When we think about the needs of refugees, we usually think of basics such as food, water, clothes, and shelter. We are accustomed to scenes of poverty-stricken refugees sleeping in the streets with very little provisions. But in recent weeks, new images have arisen of refugees arriving in Europe by boat toting smartphones and taking selfies.
In many cases, these images have raised eyebrows and produced criticisms that people fleeing to Europe must not really be in need. However, smartphones have become readily available to refugees arriving from Syria and parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In fact, they provide important connections to information and family members, becoming a lifeline for the displaced and those seeking asylum.
As thousands of refugees flow into Europe, many are using smartphones to ensure a safer journey and share information with others fleeing from conflict. Smartphone technology has transformed the current refugee crisis by making it easier for people to move.
Finding the Safest Routes
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reported that for the first time, refugees arriving in Europe are not only asking for food and water, but also where they can access Wi-Fi and charge their phones. A smartphone is often the only item they carry. They depend on messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Viber to communicate with loved ones back home. They navigate border crossings using global positioning apps such as Google Maps. They even document their journeys on Instagram.
Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, says that this is a new phenomenon: “Most Syrians fleeing are educated and urban, so they have the funds and exposure to use smartphones effectively.” A decent phone can be bought second-hand for under $100, and cellular networks are constantly available.
One benefit of smartphone use is that once people have fled their home country, they can relay back precise information on the safest routes, and friends and family don’t have to rely as much on costly and exploitative smugglers. In fact, prices charged by traffickers have gone down by half since the beginning of the conflict.
NGOs and aid groups are also changing their thinking on what refugee assistance entails. The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights in Serbia is setting up Wi-Fi networks in addition to distributing food. The UNHCR has handed out 33,000 SIM cards in refugee camps in Jordan. A German company has created the Welcome to Dresden app to help refugees access health care, register with authorities, and enroll their children in schools. Another app, called Gherbtna, was created by a Syrian refugee to help people in Turkey obtain residency, find employment, and open bank accounts.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Damascus has posted maps of water distribution points on their Facebook Syria page, estimating that they reach 10 times as many people as with other communication methods. Perhaps most importantly, refugees credit their smartphones with saving their lives by accessing maps of locations where mortar rounds are falling, and calling for help when boats are sinking.
The smartphone era has dramatically changed the refugee experience, not just in making the journey safer, but also in challenging commonly held stereotypes. Many Syrians have shown through their use of smartphones that not all refugees flee because they are poor or because they simply are searching for better job prospects. They come to Europe because they no longer have a home and they fear for their lives if they stay.
Many of the Syrians who have made it to Europe were not poor back home, but are regular individuals and families who risk the journey in hopes of being able to raise their children without fear of violence and death. Images of refugees arriving with smartphones in hand has made it clear that perhaps refugees are just like the rest of us.