Open University research has examined how refugees use smartphones on their journeys from Syria and Iraq to Europe. The research was conducted in collaboration with France Médias Monde and the 100 page report on Mapping Refugee Media Journeys [PDF] notes:
“The smartphone is an essential tool for refugees because it provides access to a range of news and information resources that they depend on for their survival. Access to digital resources plays a crucial role in the planning and navigating of their perilous journeys, as well as in their protection and empowerment after arrival in Europe.
“But despite their utility, mobile phones have a paradoxical presence in the lives of refugees – they are both a resource and a threat. The digital traces that refugees’ phones leave behind make them vulnerable to surveillance and other dangers.”
There is no “pan-European approach to the provision of reliable, relevent and timely information”. The report sees “fragmented” initiatives using apps which lack collaboration.
“European member states alongside international news media need urgently to work together to find solutions to the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.”
WhatsApp and Viber are used to stay “connected with family en route … because these apps are not subject to surveillance”. Access to trusted news is important to understand events that may affect a journey or route.
“Refugees mainly consume international news that is shared on personal social networks. News is trusted when it is vetted and shared by respected friends, family and individuals through social media, mainly Facebook, Twitter [and] international news channels’ apps.”
Once in Europe, smartphones are still key sources of information:
“Their mobile phones could be a tool that helps them navigate their journeys through European systems, institutions, culture, language and way of life. Refugees recognise that their phones can provide information and protection. They believe that news organisations have a very important role to play in their protection and could do a great deal more.”
Chapter 5 of the report lays out best practice for digital resources for refugees, emphasising the need for user-centred design; security and privacy; checked, curated and collaborative content; and sustainability (to prevent abandonment after launch). It also outlines the main gaps in information available to refugees on the move.
The report’s authors caution against the tendency for hackathons to generate unviable and unsustainable “quick fix tech solutions”. The report instead suggests that “a sustainable resource of the kind that international news organisations might provide would offer a more viable alternative” in partnership with “the best imaginative efforts of the creative tech community”.
Such a service “could offer a comprehensive resource with parallel strands of ‘official information’ but also access to relevant news and information on social media platforms: information about, by and for refugees.”
“This service should inform refugees about the hard realities and difficulties of making a life in Europe but also provide hope and support. There are many welcome and support groups: one aspect of the new resource could be to put refugees in touch with grass-roots help. Life in Europe isn’t as easy as they might have thought before departure. They should be prepared via accurate news reporting to the homelands of refugees.
“News organizations have a duty to fully inform overseas audiences about the complicated and dangerous nature of the journey, so as to allow people to make better informed choices and have more realistic expectations about what they can afford and where and how they should travel. For example, life in Paris is more expensive than other European cities: the service could indicate the basic monthly living cost in Europe’s main cities.”