Millennials hear it all the time: we’re addicted to our phones. Our attention spans are getting shorter, “going out” has become “texting in close proximity to other humans,” we don’t experience we insta, we need to “unplug”...

Well, for tens of thousands of migrants travelling across Europe, getting “unplugged” is exactly what they’re afraid of. Their smartphones have become a necessary resource, a “veritable Swiss Army knife of navigation tools,” according to the New York Times, that keep them connected and oriented in the face of danger and uncertainty. From using Google Maps to chart their course, to sharing useful border-crossing tips on social media, smartphones are THE essential device.

“I would never have been able to arrive at my destination without my smartphone,” one Syrian migrant told the New York Times. “I get stressed out when the battery even starts to get low.”

It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “I can’t live without my phone.”  

Here are 6 ways smartphones are major elements of 21st century migration:

1) GPS: With tons of apps like Google Maps, migrants are able to precisely track their location and orient themselves in unfamiliar countries. Many migrants said the first thing they do when they reach a refugee camp or enter a new country is buy a SIM card, charge their phones, and plot the best route for the next leg of their journey. They can even share exact GPS coordinates with other migrants or family members.

Image: Flickr, Freedom House

2) Keeping other migrants in the loop: Through messaging services, Facebook and Twitter, migrants can post real-time status updates on everything from the movements of border guards to cheap places to stay to arrests that have been made. It’s a web of interconnectivity that provides community and reassurance.

3) Communication with international agencies: Smartphones make contact between migrants and agencies like the UN or Red Cross more feasible and efficient. For example, when a water main broke in northern Syria, the Red Cross made a series of clean water stations, and posted a map of them on Facebook. The post received 133,187 views. Smartphones are changing how humanitarian organizations and migrants interact. Instead of simply passively receiving assistance there is a dialogue. The UN donated some 30,000 SIM cards to migrants in Jordan and humanitarian organizations are donating charging stations to refugee camps. It’s a new concept of aid, one that takes considerations beyond food, water and shelter into account.

Image: UNHCR/ A.Kitidi

4) Staying connected with loved ones: With whatsapp and other messaging apps, migrants are able to let friends and family know when they have reached a destination and that they are safe. Phones also store photographs, for some the sole reminder of the homes they have left behind.

5) Cutting out the middle-man: Human traffickers heavily rely on Facebook to advertise their smuggling services and convince migrants that their assistance is worth the cost. But now with heightened levels of connectivity, migrants have figured out how to do it themselves. Facebook pages like, “Smuggle Yourself to Europe,” have upwards of 30,000 members and provide tips on how to cross borders and routes to take without paying the high price of a smuggler. Although the smuggling business still thrives, and is aided by these same technological tools, the prices have significantly decreased since migrants realized they could go it alone.

6) Because there is joy and humor even in the hardest of times: Many migrants have chosen to document their journey on Instagram, providing a human look into their experience not typically shared by mainstream media. There are smiles, and people with their arms around each other, and selfies! The photos are an astonishing glimpse into the power of the human spirit. Despite our staggeringly different contexts, human beings share fundamental emotions, goals and tendencies. And insta is no exception.

Image: Instagram, maziad_aloush

At Global Citizen we’ve humanised the European migrant experience, taking a critical look at the misinformation and caricaturization traditional media often resorts to. These are people. Tens of thousands of them. And smartphone use is just one more thing we all have in common.  

So, while there is still no excuse for texting at the dinner table, it is worthwhile to consider the power in the palm of our hands (literally). Technology can be a vital resource, not just a distraction. It’s something that connects us across countries and socio-economic barriers. When you can, choose to use your phone for good. Stay informed and take action.  

Starting now! You can use your smartphone (or computer, as the case may be) and…Go to TAKE ACTION NOW and sign a petition to demand better treatment for the world's millions of refugees.


Defeat Poverty

6 ways smartphones are shaping the European migrant crisis

By Nicki Fleischner