Migration and Communication: How Important Are Smartphones for Refugees?

Photo courtesy of NGO Refugees Phones
Many say that what distinguishes the current migration crisis from others Europe has faced in the past is the role played by technology.

Smartphones have become a permanent fixture in the lives of billions of people around the world, but even more so in the lives of those who embark on dangerous journeys by land or by sea to escape wars, famine and poverty. The critical importance of smartphones to refugees has been highlighted in a recent Anglo-French report and by the work carried out by a Swedish NGO.

Migrants and refugees use their smartphones as navigation, communication and translation tools, according to a study carried out by the Open University and France Media Monde. Their report, “Mapping Refugee Media Journeys”, explores what kind of information these people seek and need at different stages of their journey towards Europe, but also identifies information that is not available. 

The authors call on European institutions to act quickly and to provide resources, which can help refugees make better-informed decisions.

According to Marie Gillespie, professor of Sociology at the Open University, “the smartphone has transformed the nature of refugee movements." In 2015, Syrian refugees were among the first to start relying on their smartphones for vital information and news.

“The information received by friends and family members who made the journey ahead enables refugees to decide when to leave and where to go, which are the best means of transport”, explains Professor Gillespie. 

She adds that smartphones and the platforms they grant access to “provide a digital infrastructure as important as the physical infrastructure of their journeys, from roads to sea crossings”.

There have been situations where being able to use a translation programme on a smartphone at border police stations has saved the day and allowed refugees in need to receive the necessary care. Professor Gillespie tells the story of a pregnant woman who was in need of urgent medical care at the Serbian border, and whose husband used the translator to explain the situation to one of the border guards. 

It had an immediate humanizing effect, which helped the woman get the assistance she needed.

"The Road of Germany", map prepared by a refugee - courtesy of Open University

Since March 2016, the situation on the ground has changed as several border closures occurred along the so-called “Balkan route”. This has led to a shift in the use of phones by refugees and in the kind of information they seek. 

“At the moment only in Greece there are 61,000 refugees stuck in camps,” says Gillespie, “and their use of their phones is completely different. They look up news related to relocation, resettlement or deportation”.

The fact that the resettlement process is happening very slowly, means that it is also very difficult to access reliable information about the current situation. “It is an absolute nightmare for refugees,” says Professor Gillespie, “I know of some Afghans who have been stuck in Mitilini for almost 11 months. So many hopes have been dashed."

Smartphones can be a tool of salvation, but they are a kind of double-edged sword. According to Professor Gillespie, “the smartphone represents the paradox of modern technologies. It is an empowering tool, but at the same time there is a surveillance aspect in place”. 

By using their smartphones to access information and to map the journey, refugees leave behind several digital traces, which make them vulnerable both to surveillance and to traffickers. The same is true also for the use of phone cameras. 

“Photos can help refugees in what we call digital witnessing of abuses by either traffickers or border authorities”, Gillespie explains. 

These photos, on one hand, can help them document incidents that they can use when they claim asylum. On the other hand, it can be dangerous to carry some kinds of evidence.

Moreover, having a smartphone is not a guarantee of access to truthful and correct information. There are many rumours circulating and traffickers exploit false information.
This is why the report that Professor Gillespie has curated calls on European institutions to work to provide reliable information, counter rumours and produce smart migrations policies.

“At the European policy level, we have to admit that Europe has failed hopelessly in dealing with this humanitarian crisis," says Gillespie. “After the November attacks in Paris, there has been a shift in the initial welcoming approach and it has had an effect on institutions, which now feel that if they provide information, then they are facilitating”, Gillespie continues.

It seems that the European Commission has acknowledged the report’s findings, but according to the professor there is the risk that this is going to be too little too late, especially because, after all they have had to endure in Europe, it is not certain whether refugees are going to trust the resources that authorities might put into place.

However, the importance of this kind of tool remains, and based on this knowledge a non-profit organization called Refugees Phones was born in 2015. The aim of this organization is to gather smartphones that they then donate to refugees in Sweden, where the project began, and, following the opening of an UK branch, in Calais.

We spoke to one of the founders, Gustav Martner, who explained to us how the idea came about and what they are trying to achieve. 

“The whole thing started last year, when all of a sudden more and more refugees started to come to Sweden. Our system was overwhelmed and that drove lots of initiatives by common people," Gustav explains. 

Many organizations were set up to secure food, money and shelter for refugees massing in Swedish train stations. Gustav saw that some of his friends were helping and one day he decided to join. 

That is when he realized that many people needed access to phones. “I have a background in marketing and I had been working a lot with telecom operators; I knew I had a good chance of making this work," says Gustav.

When it started it took only 48 hours to gather hundreds of phones and cash cards. They built a network very quickly, and now, Refugees Phones has provided more than 6,000 smartphones in Sweden alone.

Following the border closures, the situation has shifted also in Sweden, but according to Gustav, “it is very important to continue with this project.

"We are now working more with integration and in this sense smartphones can be a great tool to learn the Swedish language and for refugee kids to study better in school”.

In Sweden, Refugees Phones helps both refugees without papers and those who are waiting for appeal on their rejected asylum claims. “We are trying to stay out of discussions about what is illegal and what isn’t; we are simply here to help because if you have a phone chances are that you will get a better destiny”.
“For me it is about democracy, to give the same access to technology to all people; you are not treating them fairly otherwise,” he concludes.

Some journalists have fully realized the relevance of the smartphone for refugees. An example is SRG SSR’s journalist Nicolae Schiau, who worked on “Exils”, winner in the Web category at Prix Italia this year.

Not only Schiau followed six boys along the route from Turkey to Germany, he also understood that the smartphone was a fundamental tool if he wanted to tell that story right. “It would have been impossible to do Exils with traditional tools; in some instances if you go around with a camera and a microphone you pull up a barrier between yourself and everybody else,” Schiau said.

Indeed, his smartphone provided a way to get closer to the boys he was travelling with. “This story started with a selfie in Turkey,” Schiau recounted. “I saw these kids taking a selfie and I asked if they were about to leave. They said they were heading to Germany and I asked them if I could go along. Throughout the journey, taking a selfie always meant ‘I accept you’ and ‘I want to take a souvenir with you’. The story ended with another selfie I took with one of them, Nayef, in Calais”.