Tech helps refugees make journey - and survive when they arrive

Cellphone lifeline: refugees wait at border of Greece and Macedonia (Image: Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis)

For the Syrian refugees marooned at Budapest station in Hungary, charging a phone can be tricky. There’s one outlet in the train station, another in the nearby migration aid offices, and a few power lines offered up by satellite news trucks on the scene. Local businesses are a gamble – some have started charging high prices for the privilege of plugging a phone in.

“It was very obvious that people were desperately trying to find ways to charge their phones,” says Kate Coyer, director of the Civil Society and Technology Project at Central European University in Budapest.

Smartphones are a vital survival tool for many of the millions who have been forced to flee Syria. Some say they relied on their phone’s GPS to navigate the thousands of kilometres into Europe. For example, The International Rescue Committee (IRC) documented one man’s trip from Aleppo to Hamburg, Germany, travelling by ferry, train, taxi and on foot. Throughout the two-month journey, he said GPS helped guide the way.

In addition, Facebook groups offer critical advice for those thinking of fleeing or already on the road. Some groups will help connect traffickers with their clientele, for better or worse. Others post real-time updates about which areas are safe to travel through – where the water is fit to drink, for example.

On Friday, when one group boarded a train that appeared to be bound for the Austrian border but then found themselves stuck just 30 kilometres from Budapest in the town of Bicske, those with phones posted warnings to those still waiting back in the capital.

WhatsApp is critical link

Meanwhile, social networks like WhatsApp also provide a critical link to friends and family left behind. Aid organisations have started to recognise the importance of a smartphone. In Jordan, a United Nations office hands out SIM cards. In Lebanon and northern Iraq, the IRC has given out thousands of solar-powered chargers.

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