The Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding at a time when human mobility is increasing and, in many instances, becoming more precarious. Last year, the world saw 250 million international migrants, only 21 million of whom qualified as refugees under the UN Refugee Convention. Within countries, the rate of internal migration from rural areas to cities has also been increasing, with urbanization estimates reaching 66% by 2050.

Indeed, there are 270 million internal migrants in China alone. Considering existing migration trends, the impact of more extreme weather on economies and livelihoods, and countries’ constraints in dealing with migration effectively, we simply cannot afford to overlook the potential of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies in supporting safe, orderly and regular migration.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) represents new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies, for example through robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. The 4IR has implications for global migration in a multitude of ways, some of which have been experienced in the past. Concretely, the 4IR has the potential to create business and job opportunities for migrants that never existed before, especially if they receive the right training, for example, on robots and their myriad set of applications. It also opens avenues for entrepreneurship, since migrant entrepreneurs are at the forefront of technological innovation (Elon Musk, for example, is a migrant).

At the same time, disruptions to the labour market inherent in any industrial revolution have generated a high level of distrust and scepticism around the benefits of migration. Indeed, lower-skilled workers are positioned to lose their jobs in the face of labour-saving 4IR advances, and migrants are not only at risk of this, but also blamed for precipitating lower labour standards by accepting less attractive employment.

But the 4IR is also changing migration and perceptions of migration beyond the implications observed in the past. From migration management and border control to directing migration flows and facilitating migrant integration, we should expect to see significant changes to migration policies and practices in the coming decade as a result of specific 4IR technologies.

Here are some examples:

Applying drone technology

We have already seen the way in which digital and smartphone technology has altered the migrant experience: two of the first questions migrants and refugees ask when arriving in a new country are how to get a SIM card and where to connect to WIFI. Smartphones are now seen by migrants as essential tools in navigating challenging journeys safely and preparing support networks for their arrivals.

While migrants and refugees use GPS and social media communications applications to monitor and decide on their migration paths, international organizations and NGOs are increasingly using drone technology in humanitarian activities. In fact, the usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) has increasingly been recognized as an essential tool for humanitarian action since drones are particularly useful for mapping, delivering goods to remote locations and assessing and monitoring damage and change. They have increasingly been deployed for humanitarian purposes since 2013 when the United Nations launched its first surveillance experiment in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda.

Governments are also aware of the potential use of drones for migration management. Starting in 2005, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began to use drones domestically in an effort to track migration across its borders; there are now plans to equip the border service with smaller, lightweight drones capable of identifying individuals using through facial recognition or other biometric technology within a three-mile range. The idea is to enable CBP agents to launch and track multiple humans on foot, horseback or in vehicles.

Meanwhile, the European Union has also taken steps to invest in a fleet of drones with video, infrared sensors and chemical detection to provide real-time data on migrant flows. In the Mediterranean, drones have already been used by European government and NGOs to facilitate the rescue missions of migrants.

Thus, the potential for drones in the realm of migration is promising and still largely to be explored. However, this type of tracking raises a number of ethical issues frequently flagged in debates around balancing national security interests with individual rights and freedoms. In particular, the use of drones for migration surveillance challenges individual rights to privacy and is seen by critics to undermine civil liberties more broadly. Legal scrutiny around the use of this technology must go hand in hand with its deployment.

How AI can strengthen migration policy

As in many areas, policy on migration lags behind technological trends in ways that undermine the potential gains of the phenomenon. Artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning applied to relevant migration questions could help illuminate successful approaches to anticipating migration flows, harnessing skills, and better understanding the power of remittances. AI machine learning has the potential to use a wealth of data, frequently crowdsourced or publically available, to look for data patterns and correlations that may indicate future human mobility flows.

