Focus on Migration: How ICTs could protect human rights

Illegal immigration
Copyright: Flicke/Noborder network

Speed read

  • International humanitarian law often cannot protect migrants’ rights
  • But ICTs can help to make migration regimes more transparent
  • Using them to track migrants’ locations could be a step towards protection

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At an international meeting last week on migration and the post-2015 global development goals, experts urged countries to always ensure migrants were protected, respected and had access to justice. The meeting favoured the idea of establishing a multilateral system of migration governance that is cooperative and equitable. These ideas will be fed into post-2015 discussions. [1]
The experts’ call is good news for the 232 million migrants worldwide. [2] In many parts of the world, migrants’ rights are compromised at several stages of their journeys: when leaving their homes, at borders, while working in host countries and while returning or being deported.
It is an irony that, in this age of migration, international humanitarian law often cannot protect migrants’ rights. Although political will is required to change the situation, information and communications technology (ICT) could play two roles in an improved global migration governance regime. First, it could communicate the way the system works to migrants. And second, it could act as way of tracking refugees and migrants, and thus help make the system transparent and accountable.
To take the first point, ICTs can help migrants as they move to their destination, for example by offering a way to access information about safe routes, legal requirements and risks, such as dealing with illegal operators and human traffickers.
The European Commission already spells out the risks involved in clandestine border crossing in a website. [3] But a global governance system for migration should aim higher than that. It could use ICTs to provide easy access to reliable information on safe and legal ways to migrate in their countries of origin. Doing so could help avoid desperate acts by migrants while crossing borders — such as stowing away aboard crowded boats and sneaking through barbed wire fences.
Emerging ICTs can also keep track of individual migrants and thus provide a tool to aid the process of monitoring their human rights. For example, some South Asian countries have established internet-based registration mechanisms to aid members of their population who may migrate. The Bangladeshi government’s online registration scheme, for instance, works with NGOs that spread awareness about migration opportunities, job requirements and training needs even in remote villages. Such mechanisms that collect and share migration data with relevant authorities can streamline migration and make it safer. Migrant rights groups note that it could eventually improve migrants’ working and living conditions. [4]
But again, this idea could be taken further. Mobile and internet technologies could allow migrants’ whereabouts and employment status to be tracked in real time. (Migrants could use a text message system to update a central database, so this wouldn’t necessarily require advanced technology.) Such a system could be used by governments or NGOs to monitor migrants’ situations, and provide them with advice and assistance. UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) recently tested an online information gathering and sharing mechanism in this vein to track and better inform refugees — so this idea already has precedent. [5]
Organisations like the International Labour Organization and International Organization for Migration could look at scaling up such innovations to cover migrants. This is a grand vision that will take time to realise. But implementing some of these suggestions could snowball into a movement that would drastically improve the lot of the world’s millions of refugees.
Max Martin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, researching on climate-related migration. The views expressed are his own.


[1] ‘Ensure migrants’ human rights’ (bdnews24.com, 30 April 2014)
[2] Department of Economic and Social Affairs The number of international migrants worldwide reaches 232 million (UN, September 2013)
[3] Avoiding the risks (European Commission, accessed 8 May 2014)
[4] Anbarasan Ethirajan Technology boosts Bangladesh migrant job search (www.bbc.co.uk, 1 November 2011)
[5] Idea box (Urban Refugees, accessed 8 May 2014)