Stories of migration

Lifesavers in Their Pockets – Smartphones as Refugee Helpers

The Syrian refugee, Bassem, in the marketplace of a small town in the state of Saxony. | Photo (detail): © Sammy Khamis

Smartphones have changed the way people flee. They have maps to show the refugees where the border crossings are, Facebook provides them with weather reports and, if necessary, a human trafficker is just a Whatsapp message away.

“Without my smartphone I wouldn’t have made it to Germany,” explains Bassem, a young man from Syria. In the summer of 2015 he set off from Damascus and headed for Europe. Two weeks later he ended up in a small town in the East of Germany. Always ready to hand – his smartphone.

Everything he needs he has on his smartphone: photos of his family, apps which keep him in contact with friends in Syria and all the things he might need when fleeing to Europe. “The traffickers I used I actually met on the street. I only had to pay one of them once. That was for the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.” Once he had arrived in Greece his smartphone became his trafficker. “I bought a SIM card in Greece and after that I was able to do all my research on the internet. Border checkpoints, train timetables, accommodation – Google did not just tell me where I was, but also what train I had to take in order to finally get to where I wanted to go.”

Smartphones save lives

Smartphones have changed the way people flee. For example, Bassem’s trafficker only got his money when the young Syrian sended a Whatsapp message that he had arrived safely in Greece. Bassem had left the 1,200 dollars with a middleman in Turkey.

For many of Germany’s conservative and rightwing extremist people seeing refugees with smartphones is like a red rag to a bull. They call them “rich economic migrants” who do not need any help or support, let alone asylum – after all, they all have expensive smartphones. Smartphones and the social networks, however, have become absolutely essential, everyday instruments these days, as they can save the lives of refugees when they are fleeing. Rescue boats like the Seawatch that saves the lives of shipwrecked refugees in the Mediterranean regularly reports that they receive SOS calls by mobile phone. They are then, as a rule, able to determine the exact location of the boat by Google Maps.

2.0 traffickers

In addition there is also the fact that traffickers are now advertising their services on Facebook. The Italian journalist, Giampaolo Musumeci, who has been researching the human trafficking industry for several years, reports that changes have been taking place. “Today we are dealing with the 2.0 or 3.0 generation of modern traffickers. They use Facebook and advertise on it. This is mainly due to the fact that there are a lot of Syrians fleeing at the moment. Most of them are well educated. The traffickers have reacted to their new clientele and have adapted accordingly.”

It really is not the most difficult thing in the world to find a trafficker on Facebook. If you type the Arabic word for trafficker into the search bar, you will be inundated with offers in no time at all. “Greece from Izmir for 850 dollars”, “Every day to Europe by ship – only 1,200 dollars”. This is what the ads of these modern-day “travel agents” sound like, as Giampaolo Musumeci likes to call the traffickers. You can also book complete packages – for example, from Libya to Germany for up to 10,000 euros. This includes forged passports, and a first-class air ticket. The other option is to make the journey in several stages. This is of course more strenuous, because every stage of the journey has to be planned, but it is considerably less expensive. This is how Bassem, the young Syrian, came to Germany. His journey cost 2,400 dollars.

One trafficker from Libya wrote in a personal message on Facebook, “I do in fact have some sympathy with the refugees, above all with the Syrians, they are like brothers and sisters for me, but in the end it means I can earn a huge amount of money.” For the journey from Turkey to Italy he charges 3,800 dollars, from Egypt it costs 2,000 dollars to Italy. He makes a profit of around 60,000 dollars per boat.

Mobile phones as a means of keeping a check on traffickers

In the meantime the prices for most of the routes have gone down. This is mainly due to the fact most of the wealthy refugees have already fled their countries. Smart technology, on the other hand, has also contributed to the drop in prices: refugees can compare all the prices and offers on their smartphones, obtain information locally and decide for themselves which trafficker they want to use.

An important source of information are the people who have already successfully completed the journey. They manage groups on Facebook that have names like Fleeing to Europe without Traffickers or simply To Europe without Smugglers. In these groups information is exchanged on border checkpoints that are easy to cross, but also on police controls and the asylum process in the destination of their choice. The groups, however, sometimes give out warnings. For example, in the form of a check list that the refugees should go through before they actually get on the boat. The list has tips like these: “Buy a life-jacket, make sure that the engine has enough petrol, try to get a seat in the middle of the boat.”

In this way social media and smartphones have become a kind of counterbalance to the human trafficking industry. They give refugees once again the feeling that they can determine things themselves and free themselves from the clutches of traffickers, smugglers and state authorities.

Sammy Khamis
works as a free-lance journalist for various German radio stations. His main focuses are on extremism, refugees and the Middle East.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2015

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