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Asylum Politics, the Internet and the Public Sphere: UK Refugee Support Groups Online
Unformatted Document Text:  9 There is, moreover, another public here: the press or other mass media, which can access the refugee groups’ websites for their reactions to policy documents. The press is also specifically dealt with in some websites, which have links to a ‘Press Office’ (e.g. the Immigration Advisory Service: and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants). The refugee groups’ reactions to policy and other relevant developments are often on offer through (mostly free) subscription to their newsletters; the Refugee Council, Immigration Advisory Service, the Scottish Asylum Seekers Consortium and others, undertake to send their regular newsletter by email to interested parties – which, given that the newsletters mainly contain specialised and detailed information on policy developments and relevant reactions, can be taken to be a specialist public. In assessing the Internet’s contribution to all this, it should first be pointed out that three of the above mentioned websites have an existence only online – the Electronic Immigration Network, Nottingham Asylum Seekers (NOTTAS), and Asylum Support Information, and as such, of course, are rendered possible only through the new medium. In more general terms however, the Internet’s contribution here cannot be disputed. We can recognise here three major contributions of the Internet: efficiency, publicity and community building and sustenance. First, in terms of efficiency, the regular updates on legal and policy matters either in the form of site updates, or as newsletters emailed to those interested, constitute a very efficient means of providing the specialist community of legal and other advisers to refugees/asylum seekers with information of great relevance to them. Publicity is the second contribution that we can recognise here: this has a triple meaning; first, publicity in terms of making public, as we saw in the case of the groups’ reactions to policy developments, but also, in the provision of links to sites of other refugee support groups, and in the provision of directory and recruitment services. Second, in terms of publishing reports and other material, which can then either be accessed and downloaded online or else, the third type of publicity, be advertised online, and subsequently ordered and bought. Both efficiency and publicity are further implicated in the third Internet contribution, the building of a community of refugee support, which is sustained exactly through the medium’s capacities for efficient communication, and publicity. In these terms, an online refugee support community is built around the goal of efficiently disseminating first, information of relevance to (other) specialists, and of rendering public such information; second, information on other specialists; and third, information on the groups’ own views and positions. Given the extensive literature on virtual communities 5 , the current usage of the term may necessitate some clarification. Drawing on the classic distinction between Gemeinschaft (community), referring to an association based on common and intrinsic values, and Gesellschaft (society), referring to a deliberately formed organisation based on rational logic (Tönnies, 1963, in Keleman and Smith 2001), the ‘community’ of refugee support groups is somewhere in-between. But what the Internet seems to be doing for the refugee support groups is something different to either helping them associate on the basis of common values or to enable them to deliberately and consciously form an organisation; indeed there is no evidence of convergence of the heterogeneous groups into one overarching community or society. Rather, in their cross-linking, and cross-referencing, in their provision of relevant legal and other type of information addressed to other refugee groups, these Web sites construct what Hannah Arendt has called a ‘common world’ (Arendt 1958); this refers to a shared and public world of human artefacts, institutions, settings as well as human affairs, that provides the context for our activities. While in this usage the notion of the common world is close to the Habermasian lifeworld, we can use the term here to refer specifically to the refugee support groups, and to denote the active ways in which they are constructing a world common to them, which then provides the context for their activities. This has several advantages over the term community, which implies an affective bond, a set of common values, and a physical proximity – for which no evidence can be discerned here. In this sense, the Internet’s contribution is both to help create such a world in common, and to render it public.

Authors: Siapera, Eugenia.
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9
There is, moreover, another public here: the press or other mass media, which can access the
refugee groups’ websites for their reactions to policy documents. The press is also specifically dealt
with in some websites, which have links to a ‘Press Office’ (e.g. the Immigration Advisory Service: and
the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants). The refugee groups’ reactions to policy and other
relevant developments are often on offer through (mostly free) subscription to their newsletters; the
Refugee Council, Immigration Advisory Service, the Scottish Asylum Seekers Consortium and others,
undertake to send their regular newsletter by email to interested parties – which, given that the
newsletters mainly contain specialised and detailed information on policy developments and relevant
reactions, can be taken to be a specialist public.
In assessing the Internet’s contribution to all this, it should first be pointed out that three of the
above mentioned websites have an existence only online – the Electronic Immigration Network,
Nottingham Asylum Seekers (NOTTAS), and Asylum Support Information, and as such, of course, are
rendered possible only through the new medium. In more general terms however, the Internet’s
contribution here cannot be disputed. We can recognise here three major contributions of the Internet:
efficiency, publicity and community building and sustenance. First, in terms of efficiency, the regular
updates on legal and policy matters either in the form of site updates, or as newsletters emailed to
those interested, constitute a very efficient means of providing the specialist community of legal and
other advisers to refugees/asylum seekers with information of great relevance to them. Publicity is the
second contribution that we can recognise here: this has a triple meaning; first, publicity in terms of
making public, as we saw in the case of the groups’ reactions to policy developments, but also, in the
provision of links to sites of other refugee support groups, and in the provision of directory and
recruitment services. Second, in terms of publishing reports and other material, which can then either
be accessed and downloaded online or else, the third type of publicity, be advertised online, and
subsequently ordered and bought. Both efficiency and publicity are further implicated in the third
Internet contribution, the building of a community of refugee support, which is sustained exactly through
the medium’s capacities for efficient communication, and publicity. In these terms, an online refugee
support community is built around the goal of efficiently disseminating first, information of relevance to
(other) specialists, and of rendering public such information; second, information on other specialists;
and third, information on the groups’ own views and positions.
Given the extensive literature on virtual communities
5
, the current usage of the term may
necessitate some clarification. Drawing on the classic distinction between Gemeinschaft (community),
referring to an association based on common and intrinsic values, and Gesellschaft (society), referring
to a deliberately formed organisation based on rational logic (Tönnies, 1963, in Keleman and Smith
2001), the ‘community’ of refugee support groups is somewhere in-between. But what the Internet
seems to be doing for the refugee support groups is something different to either helping them
associate on the basis of common values or to enable them to deliberately and consciously form an
organisation; indeed there is no evidence of convergence of the heterogeneous groups into one
overarching community or society. Rather, in their cross-linking, and cross-referencing, in their
provision of relevant legal and other type of information addressed to other refugee groups, these Web
sites construct what Hannah Arendt has called a ‘common world’ (Arendt 1958); this refers to a shared
and public world of human artefacts, institutions, settings as well as human affairs, that provides the
context for our activities. While in this usage the notion of the common world is close to the
Habermasian lifeworld, we can use the term here to refer specifically to the refugee support groups,
and to denote the active ways in which they are constructing a world common to them, which then
provides the context for their activities. This has several advantages over the term community, which
implies an affective bond, a set of common values, and a physical proximity – for which no evidence
can be discerned here. In this sense, the Internet’s contribution is both to help create such a world in
common, and to render it public.


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