More than a billion people around the world rely on smartphones and their ubiquitous messaging and social media apps, but none more so than the hundreds of thousands of people who are fleeing war, hunger, and famine in the Middle East and Africa.
The massive crowds of refugees and migrants from Syria and elsewhere who have flooded Europe this year, and continue to arrive en masse, are relying heavily on smartphone apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger, along with other tools like Google Maps, as they risk perilous sea crossings, skirt unfriendly border crossings, and try to keep in touch with their loved ones.
“Our phones and power banks are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food,” a Syrian named Wael told Agence France Presse on the Greek island of Kos.
Clothes and food can be purchased relatively cheaply, and even cash can be electronically transferred, but a smartphone is crucial. Smugglers who take the refugees across the Mediterranean drastically limit what people can take on board, but the phones are too precious to give up, they say.
One Syrian man described to the International Rescue Committee, an organization that provides refugee relief, how he used his phone to try to contact the Greek coast guard when his boat was sinking.
The engine of the overcrowded dinghy he was on had died after half an hour of sailing. “We were exactly between Turkey and Greece. I know because I checked the GPS on my phone,” he said. Then the weather started getting worse:
Quickly the boat became full of water and started to sink. I rang the Greek coastguard and started shouting ‘help us, help us’ but they couldn’t really hear me because my phone was wrapped in a plastic bag to protect it from the water. So I sent a Whatsapp message giving my GPS and asking them to help us. I also sent my family a message with my GPS and explained the situation but said ‘don’t worry, even though the weather is bad, we’ll make it across.’
He ended up jumping into the sea, and survived.