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Dossier : Les migrants numériques

Digital Immigrants among Migrant Women in Spain

Les « digital immigrants » parmi les femmes migrantes en Espagne
Rut Bermejo et Jose Manuel Sánchez-Duarte
p. 149-161


Les technologies numériques sont devenues une réalité partout dans le monde. Des migrants comme des non-migrants pratiquent et s'appuient sur les TIC (smartphone, Internet, réseaux numériques,…) pour la gestion de la vie quotidienne, les contacts avec la famille et les proches, ou pour le développement des capacités et des activités professionnelles. Cette étude, qui part d’histoires de vie de migrantes installées à Madrid, cherche à éclairer comment ces dernières s’emparent des technologies de l’information et de la communication (TIC), et l’impact que celles-ci ont sur leurs vies. C’est l’âge, ou la génération, qui semble constituer le critère le plus pertinent pour distinguer entre ces femmes, qui sont à la fois migrantes et « digital immigrants ».

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1Social media technologies are becoming a core protagonist in family lives in general, and, in particular, in the case of transnational families. The emergence of ICTs has been a revolution, with major implications for human culture, habits, and for everyday life, and far-reaching significance and consequences. Transnational connectivity can be understood as both physical and virtual connectivity between people (Vertovec, 2004).

2In the light of this concept of transnational connectivity, the IOM analyses the consequences of increased transportation links and the rapid growth in telecommunications technology on international migration (IOM 2018, p. 150). The report distinguishes the impact of transnational connectivity on migrant actors, non-state actors and state actors. In the case of migrant actors, it analyses the impact of ICTs at different moments of their migratory journey: in their countries of origin, on their journey. In transit countries, and finally, once they have arrived in their country of destination. Most studies have focused on the search for, use, and sharing of information by migrants before and during their journey. This research focuses on the under-researched issue of the impact of ICTs on migrants after they arrive, and have settled in their country of destination.

3In Spain, no comprehensive study about this issue has been done yet. The few studies that analyse the use of ICTs in relation to immigration focus on state actors’ use of technologies and the role of the digital devices developed by national, regional or local governments for the process of integrating migrants and refugees (Castaño-Muñoz, Colucci, Smidt, 2018). This attention paid to integration relates to the growing perception that information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a useful resource in programmes that provide settlement services or promote participation in society (Díaz-Andrade, Doolin, 2016). Another branch of studies identifies ICTs as an empowerment tool to amplify pressure and demands of migrants or refugees in destination countries.

  • 1 For a comprehensive analysis of this evolution, see for example Hazán (2014).
  • 2 Source of data: National Institute of Statistics (INE), database available online.
  • 3 There are a large number of retired immigrants from European States and a small number of politica (...)

4Spain became a country of immigration in the 1990s.1 The first arrivals began in 1992, but there was a sharp increase in 1996. In 1996, the total number of foreign nationals registered in Spain was 542.314, 1,37% of the total population. Immigration accelerated afterwards, and between 1998 and 2007, Spain received around 500.000 immigrants each year. This trend continued until 2008; 2009 was the first year in which the number of immigrant arrivals decreased in comparison with the previous year, 2008. Moroccans and Romanians were the main countries of origin with 770.523 and 676.005 nationals respectively. Regarding Latin American countries, Colombian (165.918), Ecuadorian (135.275) and Bolivian (99.441) were the main nationalities in 2018.2 Hazán maintained that these populations came at a time of economic growth to take up low-skilled jobs in construction, tourism and agriculture (Hazán, 2014, p. 378).3 However, migrant women came mainly in the years 2000 to work in tourism, but also to fill the gap in services and house-care jobs when Spanish women entered the labour market.

5The life histories of these women are the focus of this research, as explained below. This qualitative method allows the researcher to explore a person’s micro (individual) experiences within a macro and historical framework. Life-history information challenges the researcher to understand the individual’s current attitudes and behaviours. It can also help understand how individuals may have been influenced by decisions made at another time and in another place (Hagemaster, 1992, p. 1122). In this particular case, the subjects were asked to talk about their migration experiences in relation to ICT devices. Life history research fits perfectly with our aim of fully grasping the meaning and significance of these social actions, i.e. understanding the phenomena rather than explaining it (which is, by contrast, the purpose of quantitative methods).

