Food, Shelter, Smartphone: Why do refugees have smartphones?

The current refugee crisis has led to many controversial and often uninformed debates in Europe. Very often, people tend to question the ‘real’ intentions of these asylum seekers that are often travelling thousands of kilometers to eventually reach Europe. A very popular argument among critics of the current immigration policies is the “smartphone argument”.

“Why do almost all of these refugees own smartphones?”

While the question itself is quiet ignorant, as it indicates that refugees who might have lived wealthy lives are somehow deserving less items than you, it does present an interesting topic when thinking about the actual use of the phones during the long journey to Europe.
The massive amounts of refugees that are on their way to Europe this year, are heavily relying on smartphone applications, as they are exposed to perilous sea crossings, unfriendly boarder crossings and need to stay in touch with their loved ones.

blogpost 1.1

                                                                  Facebook: A travelling agency
How do you find a humaboatn trafficker that will take you across the Mediterranean sea, and where can you find more information about his service? – Exactly, on Facebook.
Human traffickers advertise their services on Facebook like any legitimate travel agency. On the arabic language Facebook group “Trafficking to Europe”, one trafficker offers a 50% discount for children. Another post, asking for a group discount for families gets 32 likes. As brutal and unethical as this practice sounds, thinking about the Information Strategy topic of Session 2, it also becomes evident that the opportunity for refugees to post pictures and discuss their experiences is quiet liberating. More specific, the effects of word-of-mouth and observational learning also apply in the human trafficking industry. While Facebook helps human traffickers to grow their business, it also helps refugees to evaluate their option when travelling to Europe.

A map, a guidebook, and an instruction manual
The current refugees can use GPS and mapping services like Google Maps, in order to navigate themselves to Europe. Additionally, many refugees that already made their safe journey have used Facebook groups and the WhatsApp messenger to spread their experiences in different locations. In this way, refugees can inform themselves about current issues such as boarder patrols for specific locations on their smartphones, and independently navigate their way to Europe. This behaviour has made an extensive cut into the business of human traffickers. While most refugees were dependent on human traffickers for the entire way to Europe in the beginning, the only trafficking services that is still extensively used route from Turkey into Greece. Compared to a few months ago, prices of human traffickers have halved. Follow this link to see the obstacles refugees have to overcome, region by region.

A measure of last resort
The use of smartphones has saved many lives since the outbreak of the refugee crisis. An article by Quartz Magazine has described the way a young man saved his life by sending his GPS location to the Greek boarder patrol once his sinking ship has entered the Greek territory. According to numeral reports, this technique has saved many lives, as refugees are able to contact the outside world in case of emergencies. According to Greek officials, this behaviour is actually encouraged, in order to prevent future catastrophes of sinking boats, as have been occurred on several occasions in the past months. In order to take advantage of these benefits and in order to be able to organize big groups of people more efficiently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has started to give out sim-cards for phones and solar-power lanterns that can also charge phones in refugee camps in Jordan.

blogpost 1.6What to do once you are there?
Once you are on the run, you have to decide which country to aim for in Europe. Different legislations provide different benefits to asylum seekers, such as the preferred treatment of families that are reunited in Germany, or the fast bureaucratic processing in Sweden and the Netherlands. Since the availability of internet in Syria, for instance, is very limited, people need to make these decision on the journeys, rather than in their home country. Additionally, many refugees tend to organize a smartphone only after having left Syria, since many people who are captured at the Syrian boarder are forced to present their Facebook password and pictures, in order to determine their allegiance, when a smartphone is found in their possession. Hence, a smartphone becomes essential for refugees to speed up their asylum process upon arrival.
Additionally, a website and smartphone app of the red cross, called Trace the Face helps refugees to reconnect with their family members by uploading their pictures through their phones.

Syrian migrants take a picture after their safe arrival  on an overcrowded dinghy to the coast of the southeastern Greek island of Kos from Turkey, on August 15, 2015. A ferry boat has been sent by the Greek government to the resort of Kos to speed up the registration process of hundreds of Syrian refugees, docked on August 14 afternoon at the harbour. The Eleftherios Venizelos will stay moored in Kos for some two weeks, during which time authorities will register newcomers to the island, which is already overflowing with refugees and migrants. AFP PHOTO /LOUISA GOULIAMAKI

Syrian migrants take a picture after their safe arrival on an overcrowded dinghy to the coast of the southeastern Greek island of Kos from Turkey, on August 15, 2015.


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5 responses to “Food, Shelter, Smartphone: Why do refugees have smartphones?”

  1. hosnis says :

    In my opinion the debate to have or not to have a smartphone is groundless. There should be made a clear distinction between economical and political refugees. The refugee that were lately allowed to enter the european premises, were only allowed, if and only if they were political refugees. Political refugees flee their country due to the maslow’s top priority need of safety. Why should a political refugee that is seeking for safety sell his smartphone?

    • samjing92 says :

      Whether these refugees come to find safety or economic benefits is irrelevant. As of now, the European Union has agreed to provide millions of refugees safe shelter and we as European citizens should not focus on when they are leaving, but rather on how can we live with them. It is unclear when their origin countries will stabilize again, seeing the current situation, this might take years. So we better start realizing that a lot of the refugees will probably stay for a long time and try to live peacefully among them.

  2. Thanasis.Zias says :

    Very nice and refreshing article. Let’s not forget that Syria is not a poor country. According to the International Monetary Fund in 2010 the GDP per capita of Syria was $2,802.
    Also the fact that Syrian refugees carry smartphones with them doesn’t mean that they have the latest high-tech smartphones available out there. For every iPhone 6 Plus , there is a second hand iPhone 4 which costs less than 100€ and for every Android flagship, there is a basic android phone which covers the immediate needs of the user.

    (Athanasios Zias, SN:401028)

  3. 350118ms says :

    As mentioned in a previous comment it is quite logical that refugees have smartphones: those who are granted acces are not here because they are poor, but because the situation in their own country is to dangerous. And as you described in your post, smartphones can be lifesavers during this lethal trip to safer places. Of course you use everything that can possibly help to bring you and your family to a safer place. Like you said in your post, the question why they have smartphones is quite ignorant. Maybe it is more relevant to ask how we can use the fact that they have smartphones. Is it possible to be more pro-active and maybe make the process more efficient, like the Red Cross already did. We have to remember: Not only are those political refugees not poor, they are also not stupid. They are probably willing to work with their “host-countries” to prevent both parties from a lengthy, inefficient accommodation process, in which they are moved every few days from one place to another. Let us accept the fact and work with it, instead of judging it on no grounds.

  4. Mirabeli says :

    Very interesting article, I believe that possessing smartphones when being a political refugee is crucial. GPS tracking does not only allow the refugees to see which road they have to stumble upon to gain more safety, but message services such as Whatsapp can enable refugees to share their location with family or friends who are also on the run. This way the GPS tracking can add value by reuniting people with their loved ones and continue the road together.

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