“Most of people here, they think we are so rich, because we have a smartphone and like this phone they say: You are so rich, why you come to here, what are you doing here? But they don't know it is so important in our way.” (Male Syrian refugee, aged 22).
In the last couple of months, pictures of forced migrants arriving on shores or at train stations; standing in front of camps or official buildings, have been omnipresent in the European media. One feature particularly caught the media’s attention: many refugees were seen with smartphones. This has been grist to the mill of those Europeans who don’t want to open their borders and their societies to foreigners. They ask bluntly: "Why should we shelter people who can afford expensive gadgets?".
Although smartphones have been advertised and spoken of as luxurious lifestyle gadgets for listening to music, and recently for playing Pokémon GO, these phones are nowadays essential everyday information and communication tools. This is true in the wealthy Northern hemisphere (cf. Ling, 2012); and (perhaps to an even higher degree) elsewhere where people only have the smartphone to rely on in everyday life (cf. Donner, 2015). So it is no wonder refugees count on their multifunctional daily companion as well.
In early 2016, I conducted thirteen qualitative interviews with Syrian refugees who had arrived in Austria in 2015 and had used a smartphone in their journey. As a communication scholar, I was eager to learn more about the details of smartphone use in this specific situation where scarce resources in combination with fast-changing conditions, stretch the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to the utmost and at the same time make them so valuable.
For the refugees I interviewed, the smartphone was their ‘trusted friend’, their ‘weapon’, their ‘manager’. They were convinced they wouldn’t have got to Europe and Austria without it. So for some of them electricity was even more important than food. The GPS function that worked without an active Internet connection let them know where they were – on the boat crossing the Aegean; in the Serbian woods; in a truck crossing the Hungarian border. Facebook groups and trusted people who had completed the journey provided advice and details on routes, resources, administrative procedures.
As well as these functional aspects, the smartphone was emotionally essential to the refugees because it allowed them to stay in touch with their family in Syria, or spread across several countries. Talking to and updating each other; sending pictures and voice messages, became their way of ‘doing family’ despite the harsh conditions. For the refugees journeying into the unknown, this was a source of strength and motivation to survive – literally as well as psychologically. Indeed, on many occasions a picture was worth a thousand words, when refugees were able to send ‘selfies’ depicting them safely on the shores of Europe as proof of life to their relatives.
“I only took one picture when we arrived to Greece, because it was the most important thing, that we are not dead in the sea. So I took only one picture with my brother and I sent it to my other brother, that we are safe.” (Female Syrian refugee, aged 20)
After the often dramatic journey to Europe, these proofs help refugees both to recall what they underwent, and thereby to cope with the intense, surreal experience.
“Like to remember what we have done, how we did it, how was we looked, now what we are looking in face. Because when you look at your face at that time, you cannot recognize yourself. It's so hard. […] Now, when I look at photos I just laugh or I just thank god we finished this journey.” (Male Syrian refugee, aged 32)
So for refugees who have to leave their past and start an uncertain life, the smartphone is a place to keep memories and connections alive. Also, it allows them to document and share this turning point in their lives, thus making it part of their life stories.
“We keep right now a lot of memory in it. We keep a lot of bad memory and a lot of good memory. Until now, I have the first photo, when I came here to Austria and until now, I have the last photo, I go out from my country, from Syria.” (Male Syrian refugee, aged 25)
The aforementioned is only a sample of what my research revealed about a much deeper relationship between refugees and their smartphones than the media portrays. I have learnt about the many creative ways in which people in such a life-threatening situation make the most of these devices and benefit from their use in practical as well as emotional ways. Next, I am going to research how smartphones are useful to refugees upon arrival in Austria. After all, the exceptional, challenging, draining conditions do not cease with the application for asylum. It seems very likely mobile phones play a central role in the next phase too. This is when getting acquainted – culturally, geographically and above all linguistically – in order to start a new life far away from known structures may not be life-threatening, yet is demanding. Only new research will tell.
Donner, J. (2015). After Access. Inclusion, Development, and a More Mobile Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Ling, R. (2012). Taken for Grantedness. The Embedding of Mobile Communication Into Society. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Katja Kaufmann is a researcher and PhD candidate at the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies (CMC) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt. In her research, she focuses on the use of smartphones and mobile media applying qualitative methods.