6This research is a preliminary study of the relationship between ‘digital immigrant’ migrants” and technologies, not so much in terms of integration but of “transnational families” (Bacigalupe, Camara 2012). It assesses whether migrants of different nationalities perform differently regarding technologies, the most-used platforms and applications, and what they are used for. We are not interested in numbers but in qualitative information. We know that many families connect regularly across national borders. A study by Bacigalupe and Camara on transnational families states that: “the same San Salvadorian family now maintains ongoing Skype and cell phone communications with their relatives about daily decisions (e.g. a cooking recipe) or life cycle core issues (e.g. getting married)”. They become a transnational family, in part shaped by these digitally mediated communications (Bacigalupe, Camara, 2012),

7Sometimes we assume that older migrants are not fond of, and do not regularly use ICTs. We talk about “digital natives”, those who were born in the context of digital technologies, and think and process information in a different way from those called “digital immigrants”, the older generation who had to, and have to learn and adopt new technologies. Digital natives can be citizens or immigrants in a country, but they are equally part of the digital culture.

8However, what happens with older migrants? Do they use digital technologies and digital networks, and how? Borkert et al. (2009) quoted a European Commission 2006 report which identified a number of ‘digital divides’. Those divides led to the exclusion of important social and economic groups, who were unable to access or use ICTs. Among the e-excluded were people over the age of 65; the economically inactive; and people with lower levels of education. We want to assess in this article the reality of ‘digital immigrant migrants’ in order to assess their use of the technologies that many individuals take for granted. Another disadvantaged group is defined by the idea of a “digital gender gap”, which refers to the higher Internet access rates for men than for women (IOM, 2018, p. 152). Additionally, this research focuses on women's use of ICTs. The gender gap adds to that of the country of origin if our respondents come from developing countries. Some studies conclude that immigrants from developing countries access and use ICTs less than local populations (Tripp, 2011). In brief, our respondents are women who come from least developed countries and are “digital immigrants”.

9Following Diaz-Andrade and Doolin (2016), this article moves beyond a conventional discussion of the digital divide between natives and immigrants, to map the use of ICTs by immigrants. It also deals with their perceptions of how and which ICTs contribute to: (1) understanding the new society and improving their knowledge of the country/society/citizens; (2) communicating effectively in relation to labour market, jobs, social services and administrative institutions; (3) expressing a cultural identity, being socially connected, and keeping contact with relatives and friends in and outside of Spain. This can be particularly problematic for non-native digital individuals.

The use of ICTs among migrant woman in Spain. Which ICTs do they use and what for?

10Collin and Karsenti (2012) proposed a conceptual framework of ICT use that is useful for this research. They reviewed the literature on the issue, and identified four main features along two axes: the host society-source society and the pre-migratory phase-post-migratory phase. When our respondents undertook migration before the spread of ICTs or did not have access to it in their home countries, we can say that they had little information on the country before coming (pre-migratory phase and host society). Among our respondents, Jessica points out the differences between the information she possessed when she began her migration process and the information her son has about Spain. She obtained Spanish nationality in 2018, and she has a Spanish passport for her son. She maintains that internet convinced him to come: “He knows the country through internet and also has chosen a course to do when he will arrive.”

11Without ICTs for pre-migratory information, the three respondents selected Spain as their migration destination, due to different “traditional reasons”, and poor knowledge about the country. Jessica came from Santo Domingo and received the information through her mother, who was in Spain, and who obliged her to come. Our second respondent, Lelia, came from Paraguay and her brother, who lived in Spain, was the person who urged her to come. He phoned home frequently and said that all was going well. Lastly, Rita came as a tourist from Marrakech, Morocco, and decided to stay. Thus we cannot assume that migrants have good and profound knowledge of their destination country.

