Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Central American Refugees: Protected or Put at Risk by Communication Technologies?

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Central American Refugees: Protected or Put at Risk by Communication Technologies?

Article excerpt

For refugees and other migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - the Northern Triangle of Central America1 - communication is one of their greatest priorities during their route north. From interviews conducted in migrant shelters in Mexico in 2016, it was clear that many refugees prefer to invest a significant part of their scarce resources in maintaining contact with their families, friends or acquaintances who can assist them on their journey.2

Information is often prioritised even over food or shelter. Most of those whom we interviewed travelled with their own mobile phone or wanted to get one. They also increasingly use apps like Google Maps to source information about countries they are unfamiliar with, and they use social networking sites, especially Facebook, and messaging services like WhatsApp when possible. They use Facebook primarily to communicate with relatives and other acquaintances who are in their countries of origin or in the United States (US), as well as to contact people whom they think will be able to help them evade roadblocks and who might be able to transfer money to them.

Only five interviewees claimed to have planned - before starting out - a communication strategy for their own protection. Most said they just planned to try to communicate when and where possible. For some who did dedicate time and effort to assess each context and coordinate with their families, it was vital that their relatives knew their exact location each day, so that they would be able to launch a more effective search for them in case of loss of contact.

According to those interviewed, their main information needs are: reliable data on areas of greatest insecurity (due to the presence of armed groups); the location of police checkpoints; the cost of bribes they might need to pay at each stage; the characteristics of each place or terrain that they will cross next; and the requirements, procedures and timescales of requesting refuge in Mexico.

Risky communication

Travelling through Mexico with a mobile phone can pose a threat in itself. Mexican criminal groups often kidnap refugees and other migrants who have relatives or connections in the US and force them to provide that person's contact details - who can then be contacted for ransom demands. The mere act of carrying a phone can attract the attention of criminals and lead them to believe that the migrant has relatives who might be susceptible to extortion. Undocumented migrants travelling through Mexico with a mobile phone also run the risk of being confused with a 'coyote' (people trafficker), whether they are intercepted by criminal groups or by Mexican immigration authorities. Criminals attacking a group of migrants will assume that the one who carries a phone is the one who is guiding them to the north. In that case, criminals may require that person to give them a 'fee' for allowing them to guide migrants through the territory controlled by the gangs. This has been the operating model of the Los Zetas drug cartel in recent years.

From the testimonies collected, it seems that borrowing a phone or giving it to another migrant to make a call or send a message can also cause problems. The risk of using the telephone of another migrant is that the number of the relative or other person called is recorded in the device and can be used for extortion purposes. …

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