Europe’s Refugee Crisis: Smart Phone, Smart Idea

‘Food, water, and a mobile charger’

Europe is currently experiencing the biggest influx of refugees in its history of absorbing the victims of chaos in the Middle East and Africa. Despite the protests of Europe’s intolerant few, the mass migration of peoples into our wealthy corner of the world is nothing new. What is novel, however, is the tools the refugees are using to get here.

Nationalist groups the continent over have been quick to claim that the ‘refugees’ are in fact economic migrants – clutching their iPhones, Samsungs and HTCs – looking to claim a piece of the European pie. Moving past the obvious flaw in this argument – that owning a mobile phone doesn’t exempt you from civil war – they’ve accidentally raised a very interesting point.

The 2015 refugee crisis is perhaps the first example of mobile phone technology revolutionising mass migration and inspiring populations to safety. Smartphones are cheap, accessible and important enough to have become a vital part of the refugee’s arsenal – the UNHCR is even providing SIM cards to those leaving Syria to prepare them for their journey.

Social media platforms are stopping the disintegration of displaced communities, instant messenger is allowing knowledge to be passed back down the route, map applications are guiding families across countries safely and money transfer services are keeping them fed and sheltered. In Hungary’s Keleti train station, WiFi has become a commodity demanded only behind water and food, and is helping those moving from a country with a 91% pre-paid subscriber base (though state controlled networks) avoid the difficulties with connecting to and paying for mobile connectivity in every country they pass through. They may not know they are using VoIP to reach the safety of Germany or Britain, but their journey would be infinitely harder without it.

The refugees are not bringing smartphones with them from the Syrian Riviera (as ‘Britain First’ would have us believe), but actually investing in technology to assist their journey. Smartphone adoption inside Syria is only 12% (according the GSMA) and, while there aren’t any official statistics, the proportion of refugees using them is undoubtedly higher.

Call for change

Silicon Valley would have you believe that every software update, home food delivery service and transport app has the power to ‘change the world’. Uber is ‘changing the world’, AirBnB is too – if your world is the commute from Finchley to Great Portland Street or a weekend trip to Paris. But this isn’t a case of Skype allowing you to wave at your mum while in South America, it’s the difference between life and death for thousands of threatened individuals.

The Middle East has learnt the power of social media and mobile connectivity through times of hardship. Whether it be the rebels who first moved to topple Assad by publicising acts of dissent online and building a subversive community, or even the ISIS terrorists now using it to intimidate through of acts of brutality, technology is now instrumental. In Syria, as in much of the Middle East, these are not just tools for chatting to mates – they are hugely powerful mechanisms for driving societal change.

The moral of the story then: technology does have the power to change the world for the better, but not by letting you book a delightful studio apartment in Prague or making it cheaper and easier to get home when you’re hammered after a night out.

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