12We now concentrate on the post-migratory phase, once in the host country, where ICTs can be used to contact and access information about the host and source society.

Post migratory use of ICTs

13Most studies differentiate between the use of ICTs in relation to the host society and to the source society. However, that framework has not proved valid for classifying all the contacts of our respondents, and the things they do with their devices, so a mixed category can be proposed in order to address all the practices mentioned by the three women. In other words, the boundaries between the use of ICTs in relation to the host country and the source country are blurred. The reason for this is that our respondents clearly distinguish some uses related to one and the other country, but others that involve both groups and societies or individuals, which are not in either of them, as will be seen below.

14All the women remember perfectly their first contacts with their family in the country of origin. They all also state that the relations with their relatives and friends have suffered major changes that run parallel to the development of ICT technologies. Jessica, the name she chose for this article, is 36 years old, and came to Spain at the age of 20, in 2002. She says “I cried a lot, I didn´t want to come. I was about to begin my studies at the Medical School, and I left there my 1 year old child”. She followed her mother on the migratory journey. When we asked her (Jessica) why her mother wanted to come to Spain, she told me: “Here, it was possible to come.” Before, most people travelled to Venezuela and Panamá, but things got worse and “everybody came here”. We are talking about the year 1989. When María came to Spain, Jessica was seven, she remained in the country of origin with her three brothers and sisters, the youngest being 1 year old. Jessica's first memories focus on contact with her mother, so her perspective is that of a daughter who remained when her mother migrated. She talks about the first letters her mother sent them, and afterwards, the phone calls they received: “Telephones didn’t exist back then, so they used letters. From letters, it went to telephones”. Jessica remembers that when she was 10 years old, her mum used to contact a “lady” who had a telephone at home. That woman was a relative of Jessica’s grandfather and lived in a village near theirs, 30 minutes away. María, Jessica`s mother, used to tell the lady that she wanted to call Santos (Jessica’s grandfather) on Sunday for example, and Jessica and the rest of the family went there at the agreed time. She compares the house to a call-shop, where many people used to meet to receive phone calls.

15Lelia came to visit her brother, and travel around in Spain. She was 35 at the time, and worked in Asuncion’s Casino as a croupier. She intended to stay for a few months and go back to Paraguay, but she liked Spain and decided to stay longer. In those years, around 2004, she talked by phone or mobile phone on a daily basis. Rita also remembers the telephone calls home. She used to call from telephone boxes: “I remember calling my mum, friends, brother but I spoke only some minutes because the time and money flied”. The person she called most was her mother. She also remembers using a blue Alcatel, a friend gave it to her when she arrived to Madrid, but she only received calls on that first mobile phone around 1999. In brief, we can say that the three women were not looking for information but for virtual communities of affection and that they were trying to maintain their emotional ties.

16Nowadays, we have to expand the analysis to include more ICT devices, channels and tools, since Internet is part of our everyday life. Among the different uses of ICTs, Ros et al. (2007, p. 25-29) included: money transfers, Internet, email, information resources, solidarity networks, mobile and prepaid phone calls and border control technologies and biometry. Today, Leila is the only respondent who does not talk about a daily and frequent use of internet applications. However, she agrees that smartphones represent a revolution in social and family connexions with the home country.

17Rita recalls that: “in the year 2001 I began to use Skype to talk not video-calls (teleconferencing). I began to use video-calls in 2003, the year in which both parts (her family there and she here) had access to that”. Her sister was the one who had a computer and they used to agree a time and a day for the calls”. Some of her relatives who lived close to them joined them. She remembers that those Skype calls were “very short because they needed to charge a card in call shops and type the code in the computer”. She says, “nowadays, everything is WhatsApp. I got it before them. I also had Line. However, now I only use WhatsApp. All of them: Line, WhatsApp, Skype were too many applications for me, so, I just keep WhatsApp”. She also uses Facebook. As already mentioned, Leila does not use many of these tools, she has a smartphone and just uses WhatsApp regularly. By contrast, Jessica is very fond of most of them. She tells us that the Internet is the best thing nowadays. She also uses WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, even Instagram. Among them, the most used application is WhatsApp.

