Social media as self-identity — opportunity and risk for young refugees in Lebanon (4/5 blog on youth & ID for UNICEF)

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

This blog is one of five blogs from our work on children and the tension between identification and identity in a digital age. Other blogs include:

  • Identification and identity for children in a digital age
  • Identification, identity and sexuality for youth in Brazil
  • Biometric identification and identity for children in Thailand
  • Financial inclusion, identification and identity for children in Kenya

At Caribou Digital, with the support of UNICEF, we undertook a multi-country research study to understand the interplay and challenges between identification, identity, and digital ID for children in their journey from 0 to 18. What tensions arise between the ID credentials (ID) one owns, the way one is identified (identification), and the way one identifies oneself (identity) during this formative period?

To answer these questions, we conducted fieldwork in four countries: Lebanon, Brazil, Kenya, and Thailand. Each country surfaced a different theme and ID challenges: in Brazil, we saw tension between identification and gender/sexual identity; in Kenya we saw the consequences of early and informal financial inclusion due to the high penetration of mobile money; and in Thailand, the confusing experience of acquiring biometric ID at a young age.

Here, we focus on the experiences of young Syrian and Palestine (the preferred use rather than Palestinian) refugees, navigating their identity on social media in Lebanon. We look at both the opportunities and risks that social media presents for refugee youth.

This qualitative research was conducted over two weeks during which we interviewed a total of 100 respondents through focus groups and interviews organised with the support of local NGOs in three refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, Akkar, and Shatila. These included accompanied children (11 to 14), youth (15 to 20), parents, caregivers, frontline workers (school heads and teachers, health workers, and NGO representatives), and government experts.

The ID ecosystem for refugees is complex

Obtaining identification documents as a refugee (when they can) is complicated. In addition, some refugee parents may not want their children to be identified in their host country under the assumption that their children will not be able to return home. Legal procedures and requirements for acquiring ID are beyond the scope of this research; rather we focus on refugees’ experiences of identification and identity before adulthood.

The graphic below maps some of the ID credentials and personally identifiable data (PII) a child with refugee status may accumulate, from childhood to adulthood. ID credentials are represented by the solid grey blocks, divided by development age ranges. These credentials are both legal, such as a birth certificate, and non-legal, such a Facebook account. The floating dots illustrate the child’s personally identifiable information (PII) as it expands over time (e.g. a date of birth, a password, or a Google search). By the time a child reaches 18, a huge amount of PII is available on them. The key credentials for Syrian and Palestine refugees in Lebanon includes but is not limited to: a birth certificate or civil extract, a family booklet, a national ID card, a residency permit, and a UNHCR card for Syrian refugees or UNRWA card for Palestine refugees. We note that the status and history of Syrian and Palestine refugees in Lebanon are widely different. This diagram only aims to give an idea of the type of documents they both can obtain.

Identification, identity and digital ID in Lebanon for children between 0 and 18

Visual developed with UNICEF

Creating an identity vs. identification, experiences from childhood

The refugee respondents in our research had come to Lebanon as families. We noted that children start building their identity, as Syrian or Palestinian, within their household as well as at school, through storytelling. Parents and educators play an important role in this foundational step of understanding where refugee children come from as reflected in the respondent quotes below.

Here at the center (NISCVT), we made a tree during our activities. Each branch of it represented a town in Palestine. My family comes from Yaffa — a town known for citrus fruit — so we used lemons to represent it.” — Palestinian children in Shatila refugee camp

“At five or six our parents start teaching us that we live in a camp, start telling us about our family and the country we come from. This is how we start building our identity.” — Syrian adolescent

“We, mothers, play a big role in this (non-formal identity). I always taught my children to be proud of themselves, even though they are not Lebanese on paper. Even if they have to use a Syrian ID.” — Lebanese mother married to Syrian man

The first tension between identification and identity arises as early as 8 or 9 years old: a few respondents felt that their identity had nothing to do with the identification credentials they owned. The manager of a center for Palestinian children in Shatila refugee camp, in the outskirts of Beirut, explained:

“An ID document that says ‘refugee’…doesn’t tell you where you are from or who you are.”

