#RefugeesWelcome: How Smartphones and Social Media Empower Refugees and EU Citizens and Bring Change to European Refugee Policies

Publication Date: 
Friday, October 2, 2015
These Iraqis, resting in the village of Tovarnik, arrived recently from Serbia (Andrei Pungovschi/IRIN)

This guest blog post comes to us from Tina Comes and Bartel Van de Walle. Tina and Bartel are Senior Fellows at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Tina is Associate Professor in ICT at the University of Agder, Norway, Deputy Director of the Centre for Integrated Emergency Management, and Vice-President of the ISCRAM Association. Bartel is Associate Professor in Information Management in Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Together, they have been conducting field-research on humanitarian information management, decision-making and coordination in the response to the Syria crisis, in the Philippines, and in the West African Ebola Crisis.

Last week, the European Union’s interior ministers made a long awaited but controversial decision to impose mandatory refugee quotas on its member states. The decision creates a solidary distribution across European countries of 120,000 refugees – a small share of the refugees arriving at the shores of Greece and Italy. Two critical factors have played a crucial role in coercing the EU to make this decision: the failure of long standing European refugee policies and the massive grass roots mobilization of concerned European citizens.

The constant arrival of refugees on the European Union’s Mediterranean borders lead to the breakdown of two crucial European refugee policies: the so-called Dublin and Schengen agreements. According to the Dublin agreement, refugees must be registered and their claims processed in their first country of arrival; they are required to stay there until the results of the asylum application process are known, even if that takes years. Critics of the Dublin system have referred to this process as a “purgatory” for refugees, as it prevents them from integrating into society while awaiting the results of the process. As the capacity to carry out such asylum adjudication in Greece became totally overwhelmed, it was not a surprise that newly arriving refugees continued their journey into neighboring countries. Confronted with this steady surge of refugee entries into their territories, some European governments hastily constructed fences to close their borders in a desperate attempt to halt the refugees’ entry. This constituted a second de facto revision, if not ending, of a European policy: the Schengen agreement, which had abolished the EU's internal borders, enabling passport-free movement across 26 European countries, and common rules on asylum. As such, by the end of this summer, the long revered European refugee policies were reduced to fiction, creating increasing friction among European nations and across political parties. Until Germany’s much hailed decision in early September to accept asylum seekers from Hungary, and thus accepting the failure of the Dublin agreement, European political leadership on the refugee crisis was notably absent.

Witnessing the abysmal performance of their political leaders, European citizens became increasingly concerned. Many of them turned to action, trying to help with whatever means they had. As the refugees entered and traversed various European countries, a multitude of grassroots responses emerged along the route. United under hashtags such as #RefugeesWelcome or #TrainofHope, initiatives to welcome refugees have sprung up from Hungary and Slovakia, Austria and Germany, up to Sweden. In train stations and at border crossings, volunteers distribute blankets, water and food. They have helped to turn schools and sports halls into shelters, and even opened their own homes to those who needed a place to sleep. In the German city of Hamburg alone, there are more than 30 civil initiatives that complement the aid provided by the government and NGOs.

Countless Facebook groups were also created to spread calls to action and organize aid ranging from food and socks, books and old radios, to sleeping bags and tents that were transported in spontaneous convoys to wherever refugees were arriving or stranded. Several of these initiatives quickly outgrew their original small-scale intent. The volunteer group SOS roszke in Hungary, for instance, is struggling with communication and sorting problems, and suffers from severe understaffing. It is not surprising therefore that further “specialization” in the aid offerings has started. Platforms such as Fluechtlinge Willkommen or Aider les Refugiees offer AirBnB-like housing support for arriving refugees, while other groups offer language training or supporting refugees in connecting to existing social services. The fragmentation of responses however also obscures a clear overview of the overall European-wide status. Until now, a framework for information management has been missing, making it possible that unverified rumors may spread or sensitive and private information may (un)intentionally be shared publicly. The fragmentation also impedes coordination efforts and prevents a reliable forecast of evolving refugee needs as winter looms.

Social media not only helped the European citizens to mobilize their networks for action,  it was also crucial to the refugees themselves, who turned to smartphones and social media as important technologies in transit. In early September, the British newspaper The Independent, ran an article with a remarkable title: “Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you’re an idiot”. Indeed, until the war broke out in 2011, Syria was ranked as a “lower middle income” country according to the World Bank. Despite the war, mobile phone penetration is high: according to the CIA World Factbook in 2014, Syria had an estimated 87 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. As the cost of smartphones is continuing to go down, and free or cheap access to the Internet is standard in many countries, it should come as no surprise that many refugees carry one with them. A smartphone was, as the journalist noted, probably the best investment many refugees could make. Through their smartphone, refugees use Google maps and GPS to find their way forward, and Facebook, Whatsapp groups or Viber to stay updated on any new barriers or problems that lie ahead. Three studies by the REACH initiative on the situation in Lesbos, Kos and Athens, confirm that the main source of information for asylum seekers is social media updates, followed by word of mouth and information from families already in the final destination. In many cases, Syrian asylum seekers are able to go online using free Wi-Fi provided by restaurants or cafes.  

There are many lessons to be learned from Europe’s refugee crisis. Despite many early warning signs, political leaders appeared caught by surprise by the magnitude of the crisis and demonstrated a lackluster, if not appallingly weak, response. The economic and social pressures from a seemingly unstoppable stream of refugees have shredded standing European refugee policies and led to an overwhelming grassroots response by concerned European citizens who mobilized along the refugees’ routes. Supported by smart phones and social media, it is the determination of refugees and European citizens that is commanding an overhaul of European refugee policies. Now there remains a need for European leadership willing to take this on.

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