#Guest Contribution: A Piece of Home in their Hands

Is the Internet radicalising the discourse on refugees in Europe? How are the social media steering public opinion on migrants? Are smartphones a catalyst for mass migration? We restart our series in cooperation with our media partner euro|topics. In the run-up to #rpTEN we want to show how the refugee crisis is being portrayed on the web. Every two weeks euro|topics is publishing a review of the debate on the topic, with voices from print and online media.

For those fleeing war smartphones are playing a vital role – not just for their physical survival but also for their mental wellbeing. Smartphones are helping refugees to find their way to a new homeland and keep their hope alive.

It's the most important item of luggage for most refugees and at the same time a disturbing symbol of how war and barbarity are not in contrast with modern life: the smartphone. Never before have people had so many technological possibilities for finding out about refugee routes and staying in contact with both their old and new home countries. And never before has a refugee movement been so well documented – in photos, messages, videos, and communications on social networks.

The Turkish news website Radikal describes why mobile phones are so important for people fleeing conflict: "With their mobile phones refugees can stay in contact with their families, make contact with people smugglers and call for help in an emergency situation. Waterproof models that can survive the trip across the Mediterranean intact are especially popular. In an emergency all their other possessions may be lost and the boat may capsize, but the phone must not fail." So people rely on these small devices to physically survive the perilous journey. There are countless apps that help them find a place to sleep, translate foreign languages or list the things to pack for the journey. "Those traveling by boat often use WhatsApp to update their location on Google Maps, a move that lets them avoid astronomical calling rates and alert the authorities to their location should trouble arise," explains the US magazine Wired.

Smartphones Help Refugees Create their own Narrative

Just as important as physical survival, however, is the smartphone's role in helping refugees mentally survive the journey by providing a connection to the home, family and friends. Farid Gueham, a political adviser, expands on this in the French blog Trop Libre: "The mobile phone functions as a messenger: text messages and photos help calm the situation and soothe the fears of relatives who have been left behind. Receiving news from relatives also provides refugees with a source of hope, as they often have a hard time staying optimistic." In the countless selfies that are taken during the journey, many of which find their way into the public sphere through Facebook or traditional media, Wired also sees an attempt by the displaced to write their own story at a time when they have little control over their own fate: "Refugees fleeing the turmoil of Syria are, perhaps more than any other displaced community, using their phones to plot and document their journeys to a better life. It offers a small level of control during a time of great uncertainty."

The fact that Syria was not technologically underdeveloped before the war explains why so many of the stories we read on the social networks and the selfies we see are by Syrians. Just like their peers in the West, young Syrians love surfing the web and typing on their smartphones, and use the same networks and apps. A study carried out in January 2015 showed that 86 percent of the young Syrians in Jordan's largest refugee camp Zataari owned a smartphone, and half of them used the Internet at least once a day. Aid organisations and volunteers provide them with SIM cards and build WiFi connections in even the remotest camps and along refugee routes.

Internet Access in Idomeni

In Idomeni, the camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia where thousands of refugees are stranded in deplorable living conditions, there is now also a stable Internet connection thanks to the efforts of a single individual. Ilias Papadopoulos, a Greek electrical engineer, built a WiFi hub inside an empty trailer back in August 2015. Called "Free", this connection enables people at the camp to stay in contact with the outside world even in the most adverse circumstances, writes the British-American website Mashable.

But the images of refugees with mobile phones also raise doubts in the countries of arrival about whether these people really need help. Why do they have to flee when they are doing well enough to be able to afford an expensive smartphone? some people ask. "Such reactions say more about our Western materialism than they do about the refugees themselves," comments Dutch journalist Lisa Bouyeure in the weekly paper HP/De Tijd. "How do we imagine this war? Assad on the one side, the IS on the other, and abracadra! – all property suddenly disappears? Or do we believe that people with enough property and money are immune to threats, hunger and war? Perhaps we simply prefer to see war refugees only as we see them in stupid commercials: starving, poverty-stricken and crying." But one thing Bouyeure is absolutely sure of: any refugee would swap their smartphone for a safe home without the slightest hesitation. 

Photo credit: Esther Vargas (CC BY-SA 2.0)