Dr Julie Norman discusses some of the positive uses mobile technology has been put to in recent times of crisis.
Perhaps the widely-shared Independent article put it best by asking, “Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you’re an idiot.”
The headline is intentionally cheeky, but reflects two important 21st century trends. First, we are currently witnessing a period of unprecedented forced displacement, with the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR documenting over 59.5 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 2014, up from 37.5 million a decade ago, with numbers continuing to rise.
Meanwhile, access to mobile phones and other information and communications technology (ICT) is at an all time high, with the World Bank reporting mobile cellular subscriptions increasing from 40 per 100 people in 2006 to over 95 per 100 people in 2014, even in low-income countries and regions.
The intersection of these trends has become evident during the Syrian crisis, in which the UNHCR reports 4.2 million refugees have been forced to flee, mostly to neighbouring states like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Others have sought refuge in Europe, with the UNHCR reporting nearly one million arrivals in 2015 alone. The majority of those fleeing Syria are traveling with smartphones, using apps and online sites to stay in contact with family, navigate routes, and find essential information.
Indeed, UNICEF reports that mobile apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook have provided essential lifelines for refugees to stay in contact with others and let family members know they are safe. Meanwhile, GoogleMaps and other GPS-based platforms have assisted many refugees in navigating their route, often enabling them to avoid traffickers. Others have relied on Instagram or their smartphones’ basic photo functions to document their experience or simply access photographs of their homes and loved ones.
Aid workers are also taking advantage of mobile technologies to relay information to refugees. At the Miksaliste aid station in Belgrade for example, aid workers have utilized battery-operated hot spots to provide wi-fi access, and they developed an app to provide information about essential services. In Germany, two IT companies created a similar app called Welcome to Dresden to provide information to refugees on how to register with authorities, access health insurance, and navigate the city.
The innovators of these individual projects should be commended for leveraging technology to respond quickly and creatively to refugees’ short-term needs, but research to envision more long-term strategies is needed. For example, the University of Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRSCC) has launched a project on “Mapping refugee media journeys: smart phones and social media networks,” in collaboration with The Open University, BBC Media Action, and British Telecom, as well as France Medias Monde (FMM) and British Telecom. The project is ambitious but important, and represents the kind of cross-sector engagement that will be necessary for the development of meaningful interventions to better support refugees.
Unfortunately, forced displacement will most likely continue to be part of the reality of global conflict in the twenty-first century. Mobile technologies are by no means a panacea to refugee crises, nor will they ameliorate the hardships faced by those forced to flee their homes. However, with such technologies being readily utilized by refugees, it is clear that ICT is already altering experiences of forced displacement, and it will no doubt continue to have an impact in the years ahead.