18To summarise, it can be said that our three digital immigrant migrant women use different ICTs, and it seems likely that their use is similar to that of digital immigrant Spanish women. The age or generation could explain Lelia’s less extensive use of technologies. She is nearly 10 years older than Rita, and 16 years older than Jessica.

What do they use those ICTs for?

19As stated above, our respondents talk about the use of letters, phone calls, internet for skype calls, and new applications such as WhatsApp. In addition, a key question is how they use them and what meaning they have in their lives.

20Most of the studies on this issue follow the idea of “bonding” and distinguish different types of contact: social contact, economic contact and political contact (IOM, 2018; Collin, Karsenti, 2012). Our respondents did not talk about political contact at all, their social contacts are mainly related to the family but they also talk about contacts with some friends. Regarding other ICTs identified in the first studies on this issue such as satellite television, newspapers or radio, they do not mention them. In the past, those channels were useful for maintaining the flow of information from their source country, and were considered essential in order to keep up their own language and keep abreast of events in the country of origin (Ros et al., 2007, p. 21). Our three respondents did not mention searching for political information or cultural contacts before the arrival of internet and smartphones. Regarding economic contact, Rita states that she helped her family with money sent home, and Jessica is at present sending money home to her son.

21A recent study (Kaufmann, 2018) introduces further uses, such as place-making and geographical orientation; information access and self-help; language learning and translation; and “doing family”. Mainly, in this case, we are talking about the use of ICTs for increasing the person’s skills and abilities in the host country. The IOM report identifies activities such as social contact, remittance flows and the migrants’ return to their country of origin for significant holidays and events (IOM, 2018, p. 155).

22Jessica maintains that she uses internet daily in relation to the host society: “internet is amazingly useful, I frequently search for addresses, ask for appointments at the Social Security Department, Unemployment offices, Treasure…” She also declares that her sister “did a cooking course and she has already looked for the information online on a nursing course she wants to do, and she will apply for it online too”. She has also used Internet to look for a job. She says that she once found a job on the Internet, it was a job for cleaning in a house, but she also points out that it this was only once - all of the other jobs came through contacts and friends. Leila never looked for a job on the internet; she used acquaintances and job agencies. Rita usually finds her jobs thanks to direct contacts and acquaintances. When Rita came to Spain, she used second-hand newspapers to find a job. She remembers how difficult things were without internet. For example, she talks about the moment she had to present her papers concerning her legal status: “I had to call the Moroccan Consulate to ask for a lawyer’s phone number in order to present my papers”. She learned the language working in cafes. She remembers that: “people were very friendly and spoke to me. When I came back home I used to write down the words learned in Arabic in order to learn them”. She never followed a language course.

23We can introduce another classification of possible uses of ICTs. When we focus on social networks, we can distinguish between “first” social networks (Facebook, Instagram) and “second generation” (WhatsApp, Telegram). The use of the first is a “projective” public use. People’s daily lives and, above all, their moments of leisure are displayed through these channels. They are used in order to show and support emotional bonds with people outside the family circle and they can be a tool to transmit integration processes and daily lives in another country. Jessica uses Facebook but not frequently. She uses it to observe people, and see what they are sharing. She also uploads photographs or videos with her younger son dancing…” Rita’s use of Facebook is decreasing; she mainly uses it to get information about the activities carried out in the school of her son: “they (the school) upload photos and videos of excursions…” Before, she had an account but there were too many apps and too much information. Now she shares a Facebook account with her husband.

