Young Refugees Are Using Their Smartphones For Way More Than Snapchatting And Selfies
Food, water, shelter, clothing. Those are the basics we think of when we picture what the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa need as they make their way to or through Europe.
But there's something else that's often equally, and in some cases more, important for displaced people: connectivity.
Imagine being thousands of miles from home with no fixed address nor clear plan for when you might return, all the while possibly separated from your friends, family and everything you know of your old life. What would you do?For many refugees, the answer is find a phone and text, Skype or check Facebook to learn what's going on back home.
"For the first time people are not [only] asking for food, shelter and the usual humanitarian needs, but where they can get WiFi in the areas where refugees are staying, and is it possible to help them charge their phones?" Melita H. Šunjić, senior public information officer for the United Nations Refuge Agency UNHCR, told MTV News when asked what her colleagues are seeing at refugee camps in Belgrade, Serbia.
One of the first questions some refugees have asked her is, "Can we use your phone?" The second is typically, "Where can we find WiFi so we can communicate with our families?"
"Then they go on Facebook and see what's going on, because the situation is changing all the time and they need to know if a border is closed," Šunjić said. In fact, because rumors of closed borders or hostile areas spread so quickly, Šunjić counsels the refugees to get online and look up trusted news sources in their own language.
Reconnecting To A World Thrown Into Chaos
For those with families in refugee camps in other countries or for groups traveling on different paths, social media, texting, Facebook and WhatsApp might be the only ways to keep in touch and coordinate meeting points — and, in some cases, to play the online games that brought some sense of peace and stability to their former lives.
At the Asylum Information Center in a park near the Belgrade bus station, Šunjić and two colleagues, Tijana Recevic and Ljubica Antic, asked young refugees to talk about how smartphones and social networks have help them stay connected, and why having access to the Internet is a vital lifeline in this time of turmoil.
[Ed. note: Those interviewed preferred not to give their names or be photographed; images are not of individuals mentioned in this piece.]
Most of the approximately 150 refugees in the park that day were young men in their 20s from Afghanistan and Iraq, though on some days the majority are from Syria. Most are there for a short while until they find a ride to the border with Croatia or Hungary, with the eventual destination of a refugee-friendly landing place such as Germany.
"Two Afghans who were interviewed in the Asylum Info Center were using computers at that moment, trying to connect with their friends and families over Skype," Recevic and Antic wrote in an email to MTV News after their visit. "The first interviewee said that he uses the Internet to find information on transportation to ... take him to the next station [on his journey]."
The other said he "visits pages on Facebook which provide him with very helpful information ... on migration procedures in the different EU states, current situation on borders, accommodation and cities he passes through."
Recevic said the refugees often are wary of identifying themselves or registering with authorities because they fear being deported to Serbia if they don't get asylum in the desired EU country.
A Syrian refugee texts someone near a park in Belgrade.
The Voices Of The Displaced
"I [use my phone] to get in contact with my friends, my family members," another young refugee told Tijana and Ljubic about his browsing of news sites and texting with his social network. "I have some problems to share with them and [make them] aware of some of my problems.
"It's so helpful for me. I always use it. I'm looking for this information [about bus schedules, safe travel route], but I'm looking for other information as well. Information regarding cities, regarding countries, accommodations and immigration policies of countries."
Most refugees use basic mobile phones that are lightweight and easily rechargeable, Recevic said, buying SIM cards from Serbian mobile operators as soon as they arrive in order to get access to cheap Internet connectivity. Others go to the Asylum Information Center or Internet cafes near the bus station if they want to use computers to Skype.
Another young man at the camp said he doesn't have Facebook, but is using Skype to connect with friends. "I need information," he said. "I don't know whose house I'm going to in the next country ... I'm going to Germany, but I don't know whose house and [which] bus, then car, then train [to take]."
A young Iraqi near a local park that houses dozens of refugees' tents told the story of how he boarded a bus that was supposed to take him directly from the town of Presevo to Sid, near the Serbian-Croatian border.
"But [he] went off the bus somewhere halfway because he got afraid that the bus was not going in the right direction and that he was cheated," Recevic and Antic wrote, which "he concluded by using the GPS on his mobile. He also said that he uses social networks to find updated information on the possible routes and to stay in contact with his family."
When they're not connecting with family, Recevic and Antic said some of the men they talked to go online to read news sites like BBC and CNN in order to get the latest information on borders and avoid any potential trouble crossing should they try to keep moving.
"We also talked with the volunteer at the Info Point located in the park, who said that he noticed that refugees use Facebook mostly and get information from posts and comments of those refugees who already passed the part of the route which they are currently on," they said.
Facebook CEO Zuckerberg Wants To Bring Free Internet To The Camps
While some refugees are getting crafty in their effort to stay connected, they might soon get some help from someone who does this for a living. On Sept. 26, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he is hoping to partner with the United Nations to bring Internet access to refugee camps.
"The Internet is more than just a network of machines, it is the key driver of social and economic progress in our time," Zuckerberg during a speech at the UN. "A like or a post won't stop a tank or a bullet, but when people are connected, we have the chance to build a common global community with a shared understanding."
Zuckerberg -- who gave few specifics as to how Facebook would roll out this plan -- added that he thinks the Internet isn't just a key to communication, but also a potential path out of poverty and a "force of peace." He also hooked up with U2 singer Bono for a New York Times op-ed, in which the two brought the vital nature of connectivity into sharp focus.
"In the last few weeks, we've watched desperate refugees seek shelter on the frontiers of Europe," they wrote. "Smartphones have made it possible for those left behind to communicate with loved ones across checkpoints and razor wire. The Internet connected our world in shared grief as a Syrian child's death on a beach in Turkey came to symbolize every refugee. Social media carried the message and changed not just popular opinion but public policy."