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Digital divide leaving migrants, refugee behind

29 September 20200 comments

A digital divide is affecting migrant and refugee household disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research from the US-based Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

According to MPI researcher Alexis Cherewka, the digital access is defined as an individual’s ability to obtain tools such as computers and smartphones, as well as consistent connection to the internet.

“The internet is a critical component of modern life, and never has that been clearer than during the COVID-19 pandemic, where online connectivity has proven an essential lifeline to telework, distance learning, telemedicine, and relationships with relatives and friends,” Ms Cherewka said.

In the United States, 87 per cent of adults said they considered the web to be important or essential for them during the outbreak. Yet neither access to the internet nor vulnerability to the coronavirus are spread equally, the research said.

It found immigrants were over-represented in frontline pandemic-response occupations such as doctors, home health aides, and grocery store workers, leaving them more exposed to the disease.

But foreign-born Americans also make up a disproportionately large share of groups with lower levels of digital skills, the research found.

In the US, 36 per cent of native-born, native-language adults were at higher levels of proficiency in solving problems in digital environments or using digital tools as of 2015, compared to just 12 per cent of US residents who are foreign born and speak a language other than English, according to a study by the OECD.

The proportion of US adults with no computer experience is also much higher for immigrants who speak a language other than English in the home, a study by the OECD found, at almost 21 per cent compared to approximately 5 per cent for English speakers.

“The situation in the United States is part of a global trend and is similar to that of other countries with similar proportions of immigrants, such as Germany, Canada and Australia,” Ms Cherewka said.

And across OECD countries, which are high-income economies, native-born adults who speak the native language have higher levels of proficiency with digital problem-solving than do immigrants.

“What is clear is that the gap in access to communications technology is often larger for people of color, those with lower incomes, and those with lesser levels of education. Immigrants who fall into these subpopulations appear to be especially vulnerable to digital inequities,” Ms Cherewka said.

“The digital divide has long been an issue of concern for advocates, economists, and others. In all, 18 million of the estimated 129 million US households are without internet access, including many immigrant households,” she said.

Ten per cent of families headed by Hispanic immigrants had no access to the internet in 2016, which was greater than the seven per cent of US-born Latinos without access and twice the rate of non-Hispanic White residents, according to a study published by the think tank the Sesame Workshop.

And according to researchers at the Pew Research Center, although Hispanic immigrants of comprise about half of all Hispanic internet users, in the 16 percent of US Hispanics that did not access the internet in 2016, 77 per cent were immigrants.

Effective use of the internet for work, school, handling of finances, and for other tasks requires not only access but also the digital skills and experience to know what to do online, the research said.

Immigrant workers were over-represented in populations with limited or no digital skills identified by the OCED.