24The use of “second generation” social networks involves the creation of affective communities in stand-by, which refer to the same digital latent familiar contacts. In a context of physical distance, mobile technology devices allow contact with loved ones, and create a kind of digital life. Daily decisions can be shared; but also life cycle core issues. As we have seen above, all of our respondents have changed from the use of the telephone (calls) to WhatsApp, the second-generation group of apps. For example, Jessica is very happy with this: “Internet helps me with the relationship with my son, because he’s still living there but we talk everyday via WhatsApp”. WhatsApp is the most used ICT by Jessica. She talks a lot with her aunt too, less frequently with her cousins. She talks about some groups on WhatsApp. One of them, a family group chat, has 40 people in. Some are in Spain, 12 approximately, another seven are in Venezuela (her grandfather’s brother and his children), some are in New York, and there are 20 left in Santo Domingo. There are no grandchildren in Spain, just Maria’s siblings and their children. They have another group chat with Jessica’s father’s family, because she is the only one out of the five siblings that has that father, Miguel. In that group, she talks with her 12 brothers and sisters from that family. Seven of them are in Spain and the rest in Santo Domingo”.

25Jessica also states that the conversations are friendly, and she asks her relatives how they are, and where they live. They speak about their current countries. They do not talk about people who could want to move to Spain would-be migrants). Previously, some of them had asked many questions about how things were over there, what it was like to live there: some of them came later. She told them how it was, that she has to work hard because here you have to pay taxes and for housing. In her village, they do not pay for electricity. They work for themselves and they use most of the money they earn to buy drink.

26Rita talks about the changes in new technologies, and their impact on her life. She says that with internet everything is very different now: “I would like to have had Skype contact with my mother, when she lived, you did not see them until you got off the plain”. She feels proud of her decision to migrate and of having helped her parents but, at the same time, she sadly remembers that when her mother was sick she could not talk to her or visit her “because I was waiting for my papers”.

27Now, she thinks, “there is no physical distance”. For example, with her brothers and nephews at times she decides not to make video calls because “you are always connected, it is too much contact”. Rita maintains the contact mostly with friends and family. She speaks to them about the differences between the people there and here, about her trips, the people she met on her travels to France or Italy. She tells them everything except her problems; she doesn't want to bother them or worry them, particularly her sister who suffers from diabetes. Nevertheless, she talks about difficult things that happen. She says the truth about migration, but some people do not. That is why people cross (from Morocco) with unreal expectations and get disappointed. She says that “people (migrants in receiving countries) talk about things that are not true, in their blogs or YouTube channels”. However, she decided to tell the truth, share videos and explain that “money doesn’t grow on trees; you have to work hard”. She also points out that internet is very useful when you are in Spain. “It can help you to find work. Once, I found a job by internet”.

28Having analysed the use of ICTs done in relation to source countries, we can say that the concept of bonding is crucial. Our respondents maintain daily contacts with family and friends, and one of them states that she currently uses only one application to avoid “too much” contact. Therefore, currently, the situation of transnational migrants is completely different from that of migrants previously, who claimed that a lot of problems stemmed from absence of communication (Panagakos, Horst, 2006, p. 111). In relation to their country of destination, they all agree with the idea that ICTs make life easier, and that for contacting public administrations and services they are more or less “compulsory”.


29Migrants have adapted ICTs to their needs, and those needs keep changing. The use of ICTs evolves as ICTs evolve, and this applies also to the rest of the individuals in the host society. We can say, following Nedelcu’s work (2012, p. 1352), that migrants use a combination of ICTs. They are aware that they belong to a globalised world of networks and complex interdependencies. So it is very difficult to distinguish between the functions or uses directed only to the host society, or only to the source society. For example, internet is used to find or book flights in the country of destination for travelling around or for going on holiday to the source country. Facebook is used to share videos and photographs with friends and family in the country of origin, in the country of destination, and in other countries. All of the respondents agree that they now use smartphones to cope with everyday challenges.

30Our respondents omit entirely some of the possible uses. For example; the idea that ICTs are also an empowerment tool to amplify pressure and demands in destination countries. We started with three main expectations that they would use ICTs for understanding the new society and improve their knowledge of the country/society/citizens, but our respondents migrated before the massive development of internet and other tools. Regarding our second hypothesis, we can conclude that when they came to the host country they were unable to use these tools to communicate effectively in relation to the labour market and jobs. Nevertheless, they claim to have found some jobs through the Internet, which is particularly useful for contacting public administrations and social and health services. Related to the idea of “bonding” and transnational connectivity, our research concluded that mostly our respondents used ICTs to express a cultural identity and to be socially connected and keep contact with their relatives and friends in and outside of Spain.

