Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 18/02/2014

The vital mobile phone in the migrant’s pocket

Compared to settled people, migrants have a distinctive use of digital tools. While the mobile phone is just a daily companion for some, for others it has a more strategic, even essential role in daily logistics.

Not so long ago, the acquisition of a mobile phone by a migrant was not only difficult (requiring both a bank account and proof of identity), and a choice which came under scrutiny. How could a migrant afford such luxury? Until the late 1990s, the mobile was in fact a community tool, shared by a group. Since then, lower costs and the extension of the mobile network have made the mobile an essential tool in the lives of migrants: it allows the migrant to both integrate here, and stay in contact with their home country.

But for precarious migrants, mobiles are used for representation and as weapons rather than economic integration and communication. To illustrate this, Dana Diminescu reconsiders the occupation of the Saint-Bernard church by 300 Africans demanding residency papers. That was in 1996 and, thanks to the Sud-PTT, trade union, the delegates of the movement were equipped with a mobile phone. Correctly perceived as a weapon, mobiles make the fight more visible by facilitating contact with the press but also, more successfully, by opening a channel of negotiation with the authorities. With this virtual forum, undocumented migrants are able to assert their claims and are no longer voiceless.

Integrating despite the constraints

“Today all undocumented migrants who come to the Gisti's office hours leave with a cell phone number”, Patrick Mony, former Director of the immigrant information and support group, told Dana Diminescu in 2002. If the researcher is interested in undocumented migrants, it's because they've proved to be especially adept with their use of the mobile phone, to the point that they're now hidden. Acting as an anonymous address, the phone number can be reached any time, anywhere. Equipped with an answering machine and unblocked, it is both the personal and international "secretary of the poor", said Dana Diminescu.

Sometimes connected to an account, it also serves for mobile banking. All in all, it is the ideal tool to find work or to develop an activity. Take, for example, the pensioner from Novi Beograd, a town close to the Serbian capital, who, in 1998, offered migrants the use of her mobile. In the absence of communication infrastructure, this unusual operator, owner of an early mobile exchange, has become a living legend. Another example, which reflects the capacity of migrants to develop business strategies: the organization of trading channels to equip the countries of origin with mobile technology. The bisnitzari, Romanian street entrepreneurs, collect phones on promotion in the host country and unblock them before reselling them in Romania, where the weakness of fixed networks hampers communication. With the mobile phone, migrants develop various and spontaneous activities which tell the sociologist Chantal de Gournay that "the meaning of the technical tool has to be redefined when in contact with the wandering spirit."

Keeping in touch with family

With the development of individual use, the communicative field refocused itself towards the labour market but also domestic ties. Equipped with a mobile phone, migrants can easily contact their families and maintain an emotional tie. However, they can also be reached easily; the duty of proximity no longer falls solely on them. They may continue to participate remotely in the daily lives of their loved ones, and keep in touch with their original environment, developing a "co-presence" that is of course, intermittent, but which is no less useful and necessary for migrants, as for those in the country of origin. In the Philippines, where most emigrants are women, the question of family unity in the development of the country is very present. According to the study on Filipino mother expatriates, undertaken by Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller, the mobile phone reduces the social and family cost of emigration, and has even garnered the interest of the State. However, by reducing the sensation of distance, the mobile is as much a consequence as a cause of international migration.

For these researchers, the advantages of mobile phones in maintaining or recreating emotional links must, however, be addressed carefully. Mothers can easily call their families and their loved ones, but the reverse is much more difficult without a solid network, creating de facto frustration. Finally, it is with the children where the results are more mixed. For those whose mother is away for a long time, rebuilding a relationship is delicate, despite frequent calls. Telephone-based relationships lead to a constant reconfiguration of family relations. The 'e-presence' therefore decreases the sensation of absence, without making the persisting distance disappear, but rather shaping it into another form.


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