Growing your identity through social media…

From a young age, refugee children may use social media to connect with family members and friends and to continue developing a sense of belonging to a country. A 9-year-old Palestine refugee girl in Shatila camps shared her experience:“I started a Facebook page when I was eight for my family in Palestine to connect and tell stories. Even some relatives in other camps joined the group to communicate and share. Now, we are using WhatsApp more as it’s easier.”

At adolescence, respondents we spoke with suggested that social media, notably Facebook, could be an outlet for expressing one’s identity and interests as well as for developing a sense of community. This was the case of this 18-year-old Syrian mother: “I like to paint. When I finish a painting, I like to post a picture of it on Facebook and get feedback from others. And I can also do so in person; through discussing it with others.”

Some adolescents mentioned they used social media to also connect to humanitarian organizations, like this young 15-year-old Palestinian girl and her group of friends: “We express our solidarity through some posts on NGOs’ Facebook pages when something bad is going on in Palestine such as the war in Gaza. I also have my own writing blog and I’ve connected with new people through it.”

… but with limits

Digital platforms and social media can be an empowering tool but also a possible nuisance for refugees — particularly as they become adolescents. After 15, young boys are careful to not share personal information on digital platforms for fear of being tracked by their government, in particular for fear of having to go back to complete the military service. A 20-year-old male Syrian medical student now living in Akkar refugee camp explained his cautious approach to using social media: “I do put some things on Facebook. Maybe an article occasionally. I hardly shared any photos and now I definitely don’t anymore. Especially after the crisis, after 2014. I am wanted by the army because I have not completed my military service in Syria. You normally have to complete it when you turn 18. If you don’t serve, you can go to prison for six months. This is the first stage, I don’t remember what comes after that.”

There are multiple pulls of identity-making, in addition to that of being a refugee. The adolescent girls we spoke with said that, after marriage, they do not use social media much and, when they do, they may use their husbands’ accounts. Several of those we spoke to said they were under the legal age of marriage but it was accepted. However, with this came both online and offline restrictions:

“I am not allowed to leave the house alone. Only with my mother or mother-in-law. Not even with my sisters or his. The mothers would always have to be with us. I just have my own personal hobbies. I like to do hair and makeup, but I just do this myself at home. I don’t share it with anyone or online.” — 16-year-old Syrian mother and wife

“I do not use social media. My husband doesn’t accept it. He has Facebook, and I can use his account sometimes. He has given me a phone, but he doesn’t like me using Facebook. I tried to convince him a few times but he refused. His reason is that he worries about other men that might be on there.” — 17-year-old Syrian refugee

For refugees, the risks of becoming too visible increase at adolescence and can have serious implications in the real world with government entities tracking young men or as cultural norms prohibit young women’s expression on these platforms.

Takeaways

It is key to acknowledge this tension around identification and identity for refugee children. Social media offers an incredible opportunity to connect with family, peers, and community when uprooted, but it also leads to the risk of too much visibility — particularly for adolescents. Key actors, notably at the community level but also within international organisations, can help ensure this tension is understood and managed adequately.

International organisations working with refugees, such as UNHCR, UNRWA and community-level organisations, should include materials on how to manage social media and its implications for both adults and children in their training and information sessions.

This recommendation is in line with the need for “data accountability” to be built into future policy and guidance documents for Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) discussed in another piece of Caribou Digital research looking at identification systems for refugees.

Acknowledgements

We were particularly aware of the complexity of talking about ID with children and youth, furthermore in a refugee context, and underwent a comprehensive UNICEF Ethics Board review prior to beginning fieldwork. We also made sure to create a friendly, non-intimidating atmosphere with the usual contract of anonymity. We were very grateful for the time and attention that children, youth, families and officials gave us.

We would like to sincerely thank UNICEF Lebanon for their support during their field research as well as our Research Assistant Diala Hajal for all her help and efficient coordination. We would also like to thank Aimee Ghanem for her great help in speaking with experts in the field. Finally but not least we sincerely thank the UNRWA team for their time and review as well as the NGOs that enabled us to meet with respondents, creating a safe environment: the Collective for Research & Training on Development — Action in Beirut, The National Institute of Social Care and Vocational Training in Shatila refugee camp, Relief and Reconciliation in Akkar, the International Rescue Committee in the Bekaa Valley, and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In addition to the above, we are very grateful to Jonathan Donner (Caribou Digital) and the UNICEF team for their feedback. These blogs represent our views and not those of UNICEF.

Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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