative data was obtained on information needs, information seeking strategies, social media and other technology usage, as well as patterns of communication. The research suggests that social media practices enable non nationals to maintain strong ties of affinity (regardless of geographical distance), as well as facilitating their participation in the community in which they grew up. The ability for migrants to maintain their affiliation with a local community will inevitably have implications for processes of migration and integration” (1075)

News Reports on Social Media Use of Asylum Seekers

Based on our research on news reports that have been available online from the beginning of 2015 until now, a period when refugee crisis is debated more than ever before, it is apparent that smartphones are not a luxury but a necessity for asylum seekers[1]. For them, a cell phone with online applications and social media platforms is a tool to cope with information precarity, a way for reaching the news about Syria and other countries, a medium of sending and receiving money in and out of Syria, a container of photos as a lifeline, a mechanism that helps any kind of integration to culture and language of countries they pass and arrive in, a way to find food, shelter and jobs, a provider of communication, a map to show best and most secure routes of their journey as well as a source that let any state mechanism to follow and to gather their information and a tool that allows hackers and human traffickers to exploit their need for help and their vulnerability. Here are some crucial facts from various news reports:

  •   The most popular applications that are used among asylum seekers on their journey are WhatsApp, Google Maps, Skype and Viber[2]. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are also used to communicate with friends, families and other asylum seekers, to follow the news in and out of Syria, or to find food, shelter and jobs.
  •   There are also smartphone applications which are designed to support the integration of asylum seekers once they arrive in European countries. For instance, the Yallah app[3] (“yallah” means “let’s go” in Arabic) is a medium that include pieces and videos produced by refugee contributors in Germany in order to provide any kind of information for young people who are interested in issue surrounding refugees. Language applications are also very useful for refugees to learn the language of countries they arrive or at least translate words from Arabic to other languages.
  • Applications such as Gherbtna and RefuChat allow asylum seekers to communicate with other asylum seekers for any kind of needs. Also, Refugee Body and the Refugee Aid App[4] provide asylum seekers to find information, and allow NGOs to deliver aid to where it's most needed.
  •  Taking photos (mostly “selfies”) and keeping diaries online, asylum seekers create a lifeline through smart phones[5].
  • “AirBnB for refugees” gave idea to a British professor to open a Facebook group[6] for people to share their homes with refugees.
  • The background information of asylum-seekers arriving in Finland may soon be available faster than ever before. The University of Eastern Finland is developing to different programmes that researchers hope will aid in integrating people seeking asylum[7].
  • Even though cell phones give access to social media platforms and applications that provide information and aid to asylum seekers, it is also exploited by state mechanisms and other institutions to gather detailed information about asylum seekers which can be defined as surveillance[8].
  • Within the rise of social media use of asylum seekers, their needs are exploited by fake accounts, human traffickers and hackers[9].

Useful Links:
































Apps designed for refugees

  • Gherbtna
  • Refugee Buddy
  • Refuchat
  • Kricket
  • Refugermany
  • Refugee Phrasebook

Questions for the respondents

For academics/ professionals in the field

  • What kind of social media tools are being used based on your observations so far among refugees in the Netherlands? or in general? If yes, could you please name any social media platform or application that is especially developed for asylum seekers during their journey and upon their arrival?
  • In US, social media profiles of refugees have been checked before giving them any kind of permission and visas. Are there any policies or proofs you can highlight for the Dutch government or police who use social media to track refugees? or any kind of act of surveillance?
  • How does the Dutch government differentiates between refugees depending on their nationality? Are some asylum seekers more lucky to be granted refugees status more than the others?
  • Do you think that the accessibility of apps influence the amount of refugees coming to Europe; do you think that with the usage of apps more or less refugees want to/are able to find their way to Europe? Are there messages shared that maybe attract people to certain destinations or messages to warn people not to go somewhere?
  • Do you think there's a danger in providing information through apps as not everyone has access to apps or knows how to use them? For example older people or people who don't have a smartphone. This way only young, richer people have access to information that may be crucial.

For asylum seekers

  • How did you decide to migrate?
  • How did you come to be in the Netherlands? In terms of- Why Netherlands over Sweden, for example? How did you know to come here? Did you use any social media platforms like Facebook or any phone applications, to get information on your journey here?  (I’m asking this because after our conversation with one of the asylum seekers the other day, he had informed me that, in some sense, everyone knows that the Netherlands is well known for family reunification or that they prioritize this here over other countries. So it would be nice to get a perspective from them, I think)
  • If you used any apps or social media, did you count on them? Do you think that you can trust to those applications?
  • Which countries did you go to on your journey here? How was the experience like for you (and your family)?
  • Do you have family left in your home country? Since you arrived in the Netherlands, are you still in contact with them? What is the frequency of your communication? How do you maintain contact with them? Do the presence of social media platforms make it any easier for you to keep in contact?
  • What kept you going on your journey?
  • Do you want to go back to your country at some point? Or do you prefer to get another citizenship?

For app makers

  • How did you come up with the idea to create this particular application? How long did the process take? Did you work alone or as a team? What was your thought process behind creating this application?
  • What feedback have you received on the app from the users?
  • Do you have funding for the development?

The file format ideas

  • “newsfeature” - a news story containing a story of one particular person, an embodiment of the issue, with which we would start and continue with more general story about the topic, but keep the reader interested in the human story
  • Include extensive data, stories of other people, voices of experts
  • Interview - a complete interview with an expert. Include 5-6 questions, it has to be well-edited with an introduction of the topic and the expert, as well as conclusion.
  • Infographic - visualize our data
  • Pictures - of the experts, the asylum seekers, if they are willing to, illustrative shots - hands with phones and apps, screenshots of the apps, building where the AS live in Tilburg…
  • Story - make an interview with a person and present what he or she does in the article, in a journalistic form (Refugees Welcome organizer?)
  • Reportage -  about the daily life in the refugee center in Nijmegen/Tilburg/Oisterwijk

Difficulties experienced

  • Some of the apps and Facebook groups we wanted to look at are in Arabic and we do not have an Arabic speaker on the team or readily available.
  • The asylum seekers that we got into contact with so far do not speak fluent English and some of them do not speak English at all.
  • Waiting for replies from the respondents sometimes takes longer than we would like.

Reactions of the public - both positive and negative


There are demonstrations against refugees in the Netherlands. From the news reports when there is a demonstration it's quite violent. People behave violently in front of the refugee camps as in the acts of leaving pig heads. The other one was also quite crowded and protesters were violent again. One other news report is about the policies of the Netherlands. The Dutch government want to close 30 shelters for refugees. Those 30 shelters are the ones that are providing bed and food regardless of the status of the asylum seekers. By doing so they refuse to provide services to those who were rejected to gain asylum seeker status. One other news report from conservative tribune shows their negative perspective against refugees. There are refugees who complains about the conditions in the refugee shelters. From their perspective, it does not make sense for a refugee to make demonstrations about their shelter.


The positive reactions of the public mostly come from leftist political organizations, anarchist communities, salvation army and red cross. All of these organizations try to provide clothes, food and bed for asylum seekers. In addition to this, they organize welcome demonstrations for them to show their solidarity.


This is what we have done thus far. We will keep you posted on the project right here, so be sure to stay tuned!