“The Refugees Have Smartphones” – Really??

Essentially a computer that is able to fit one’s pocket, the smartphone is increasingly becoming recognized as a refugee’s most valuable and essential possession (Dubinsky, 2015). While some envisage refugees as poor, destitute or digitally illiterate people who would not have or know how to use a smartphone, this is proving not to be the case.

Mercy Corps (2016) reports: “In the developing world, a basic cell phone can be purchased for under $10, a smartphone for only a few dollars more.  In these countries, a mobile phone is not a luxury or supplementary device. More often than not, it’s the primary — or only — way to communicate across space.” Another report states: “It is possible to pick up the second generation iPhone – the iPhone 3G – for around £25, and despite being a few years old is still perfectly serviceable.

Many of the refugees (such as those fleeing from Syria) can be described as both urban and educated and are adept users of smartphones and technology.  Not only do refugees often possess a smartphone, but many also carry chargers and backup phones as well. (Graham, 2015)

While some would question the availability in relation to plans and roaming, Alter (2015) points out that in Europe, it’s even easier than in the States to go without roaming because Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. “Wi-Fi tends to be the first thing people ask for once they arrive in refugee camps” (Mercy Corps, 2016). Recognizing the importance 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 (Dubinsky, 2015).

Mercy Corps (2016) further purports that: “Today, the International Telecommunication Union reports 95% of the global population is covered by a 2G cellular network. The United Nations (U.N.) says more people have cellphones than toilets.”

Consider this interesting quote:

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On their often arduous and harrowing route to freedom and a better life, information sourced from mobile phones equates to empowerment for the refugees – information to aid survival, avoid exploitation, and assist in the eventual transition and integration into their new life. Refugees are using the smartphones for GPS navigation tools and Google maps to guide and direct their journeys (Graham, 2015).Facts about the best and safest routes, road closures, sites for shelter, and water distribution points are now sourced via social media; there is even a Facebook group where people can share recipes for turning wild, abundant urban plants into an edible dish! (Witty, 2015)

Communication with loved ones at home and abroad is also facilitated by free apps such as Facebook, Viber, Line, and WhatsApp.

Furthermore, mobile phones are being used for the narrative – to record not only the atrocities of massacres from which they have fled, but also to document their travels and journeys. “Migration is part of our story now,” says one refugee. (Alter, 2015). Their tribulations are documented on social media like Instagram and Twitter, chronicling their narrative and life-story.

Mobile phones are also helping with integration. For example, an app called Gherbtna, which was made by a Syrian refugee, helps refugees in Turkey with obtaining residency, finding employment and opening bank accounts records UNICEF. Refugees are also using online translators, currency exchange tools, and apps to learn the language of their new country.

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Mercy Corps, in partnership with Google, The International Rescue Committee and other colleagues, developed refugeeinfo.eu, a multilingual website for refugees moving through Europe. Refugeeinfo.eu is the first thing people see when they connect to the Wi-Fi hotspots many humanitarian organizations host throughout the region. It can detect the location of the person accessing the site, and it’s updated daily to reflect constant shifts in conditions and laws, like restrictions on movements and refugee camp closures. (Mercy Corps, 2016)

Perhaps, the situation is most aptly described in this quote:

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Since I am a teacher, what excites me the most about smartphones being readily accessible to a large number of the refugees is that it opens up incredible possibilities and opportunities for educators to capitalize on this resource in order to effectively deal with the dire need for education amongst refugee children and adults alike.

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