For Syrian refugees, smartphones are a lifeline — not a toy

Some of the pictures of young refugees taking selfies on smartphones have raised eyebrows among certain skeptics. But these days, a smartphone is actually a lifeline for many asylum-seekers. Here's why.

U.K. newspaper puts it bluntly: 'Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? You're an idiot'

Migrants from Syria charge their phones outside a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last month. Recognizing that smartphones have become essential lifelines for many asylum-seekers, the UN has handed out 33,000 SIM cards and tens of thousands of solar-powered chargers at refugee camps. (Achilleas Zavallis/AFP/Getty)

There are poignant images of child migrants sleeping on cardboard in the streets of Greece, or their parents being beaten by Macedonian riot police.

And then there are the photos of beaming youth, fresh off the rubber dinghy from Turkey, toting smartphones and grouping together for a selfie.

As the Mediterranean refugee crisis deepens, those latter pictures have raised eyebrows among skeptics in the apparent belief that people fleeing conflict must be squalid and poor. 

"Are these happy young men really timid souls fleeing war and persecution? They aren't quite the heart-rending image of dishevelled, traumatized refugees fleeing the horrors of their war-torn home country one might expect," blared Britain's Express tabloid.

"Poverty stricken Syrian migrant takes selfie with her $600 smartphone," claimed a tweeter going by the handle DefendWallSt, under a photo — which some have called a hoax — of a woman in a lifejacket and headscarf snapping a pic of herself.

Other media outlets countered, sometimes sardonically. Britain's Independent newspaper carried this headline: "Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you're an idiot."

As major aid organizations point out, a smartphone is actually a lifeline for many asylum-seekers and migrants. It's not at all unreasonable refugees would have them. Here's four reasons why. 

1. Refugees don't have to be destitute, or old

A girl and her mother look at a cellphone as migrants wait outside a registration centre this week in Roszke, Hungary. Smartphone apps have been created to help refugees find work, obtain residency permits and open bank accounts, among other things. (Matt Cardy/Getty)

There's no rule that refugees must be poor. More than half of Syrians have been displaced by the country's four-year-old civil war. That includes teachers, accountants, doctors, researchers, lawyers, businesspeople — the pillars of the country's relatively large middle class. The ravages of war don't discriminate. 

In fact, it's more likely that the refugees who make it to Europe are wealthier than those still in camps in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, because of the costs of the journey. It can cost $2,500 to get smuggled into Greece from Turkey overland.

There are also no age strictures. Plenty of young men — of the social media generation — are fleeing to avoid being conscripted into the Syrian army and forced to fight for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

And for all of them, bringing along a smartphone — a small computer that fits in your pocket and provides a wide range of functionality, from communications to information-gathering — is possibly the most valuable tool they can take.

2. Smartphones are cheap

Alvand, 18, from Syria takes a selfie with his friends as they walk along a railway track after crossing into Hungary from the border with Serbia last week. Cellphones are widely available in Syria for relatively little money. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Also, it's not surprising that Syrians of any class would have a smartphone. The country has a high rate of mobile-phone usage, at somewhere between 75 and 87 subscriptions per 100 people.

"Syria is no South Sudan," said Igor Mitrovic, director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency's Serbian bureau, which has been helping tens of thousands of recent migrants and asylum seekers.

A decent device, bought second hand, can cost well under $100 in a country where GDP per capita is about $3,000 a year. Cellular networks have also weathered the civil war better than land lines, making them more reliable.

It also shouldn't be surprising that Syrians are well versed in mobile technology. Many of the heart-rending images of the country's civil war that have circulated around the world were taken by ordinary citizens on smartphones.

Amid a government crackdown on Western media entering the country, it's been one of the only ways to document the atrocities of the conflict. 

3. Information to survive

Refugees from Syria use smartphones to connect with relatives back home as they wait outside a government office in Berlin last month. By sharing info on the best routes to take and where to find food and shelter, migrants have lessened their reliance on human smugglers, an aid worker says (Carsten Koall/Getty)

One thing you'll hear from aid groups and refugees both: a smartphone is an essential tool, from the basic survival info it can provide when living in a war zone to tips about how to get by upon arrival in a safe country.

Syrians who haven't been able to flee rely on social media, apps and Facebook to communicate with people across checkpoint-barricaded cities, to learn about road closures and water-distribution points, and to devise new ways to cobble together a meal in places where food is in short supply, said Zafer Mamilli, a Syrian-Canadian musician who lives in Montreal but whose mother is still in Damascus.

Mamilli pointed to a Facebook group called "Blockade Meals" where people share recipes for turning wild, abundant urban plants into an edible dish. His mother is able to stay in touch with him using a smartphone and WhatsApp.

"A lot of people who can barely know where their next meal is coming from have cellphones, and I think in a situation like that it's one of the things that could really help you survive," he said.

Once they've fled their home country, refugees use smartphones to relay back information on the best and safest routes, on which towns are friendly to migrants and which not, on the real prices for taxis, on where to find a hostel and whether police can be trusted. As a result, refugees don't have to resort nearly as often to paying smugglers who often exploit them. 

"Information is empowerment for when they are in Serbia and also for the journey that awaits them, because at each point of this road there are people waiting to exploit them," said Mitrovic, the Serbian aid worker. 

4. Information to integrate

A migrant speaks on his mobile phone while waiting for a train to Serbia last month at a railway station in Macedonia. Details on train schedules, bus routes and the like are available to refugees who can access Wi-Fi networks set up by aid groups. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

It's far from easy to uproot your entire life, travel hundreds of kilometres overland to a new country where you don't speak the language, and try to begin anew away from the depredations of war. But smartphone apps can help smooth the way.

A German company has designed the Welcome to Dresden app to help refugees negotiate the bureaucracy of signing up for health care, registering with the authorities and enrolling children in schools. It includes a map of the eastern German city, contact info for aid organizations and public bodies, legal advice and other useful tips in five languages, including Arabic.

An app called Gherbtna, made by a Syrian refugee named Mojahid Akil, helps refugees in Turkey with obtaining residency, finding employment and opening bank accounts, according to UNICEF.

Refugees are also using apps to learn languages.

Bashar Botros, who fled Syria due to the war and says he hopes to settle in Germany, told an Associated Press reporter he was trying to learn German on his smartphone at a migrant camp in northern Serbia. 

Recognizing the importance of all this, aid groups like the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights in Serbia are setting up Wi-Fi networks just as quickly as they're distributing food, while the UN Refugee Agency has handed out 33,000 SIM cards at refugee camps in Jordan.

"The refugee experience has dramatically changed in the era of social networks," said Mitrovic.

Read more about the refugee crisis:


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