Social networks of migrants play a central role in intentions to migrate, route choice, smuggling method, and destination country (Haug, 2008; Dekker and Engbersen, 2014) in a circular manner: successful migrants facilitate prospective migrants, encouraging further prospective migrants and reducing risks and costs associated with movement (Broeders and Engbersen, 2007). To date, literature has focused on formal migration in the context of elites who have access to significant amounts of capital (Bergman et al, 2009, 35), with an increased focus on irregular migration in the last decade with the increase in irregular flows into Europe from North African and the Middle East. Irregular migration takes place when people move outside the regulatory norms of the origin, transit and receiving countries (UNODC 2018). Irregular migration consists of mixed migrants – asylum seekers, those seeking economic or educational opportunities, and victims of trafficking – with intentions and the nature of their movement changing along the route (IOM, accessed 2019).
Irregular migrants are increasingly making use of mobile technology to strengthen social networks and support their journeys, on trend with improvements in accessibility and functionality of social networking and communication applications (e.g., WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, Facebook) have transformed the migration process for migrants (Dekker and Engbergsen, 2012; Crawley, et al., 2016; Gillespie, et al., 2016; Zijlstra & Van Liempt, 2017; Frouws et al, 2016; Brenner and Frouws, 2019). Likewise, lack of appropriate technology acts as a barrier for migrants (Sanchez, 2017) and that while most migrants have a mobile phone, sometimes under half of these are smartphones (Brenner and Frouws, 2019). The way in which mobile technology contributes to migrant decisions appears to revolve around strengthening linkages to existing networks (notably family, friends and smugglers who share ethnic or familial ties), rather than provision of new information. Several reports from the Danish Refugee Council indicate that the most important source of information for people on the move are friends and family and smuggling networks (Brenner and Frouws, 2019). Some studies suggest that as few as 6% of migrants use social media as a dominant source of information to prepare for the journey (Borkert et al., 2018). Social media can, however, represent a way of maintaining communication with those who provide information and services – that is, social media provides the network capital, in particular the bridging capital, to allow people to move. The bridging effect of social media is strong enough that some studies indicate there is a possibility for social media to support an increase in the number of individual journeys – that is, for social media to support migrants in bypassing smugglers (Gillespie et al, 2018).
Yet, the majority of irregular migration still takes place through smuggling networks (UNODC, 2018). Smuggling businesses take multiple forms, from hierarchical groups with centralised organisational structures to networks of loosely organised groups and individuals (UNODC, 2018). Those within smuggling networks are often closely linked to those who purchase smuggling services – there are often shared ethnic, clan or familial links (UNODC, 2018) – or strong social networks. There is an acknowledgement that social networks both between migrants and smugglers and between smuggling networks are a critical facilitating factor in movement and that these networks appear to make increasing use of mobile technology to organise their activities (Sanchez, 2017; Gillespie et al, 2018; Milivojevic, 2018). There also appears to be a general understanding that a significant amount of interaction between migrants and smugglers continues to take place in person, due both to preference (Sanchez et al, 2018) and to lack of appropriate communication technology. The existing research on smuggling and technology focuses on the relationship between migrants and smugglers and covers two primary uses: self-advertising and communication (Hacsek and Visnansky, 2017; UNODC, 2018; Boyd and Musto 2014). However, there is less research, both in the academic sphere and in the policy and practice realms, regarding the ways in which information technology affects these networks. The lack of research into this topic reflects a more general dearth of information on smuggling networks more broadly, driven by access constraints (UNODC, 2018; IOM, 2018).