How technology is affecting the refugee crisis

Afghanistan, Greece, Iraq, Syria, June 9, 2016

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  • A Mercy Corps team member helps a Syrian refugee find directions to a nearby camp using a map application on his smartphone. Mobile phones help refugees who are seeking safety in Europe find lifesaving information about their journey. PHOTO: Karine Aigner for Mercy Corps

Imagine traveling thousands of miles through unfamiliar, tense and frightening conditions with only the belongings you’re able to carry. You journey by sea, then by foot, for days at a time without food, water or much money.

You must keep moving and each new day brings with it new surroundings, new languages and new uncertainty about where to find the basics — a meal, a bed, a bathroom — let alone directions to your next destination.

To make matters worse, you don’t know where many of your loved ones are, or even if they’re OK.

You are desperate, terrified and disoriented: How do you find the information you need to survive?

This agonizing scenario is reality for 1.2 million people from the Middle East and Africa who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in search of security in Europe since the beginning of 2015.

Seventy-five percent are refugees fleeing years-long conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.


Such a mass exodus of people through a highly-connected environment has spawned a modern migration of sorts, one in which technologies like smartphones and the internet have proven to be lifesaving and transformative tools for refugees and humanitarian groups alike.

Learn how Mercy Corps and Microsoft are using technology to transform the Syria refugee crisis ▸

Why do refugees have smartphones?

Hafjin, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, looks at family photos from Syria on her father's smartphone. PHOTO: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

In the developing world, a basic cellphone can be purchased for under $10, a smartphone for only a few dollars more.

In these countries, a mobile phone is not a luxury or supplementary device. More often than not, it’s the primary — or only — way to communicate across space.

The developed world — such as the United States and the United Kingdom — had fixed-phone lines long before cellular networks. But “land lines” are expensive to build and maintain.

Mobile networks can be produced for a fraction of the cost of land lines and, accordingly, have completely replaced fixed-line development in many countries. And at a rapid pace.

According to the The World Bank, the speed at which mobile phones have been adopted globally is unmatched in the history of technology. To put it in perspective: It took over 100 years for fixed-phone lines to reach 1 billion users; mobile networks reached that number in 20.

Today, the International Telecommunication Union reports 95 percent of the global population is covered by a 2G cellular network. The United Nations (U.N.) says more people have cellphones than toilets.

According to the mobile phone manufacturer, Ericsson, there are 690 million mobile phone subscriptions (unique phone numbers) in the Middle East and Northeast Africa. Already 25 percent of those are smartphone subscriptions and that number is expected to increase 200 percent over the next five years.

Consider that a large portion of this population is now on the run from war, separated from loved ones and traveling by land and sea with little direction or support, and it’s no wonder smartphones are a commodity nearly as precious as food and water.

7 for 7: Seven voices for each of the seven years of the Syria crisis ▸

Mobile technology and the modern refugee

A rubber dinghy carrying refugees from Turkey to Greece reaches shore. In the background, others who arrived earlier continue their passage on foot. PHOTO: Karine Aigner for Mercy Corps

The journey from the war-torn Middle East to western Europe is a harrowing one: People must travel by rubber dinghy, foot, bus, rail and smuggler over uncharted waters and through foreign territories.

Many are forced to spend days or weeks in makeshift camps or reception centers. And they must do it against a backdrop of ever-changing government laws and policies. One refugee family's fearful story of fleeing Iraq ▸

In these conditions, staying connected to others is not just reassuring; it’s practical.

Smartphones, Wi-Fi hotspots and other technologies help refugees communicate, find information and stay safe. And instead of a paid mobile subscription, free applications like Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp and MAPS.ME make it possible.

“Wi-Fi tends to be the first thing people ask for once they arrive and get into dry clothing,” says Andrea Dillon, a Mercy Corps staffer in Greece. Our team there reports nearly every group of refugees that arrives has at least one smartphone — and one person who knows how to use it — among them.

Upon connecting, Dillon says most refugees’ immediately use social media to let their loved ones know they have arrived safely. Others contact family and friends who have made the journey ahead of them to get information on what to expect next.

Refugees also rely on apps and devices to navigate, send GPS coordinates to rescuers, take photos of important phone numbers or instructions and share tips about different routes.

How technology is changing aid

A Mercy Corps team member helps 22-year-old Noorkhan, an Afghan refugee, set up Facebook Messenger so he can communicate with his family back home. PHOTO: Karine Aigner for Mercy Corps

The route may be rugged and the journey harrowing. But it’s also ripe with device access, connectivity and electricity.

That’s why organizations like Mercy Corps are using technology to communicate with refugees and help them meet their needs.

“In a crisis you only want to use things you already understand,” says Jeff Wishnie, former senior director of program technology for Mercy Corps. Wishnie now works for the Digital Impact Alliance, but was integral in developing Mercy Corps’ response in the Balkans region.

“Technology fits in this crisis — the tools actually work in this situation.The tool that is applicable in this crisis is technology,” he says.

Mercy Corps, in partnership with Google, The International Rescue Committee and other colleagues, developed, a multilingual website for refugees moving through Europe.

The site provides data about common milestones on the route, including registration and asylum processes, emergency contacts, currency details and where to find water, lodging, medical care and other local services. is the first thing people see when they connect to the Wi-Fi hotspots we and many other partners host throughout the region. It can detect the location of the person accessing the site, and it’s updated daily to reflect constant shifts in conditions and laws, like restrictions on movements and refugee camp closures.

Information about Kos, Greece on PHOTO: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

So far, more than 105,000 people have accessed the website to find critical information. And up to 3,000 people continue to visit the site every single day.

We also worked with Google, ThoughtWorks and UNHCR to develop a translation card app to help humanitarian workers translate important messages into refugees’ native languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Pashto.

By downloading the app, workers now can ask critical questions like “Have you received medical care?” and “Do you need somewhere to stay tonight?”.

And, by using local credit card payment networks, we’ve been able to replace our traditional emergency cash distributions with prepaid debit cards, which offer insight into spending priorities that cash doesn’t. This can help inform how we design our programs to meet people’s needs.

For example, the very first debit card Mercy Corps distributed in Presovo, Serbia went to a refugee family of seven, three of whom were in wheelchairs, to buy the things they needed to stay safe along their journey. With the digital transaction report we were able to monitor their spending, finding they immediately purchased train tickets for their entire family — and several others.

Technology is changing the humanitarian response in other ways, too. Essential information is on loop on video screens at registration centers and border crossings, Skype calls can help humanitarian workers access translators for rarer languages, and digital face recognition applications help locate missing people.

All this is not to say conventional aid like food, water and medicine isn’t still vital — it is. It just so happens that in this crisis, in particular, technology and information are a powerful and effective means of providing it.

The future of tech in humanitarian work

“This is the first, but not the last movement of a large population of people who are technologically savvy,” says Wishnie.

Because of this, Wishnie says, we’ve found that providing mobile connectivity is a low-cost and impactful way of providing comfort for them. And it’s something we can build upon in future crises, when appropriate.

But technology is, actually, already connecting people all over the globe with the resources they need to survive emergencies and build better lives.

In many of the countries we work in, we use mobile technology to help rural farmers access weather updates, market information and business tools, and we provide remote health clinics with internet access so they can better treat their patients.

We connect families with mobile banking, so they can receive emergency funds and start savings accounts even if they don’t have access to a brick-and-mortar branch.

According to Wishnie, technology will always play a role in aid and development — and this is nothing new.

“Behavior change work has, for example, relied on community radio for decades,” he says. “And as infrastructure changes, for example we move from community radio networks to online social networks, the technologies we use change, but they will remain critical tools in all our work.”

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