How Tech Is Helping Refugees Find Their Way

Danielle Beurteaux

As refugees — predominantly from Syria and Iraq — flee their countries and trek to Europe, 6931328186_1648f863d0many are taking their technology with them. It’s become the lifeline for their journey.

In fact, technology has changed both the refugee experience and how the rest of the world learns about and connects with refugees.

Smartphones have become the compasses for refugees, who use them for everything from mapping their routes to keeping connected with family back home.

Refugees are using Facebook and other social media apps like WhatsApp to prepare, navigate, and communicate with others who have already made the journey. The extent to which technology is being used has surprised even experienced humanitarian workers.

A research study from Penn State’s College of Information Science and Technology, released last March, examined technology use in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. The researchers found that refugees are using cellphones and going online even more than they did at home. Of the camp’s younger inhabitants, 86% owned a cellphone. But this dependence on technology comes with problems such as the lack of places to charge devices and access the Internet, which have in turn prompted some creative solutions.

Technology, particularly in the form of social media, is helping grassroots organizers who are helping refugees with everything from providing rooms to arranging for basic supplies to be delivered via Amazon. Berlin-based Refugees Welcome was founded by three Germans who wanted to provide refugees with homes. The organization matches people offering spare rooms with newly arrived refugees via partner organizations. Active in Germany and Austria, Refugees Welcome also helps set up offshoots around the world.

Aid workers in groups like the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees have also been giving out SIM cards.

There has also been some backlash. News images of refugees and their cellphones are ubiquitous at this point, and some suggest that refugees with devices are wealthy and therefore don’t need aid. But there’s no single story about mobile use. Many refugees, as part of a generation that has grown up with tech, are aware of the role that technology played in the Arab Spring and are taking pictures to document their stories. They see tech as a tool that may cost them a lot of money but that is nevertheless crucial.

One Syrian even created a Refugee Mario to explain the refugee journey experience. As he told the BBC, video games cross cultures and languages, and he used Super Mario “because it’s famous all over the world. It’s like music—a universal language.”

For more on how today’s increasingly connected world affects social issues, see Video: The Social Impact Of Hyperconnectivity.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.