'As important to me as water' : how refugees in Rome use smartphones to improve their well-being : a thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of International Development at Massey University, Palmerston North, Manawatū, New Zealand
Mobile phones and smartphones have been hailed as instrumental in assisting migrants and refugees to make the perilous journey to Europe. Civil society groups and humanitarian agencies are responding by developing a plethora of technological aid initiatives to assist refugees and asylum-seekers - a phenomenon dubbed “ICT4Refugees”. However, without a sound understanding of smartphones enable people to be and do, such well-intended projects may fail. Within ICT4D the Capability Approach has become a popular conceptual tool for analysing and discussing the role of technology in improving the well-being of the poor and disadvantaged. Proponents argue it is not access to technology that matters; it is how people use it to enhance their capabilities and achieve valuable lives. Therefore, this thesis investigates how refugees in Rome, Italy, use smartphones to improve their well-being and whether, according to the Capability Approach, smartphones can expand refugees’ capabilities, choices and freedoms. The research is based on qualitative, semi-structured interviews with refugee guests and staff at a refugee centre in Rome, conducted in May 2016. Findings were analysed using an evaluative framework based on capability models created for ICT4D settings, which provided an ecological view of the different factors which influence smartphone use. Overall, the findings indicate that smartphones are critical to the psychological well-being of participants – “as important as water” for their survival - as they enable them to connect to friends and family conveniently and at little or no cost, providing they have access to the Internet. Frequent contact helps replenish participants’ resilience in an otherwise hostile environment. However, owning a smartphone has not improved the informational capabilities of all participants in this study. Thus, refugees may require support to develop the necessary digital and informational literacies needed to participate in an Information Society.
Key words: Capabilities, refugees, ICTs, Italy, smartphones