Syrian refugee camp

Syrian Refugees Live with Information Precarity

September 15, 2015
By: Worcester State University News

“Can you hear me now?” has an acute sense of urgency for Syrians living in refugee camps because their access to information is random. So they consider cell phones as vital as water to their survival and covet areas of the camps with the best reception.

For the estimated 4 million Syrians lucky enough to grab their cell phones as they fled civil war and keep them as they passed through checkpoints, they use them to communicate with relatives still in Syria or in other refugee camps, follow developments in the ongoing war, and pursue job opportunities in the camps.

Information Precarity

It’s situations like unreliable cell phone reception, erratic access to power sources, and competition with other personal needs that create the condition of “information precarity” for these refugees, explains Urban Studies Assistant Professor Madeline Otis Campbell. She co-authored the study, “Syrian refugees and information precarity,” (New Media & Society, 2015) with colleagues from Lasell College and California State University-Northridge.

The study defines information precarity as “the condition of instability that refugees experience in accessing news and personal information, potentially leaving them vulnerable to misinformation, stereotyping, and rumors that can affect their economic and social capital.” (See below for more details.)

As the research team conducted focus groups with refugees in the Za’atari Camp—currently called Jordan’s fourth largest city because of the nearly 100,000 refugees living there—about their social networks, it became clear that the cell phone is a “focal point” in their existence, Campbell recalls.

Modern Humanitarian Crises

Advances in cell phone technology and people’s abilities to use them effectively coincided with a change in how the world responds to humanitarian crises like that of the Syrian refugees and migrants, which is now in its fifth year.

“The international community’s response has fallen short of the massive need. And, it’s reliant on the NGO and private sector in unprecedented ways,” Campbell notes. “It increasingly falls on [the refugees] to provide the aid they need, to find a job to pay for their survival.”

A cell phone enables the communication necessary to piecing that survival together, she says.

“It’s become the way of life, a way of life that refugees 20 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa and 50 years ago in Europe wouldn’t recognize,” Campbell adds. “I think this humanitarian response is problematic. Is this really what we want? Is it really working to help refugees?”

Migration to Europe

For an estimated 350,000 of the Syrian refugees, they’ve moved on to Europe to seek asylum—and greater safety and stability.

While disappointed that the Syrian refugee crisis is getting the world’s attention five years after the bloodshed in Syria began, Campbell says she is “pleased we are having a conversation” about it. She would like to see more refugee resettlement in “third countries.” (Refugees currently are supposed to seek asylum in the first country in which they arrive. But as these countries may not always offer asylum, third countries like the United States or Sweden are needed to fill the gap.)

Campbell would like to see the United States do more. So far, she says, we have resettled only 1,500 Syrians, including two brothers who learned English through the WSU International Urban Institute’s English Language Learning program.

“The United States and other members of the international community have some responsibility in this conflict and the ensuing humanitarian crisis,” she says. “One of the key ways we’ve been involved is by not doing much. There has been a lack of real attention, and that left us with some responsibility to deal with” the resulting crisis.

Applied Learning

Campbell is using a case study on Jordan in her Advanced Seminar: Global Migrations class this semester, which takes a people-centered perspective and relates it to political and economic conditions refugees face. “Yesterday afternoon, we had five different readings; they were about anthropology and study of refugees is a new concept, as a new field of study,” senior Tiara Yahnian explains. “We’re trying to focus on the field, how it became a field, and what it means to be a field.”

Campbell’s students also are interested in organizing a refugee teach-in this semester. “I’m hoping we can make it happen…so our students can experiment with what it means to be global citizens,” she says. In addition, a member of the WSU community has expressed an interest in supporting a symposium on the topic.

Campbell is planning to return to Jordan in December to continue her research, which will be funded by a Faculty Mini-Grant. Although several students are interested in joining her, she said, that would require the endorsement of WSU’s International Programs Office as a faculty-led, short-term trip abroad.

Regardless of whether students can travel with her, they’ll be able to lend support to Syrian refugees by donating scarves, hats, and mittens to the winter clothing drive Campbell plans to hold in the Urban Studies Department before her trip.


Campbell and her colleagues identified five areas of information precarity among Syrian refugees:

  • Access
    • Technical access: Reliable cell phone service doesn’t exist in the Za’atari Camp, and refugees with phones are constantly hunting for and congregating in spots with the best reception.
    • Social access: There are certain groups who are less likely to have phones, mainly women and girls, children, the elderly, and those who can’t afford the device and/or usage fees.
  • Irrelevant, dangerous information
    • Refugees crave information about what is happening in their villages, with friends and family still living there, and if they have come under attack.
    • Misinformation is a constant threat and can affect access to basic needs, education, qualifying for assistance from the United Nations, camp activities and jobs, war news, and what is happening at home and Syria in general. Refugees practice verification, using their phones, to combat this problem.
  • Image control
    • Many refugees think that information about their plight is distorted by or simply unavailable through traditional media and social media channels, or ignored by the global community.
  • Surveillance
    • Because cell phones have been used to help overthrow governments—and played a part in the uprising against Syria’s Assad regime and subsequent civil war—they often are confiscated at government checkpoints as refugees make their way to Jordan.
    • Refugees believe the Syrian government listens to their phone communication and report knowing people who have been detained for communicating with people outside the country.
    • They try to avoid problems by switching out Jordanian and Syrian SIM cards based on who they call, “self-censoring,” or talking in code.
  • Disrupted social support
    • Refugees lives have been turned upside down and they have lost regular contact with friends and family in their home villages.
    • They must establish themselves within the camp community, and that may involve taking a job with an NGO or the UN, and sharing information and communication devices with new neighbors.
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