The Digital Footprint of Europe’s Refugees

Pew Research Center: “Migrants leaving their homes for a new country often carry a smartphone to communicate with family that may have stayed behind and to help search for border crossings, find useful information about their journey or search for details about their destination. The digital footprints left by online searches can provide insight into the movement of migrants as they transit between countries and settle in new locations, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of refugee flows between the Middle East and Europe.1

Refugees from just two Middle Eastern countries — Syria and Iraq — made up a combined 38% of the record 1.3 million people who arrived and applied for asylum in the European Union, Norway and Switzerland in 2015 and a combined 37% of the 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2016. Most Syrian and Iraqi refugees during this period crossed from Turkey to Greece by sea, before continuing on to their final destinations in Europe.

Since many refugees from Syria and Iraq speak Arabic as their native, if not only, language, it is possible to identify key moments in their migration by examining trends in internet searches conducted in Turkey using Arabic, as opposed to the dominant Turkic languages in that country. For example, Turkey-based searches for the word “Greece” in Arabic closely mirror 2015 and 2016 fluctuations in the number of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece. The searches also provide a window into how migrants planned to move across borders — for example, the search term “Greece” was often combined with “smuggler.” In addition, an hourly analysis of searches in Turkey shows spikes in the search term “Greece” during early morning hours, a typical time for migrants making their way across the Mediterranean.

Comparing online searches with migration data

This report’s analysis compares data from internet searches with government and international agency refugee arrival and asylum application data in Europe from 2015 and 2016. Internet searches were captured from Google Trends, a publicly-available analytical tool that standardizes search volume by language and location over time. The analysis examines searches in Arabic, done in Turkey and Germany, for selected words such as “Greece” or “German” that can be linked to migration patterns. For a complete list of search terms employed, see the methodology. Google releases hourly, daily and weekly search data.

Google does not release the actual number of searches conducted but provides a metric capturing the relative change in searches over a specified time period. The metric ranges from 0 to 100 and indicates low- or high-volume search activity for the time period. Predicting or deciphering human behavior from the analysis of internet searches has limitations and remains experimental. But, internet search data does offer a potentially promising way to explore migration flows crossing international borders.

Migration data cited in this report come from two sources. The first is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which provides data on new arrivals into Greece on a monthly basis. The second is first-time asylum applications from Eurostat, Europe’s statistical agency. Since both Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers have had fairly high acceptance rates in Europe, it is likely that most Syrian and Iraqi migrants entering during 2015 and 2016 were counted by UNHCR and applied for asylum with European authorities.

The unique circumstances of this Syrian and Iraqi migration — the technology used by refugees, the large and sudden movement of refugees and language groups in transit and destination countries — presents a unique opportunity to integrate the analysis of online searches and migration data. The conditions that permit this type of analysis may not apply in other circumstances where migrants are moving between countries….(More)”