31In summary, we can say that the digital gap related to access has been overcome. Today, there is no strong correlation between placement and ability. The relevant issue is what you do when you are connected; your capacities and abilities to perform as digital immigrant migrant women. If we disentangle the characteristics of our respondents we can say that as digital non-natives,their use of ICTs is similar to other digital non-native women in the country of destination, in which their age seems to be the key factor in their use. The factor of being immigrant or Spanish, in this case, is not relevant at all. It is true that in comparison with digital natives, their use is very basic, but their use of the ICTs improves. Beyond Facebook and Instagram, internet is considered to be a space for personal growth and self-realisation and knowledge: it can help find courses, or carry out tasks relating to the public authorities.

32In order to understand better how digital immigrant migrants use ICTs, the concept of technological appropriation needs to be included. ICT appropriation is the process of adopting and adapting technology by users or groups of users to integrate it into their lives, practices, and (work) routines. Some authors consider the appropriation is more than “simple ‘ICT access and use’ and conveys the idea that individuals learn to do things through ICT that are meaningful to them in their daily working practices” (Codagnone, Kluzer, 2011, p. 9). Others go a step further and maintain that ICT appropriation occurs when “common people have the capacity and ability to develop new uses and meanings to objects” (Sierra, Gravante, 2012, p. 135). These authors claim that the creative process of technological appropriation gives rise to new forms of organisation that have to be re-thought, in their ideological and imaginary dimension. In this sense, it can said that appropriation occurs when people know the tools, value them, and learn to use them to meet their needs and interests (probably those of their social group), which gives them a sense of belonging (Sierra, Gravante, 2012, p. 135). This is the case with Jessica, Lelia and Rita.

33Persons and groups, in this case our respondents, shape the virtual space and leave their fingerprint on it, i.e. leave signs full of symbolism (Sierra, Gravante, 2012). An emotional community is created through ICTs, as Kauffman (2018) states concerning refugees: they are emotionally attached to, and technically dependent on their devices. There is a process of appropriation with the creation of a language and codes, and WhatsApp groups are especially important in this, in the case of our respondents. Further examples here are the videos of the son dancing, the jokes, images or other elements that shape a symbolic space. The evidence collected in this research allows us to state that new technologies for communication not only play a central role at all stages of the migration process, but also after migration, in people’s new lives in host countries. Further studies are needed in order to analyse ICTs’ influence on migrants’ social identities, but their lives are defined through the use of digital media, which contribute greatly to redefining new “imagined, interconnected and transnational communities”.

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1 For a comprehensive analysis of this evolution, see for example Hazán (2014).

2 Source of data: National Institute of Statistics (INE), database available online.

3 There are a large number of retired immigrants from European States and a small number of political immigrants (refugees).

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Rut Bermejo

Rut Bermejo has been Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policies at the Law and Social Sciences Faculty (Rey Juan Carlos  University) in Madrid since 2009, and Director of the MA in Criminal Profiling at the URJC. Her main research area is public policies of justice and home affairs, particularly migration. In the area of migration, she is currently leading a work package in an H2020 project (PERCEPTIONS 2019-2022) on perceptions of, and motivations for migration. In the area of the prevention of radicalisation, she leads the WP on public policies to prevent violent radicalisation (H2020 project PRACTICIES (2017-2020) and has recently coordinated the project COUNTERRADHUB (2017-2019).

Jose Manuel Sánchez-Duarte

Jose Manuel Sánchez-Duarte is Senior Lecturer in Political Communication and Public Opinion at the Law and Social Sciences Faculty (Rey Juan Carlos  University) in Madrid and Vice-General Secretary at the International University Menendez Pelayo (UIMP). He currently works on, and participates in the project Mediaflows, and his current research deals with digital participation in politics and social movements. He teaches in different Masters degrees centered on political communication and new ICTs.

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