Phones Over Food: Why Mobile Phones Are More Important to Refugees

Photo by MONUSCO Photos (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by MONUSCO Photos (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Economist reports on how refugees prize mobile phone connection — even over food. Phones are their primary way to stay connected with family at home as they enter “informational no-man’s land,” not knowing who to trust or where to go. Phones help them stay motivated with photos of family and successful migrants, and offer a means to contact smugglers to help them with their journey.

Sometimes Hekmatullah, a 32-year-old Afghan, has to choose between food and connectivity. “I need to stay in touch with my wife back home,” he says, sitting in a grubby tent in the Oinofyta migrant camp, near Athens. Because Wi-Fi rarely works there, he has to buy mobile-phone credit. And that means he and his fellow travellers—his sister, her friend and five children—sometimes go hungry.

Such stories are common in migrant camps: according to UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, refugees can easily spend a third of their disposable income on staying connected. In a camp near the French city of Dunkirk, where mostly Iraqi refugees live until they manage to get on a truck to Britain, many walk for miles to find free Wi-Fi: according to NGOs working there, the French authorities, reluctant to make the camp seem permanent, have stopped them providing internet connections.

Phones become a lifeline. Their importance goes well beyond staying in touch with people back home. They bring news and pictures of friends and family who have reached their destination, thereby motivating more migrants to set out. They are used for researching journeys and contacting people-smugglers. Any rumour of a new, or easier, route spreads like wildfire. “It’s like the underground railroad, only that it’s digital,” says Maurice Stierl of Watch The Med, an NGO that tracks the deaths and hardships of migrants who cross the Mediterranean, referring to the secret routes and safe houses used to free American slaves in the 19th century.

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