This type of analysis starts from examining historical and current migration patterns and understanding related triggers. It can move policy makers closer to unravelling complexity around the origin of migration flows. If the data is high quality and appropriately incorporates the possibility of a political, economic and/or social “disruption” that might change the predictive trajectory, applying machine learning to migration trends could help map future migration flows. The result could help countries and communities prepare migrant integration strategies more effectively.

Likewise, these predictive maps could provide helpful information in further managing migration flows. Coupling these migration data with labour market information, such as skills gaps, could provide migrants with a better idea of where their skills would be valued, and therefore where to plan their moves. Supporting migrants to make informed decisions about migration is perhaps the next stage of evolution of “chatbots” that have supported refugees arriving in Europe. The potential for better matching skills or opportunity and human resources offers to create a new narrative around migration and its potential benefits.

At this stage, there have been some attempts at using artificial intelligence for migration-related matters, largely in crisis situations. One of the first examples of this was Ushahidi, which used real time, crowdsourced reports from Facebook and Twitter to develop a crisis map after the Haiti Earthquake in 2010. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have since been applied to various crises settings, such as Nepal, and even to help victims cope psychologically with the effects of war, such as in Syria. However, there remains incredible opportunity to elucidate trends that could lead to better migrant integration and outcomes for society.

AI could be also a crucial part of the activities implemented by organizations during displacement or after settlement in new countries. For example, running mandatory AI-based skills assessment and offering training on such technologies and assistance on entrepreneurship for migrants and refugees could unleash their full potential, helping them to rebuild their lives. It could also counterbalance the perceived precipitation of labour standards, since migrants would not work on precarious and low-productivity sectors that largely mismatch their skills, but would allow them to help the host country to prosper.

How Fintech supports integration

As migration around the world increases, one of the most pressing needs is for the availability of a full range of cost efficient, convenient financial services to assist effective integration of migrants in host nations.

However, in many countries the financial services sector is not even able to serve the needs of many of its own citizens, and the situation for many migrants is even worse.

Migrants face hardships across many fronts - from the basic opening of bank accounts without the required documents for KYC (Know-Your-Customer requirements) to difficulties receiving or sending money, and often at exorbitant rates. Migrants are often not able to have access to convenient ways to pay bills, access insurance, or even obtain credit or loans to improve their lives or invest for the future – all these services remain a dream.

The 4IR, for the first time, presents a significant opportunity to include migrants in the financial system quickly and efficiently in a way that has not even been experienced by many of the host countries’ own nationals. Technological solutions pave the way to both disrupt the way traditional financial services have been delivered and at the same time enable banks to innovate and provide exciting new products and services to address real customer needs.

Much of the early innovation has come from Fintech companies that are disrupting the traditional way of doing things. Transferwise, originally a payments company, has recently created a borderless bank. Alipay and Tencent have led a financial revolution in Asia and innovative companies like Lenddo use big data and AI to allow financial institutions to deliver products and services to underserved markets in a sustainable way.

Some governments such as India and Estonia are also leading the way with their government led digital initiatives resulting in fast-growing financial inclusion. Also, some international organizations, such as UNCHR in partnership with IrisGuard and Cairo Amman Bank in Jordan, are using innovative hi-tech solutions such as iris recognition to secure access of refugees to financial assistance, not only including refugees in the financial system but also increasing the efficiency and efficacy of humanitarian aid.

The opportunity exists - and it will be interesting to see how other countries can learn from these examples and whether incumbent banks and other financial institutions can deliver services to the growing number of migrants that demand them; or whether it will take disruptive Fintech companies or innovative international organizations and governments to grant access to critical services that are taken for granted by many of us. 

Smarter migration through the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In the past decade concern over the risks of migration have often made it harder for people to grasp the potential benefits. The 4IR offers a unique opportunity to expand and recreate such cases of success, assisting the host society and migrants to thrive together.

In considering future applications of 4IR technologies, there are definite ethical issues, like data privacy and margins of error, with which to contend. However, the promise of smarter migration is one which the international community, individual nations and businesses need to realize in order to achieve a more peaceful and sustainable world.