Background: Mobile Lifelines for Refugees

In this image, Syrian refugees charge their phones outside a train station in Budapest

Due to its low cost, high speed, range, and versatility, mobile technology is not only a central communication resource for displaced populations, but also a necessary tool for survival in the context of 21st Century diaspora movements. Syria, in spite of the civil war and disruptions to its telecommunications services, maintains a 44% mobile phone penetration rate with 8.2 million smartphone owners.[1] While 44% may seem like a low statistic, this is the rate of individual users; researchers believe that the number of households that have at least one device connected to internet technology is higher. The statistics rise for refugees who view mobile devices as a necessity rather than an expendable commodity. According to a 2015 study conducted by Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, 86% of Syrian refugee children in camps own smartphones, demonstrating the pervasiveness of mobile technology in migrant communities.[2]

Though the idea of destitute and disenfranchised immigrants fleeing war-torn regions with iPhones in hand seems to be a contradictory image, understanding the plight of refugees makes sense of how invaluable smartphones are as their only communicative, technological resource. The liminal, transitional, and fluid environment of migration creates a unique cultural context that determines the way mobile technology is used. As Syrian refugees navigate the migration process, they rely upon social networks to “give and receive vital information, communicate with separated family members, gain access to essential services, and reconnect to the local, national and global communities around them.”[3] Mobile devices, with their ability to connect distanced users via social media at high speed, low cost, and minimal interference, are the optimal technological resource for refugees, even prompting the United Nations to state that “mobile phone and internet access is as critical to refugees’ safety and security as food, shelter and water.”[4]

In many circumstances, connectivity is a matter of life and death for Syrian migrants. While the treacherous refugee journey across the oceanic straights between Turkey and Lesbos has been represented in culture and media, a less highlighted facet is the role of mobile technology and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in migration. Paul Donohoe, the communications director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), emphasizes the vitality of GPS systems in such a politically, physically, and environmentally volatile process. Giving one example out of the many he has heard during his time as a first responder on Lesbos, Donohoe shares about meeting a refugee whose boat sank during the crossing of the straights. The refugee survived by relying on his mobile device; using WhatsApp to immediately notify local coastguards, the refugee then used GPS to alert them to his location, position himself, and swim in the right direction of Lesbos.[5]  Smartphone technology gave the Syrian refugee the means to communicate under perilous circumstances, across geographical boundaries, and by a speed that was able to overcome the urgency of the situation.

Once refugees reach the coastline, the journey is far from over and mobile devices become even more crucial to safely crossing land borders. Syrian migrants report often choosing to use their limited resources to purchase SIM cards or Wi-Fi access over food in order to stay connected to personal and critical contacts.[6] Immigrant and refugee communities network over social media, sharing tips and information that are helpful to fellow migrants as they pass through various cultures, societies, and polities. The Economist shares the story of Najeeb, a 30-year-old Syrian student who successfully flew from Greece to London by using information that alerted him to which airports had lax security and what times of the year would be best to fly.[7] By using mobile technology to connect and communicate with refugees who had already passed through the region, Najeeb was able to get timely guidance and advice needed to effectively maneuver around potential barriers that would have prevented his passage. The article goes on to liken the digital refugee networks to the underground railroad that African-American slaves used to secretly find routes and safe-houses on their journey to freedom, a helpful comparison that emphasizes the ways mobile technologies are being adapted by migrants for their particular circumstances.[8]

Additionally, Kate Coyer, the director of the Civil Society and Technology Project at Central European University, articulates that “GPS navigation tools, Google maps, online translators, currency exchanges” are necessary for travel across Europe, especially when refugees face inherent linguistic and cultural barriers on top of the constant threat of capture.[9] The inability to speak, understand, or read the languages they encounter is the most significant challenge for refugees because it has the capacity to impact every facet of survival and life.[10] Without the ability to comprehend and communicate the language of the regions that they are passing through, refugees may be unable to acquire food, shelter, healthcare, or safe travel, leaving them in an even greater state of vulnerability. With three-quarters of the Syrian refugee demographic comprised of women and children, the Syrian refugee crisis intersects with the issues of global sex and human trafficking.[11] Without translation tools and resources, refugees can be taken advantage of by traffickers who promise to be the mediator for accessing basic needs as well as passage. Having the right information can prevent refugee women from becoming ensnared into sex trafficking rings, where victims are often raped or forced into prostitution in order to pay back debts to smugglers.[12] Translation applications on mobile devices become a critical asset that allows refugees to forgo relying on traffickers posing as translators, guides, or smugglers and therefore, avoid exploitation.

Understanding the digital ecologies and networks of Syrian refugee populations is necessary to dismantle the Orientalist assumptions that this thesis critiques. Digital representations, often created with a humanitarian focus, rarely depict refugees as being technologically proficient. When they do, the representations face criticism, reflecting how Orientalist frameworks guide the gaze of the digitally distant user. By recognizing the technological capacities of Syrian refugees, users can begin to recognize and trace the hierarchies within digital design and interpretation, opening up the space to create ethical alternatives.

[1] “The Mobile Economy Middle East and North Africa 2016” (GSMA Intelligence, 2016),

[2] Stephanie Koons, “IST Researchers Explore Technology Use in Syrian Refugee Camp,” Penn State News, March 26, 2015,

[3] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Mobile Connectivity a Lifeline for Refugees, Report Finds,” UNHCR, September 14, 2016,

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[5] Luke Graham CNBC special to, “How Smartphones Are Helping Refugees in Europe,” September 11, 2015,

[6] GSMA Disaster Response, “The Importance of Mobile for Refugees: A Landscape of New Services and Approaches” (GSMA, January 2017),

[7] “Phones Are Now Indispensable for Refugees,” The Economist, February 11, 2017,

[8] “Phones Are Now Indispensable for Refugees,” The Economist, February 11, 2017,

[9] Luke Graham CNBC special to, “How Smartphones Are Helping Refugees in Europe,” September 11, 2015,

[10] Molly Green, “Language Barriers and Health of Syrian Refugees in Germany,” American Journal of Public Health 107, no. 4 (March 8, 2017): 486–486,

[11] “3RP Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan 2017-2018 in Response to the Syria Crisis” (UNHCR, May 10, 2018),

[12] Caroline O’Leary, “Sex Trafficking and the Refugee Crisis: Exploiting the Vulnerable,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 8, 2017,