Monika Mokre, Institute of Culture Studies and Theatre History and ROR-N[i]
After the short summer of migration of 2015 came the long fall, winter, and spring of frustration and reflection focusing on one question: How could it happen that the discourse on refugees changed so dramatically during a very short period of time? How did welcome culture become walls-up policy in the course of a few months?
Certainly, this question is justified. Let’s just take a random but striking example: Do you remember the photo of the dead Syrian baby at the Turkish shore, a photo you could see all over the world in September 2015? You probably do. Do you also remember the dead Syrian baby in the arms of a rescue team member whose picture was taken in May 2016? You probably don’t because you actually never saw it unless you happened to surf in very specific Facebook and chat groups. It never made it into mass media.
So, it makes sense to ask about the reasons for the change of discourse – but the question is posed the wrong way. What is happening now is normal – normal in the way that normality has been understood since 9/11 at the latest: What we are confronted with now is the normal state of exception of contemporary politics. As the equally ominous as clear-sighted political theorist Carl Schmitt put it, the sovereign is "the one who decides on the state of emergency"[ii]. And for quite some time now, the sovereign has made ample use of this possibility, starting with the US who declared a state of emergency by the then-President George Bush in 2001 which has not be withdrawn so far[iii]. In more recent years, other countries like France have followed suit[iv]. While up to now the usual reason for a state of emergency has been the danger of terrorist attacks, these days, Austria is in the process of declaring a state of emergency due to not manageable „refugee flows“[v].
Circumventions of human rights, migrant and refugee rights etc. by measures „situated at the limit of law and of politics“[vi] have been normal for quite some time. What was not normal, was the summer of migration, the welcome culture (which, since then, has become a four-letter-word).. Thus, the question should probably be: How did the summer of migration become possible?
But, in a way, it is also peculiar to ask about the conditions of possibility for universally accepted and legally binding rights to be actually applied. To ask about the conditions of possibility for human decency. To ask under which conditions a dead Syrian baby can be seen as a dead baby and, thus, as a tragedy.
So, let’s again start from a different angle: How is it possible to override fundamental universal values in a seemingly legitimate way? How is it possible that lives do not have the same values and that some lives have no value at all?
Judith Butler[vii] describes the problem astutely: „Such frames are operative in imprisonment and torture, but also in the politics of immigration, according to which certain lives are perceived as lives while others, though apparently living, fail to assume perceptual form as such. Forms of racism instituted and active at the level of perception tend to produce iconic versions of populations who are eminently grievable, and others whose loss is no loss and who remain ungrievable. The differential distribution of grievability across populations has implications for why and when we feel politically consequential affective dispositions such as horror, guilt, righteous sadism, loss, and indifference.“ (p.24) Populations that are not grievable are, above all, populations understood as threatening: „Consequently, when such lives are lost they are not grievable, since, in the twisted logic that rationalizes their death, the loss of such populations is deemed necessary to protect the lives of ‚the living‘.” (p.31).
For many years now, refugees have been ungrievable, seemingly threatening populations. They have been framed in this way – and, as Butler remarks, to be framed in English also means „to be set up, or to have evidence planted against one that ultimately ‚proves‘ one’s guilt.“ (p.8) So, this is the normal state of affairs: The state of emergency proclaimed due to refugees framed as guilty for coming, guilty of being terrorists, guilty of threatening our lives.
But how was this frame broken in August 2015? Several causes or, at least, triggers could be named here[viii]: Due to the huge numbers of refugees entering the country Hungary was unable to deal with the situation, even in its usual way of imprisoning refugees. Thus, as imprisonment did not work, refugees managed to find their way out of Hungary, to Austria and Germany – flight helpers were active and their prices reasonable. Maybe due to the normative force of this factual situation the German Office for Migration and Flight announced on August, 25th, that no Dublin deportations from Germany to Hungary would be carried out for Syrians. This became known among refugees before it was even official.
And on September, 27th, a lorry with 71 dead refugees was found in Eastern Austria. Probably, this was the point at which Austrian civil society saw the situation as unbearable. And this is interesting in itself: Why is it more tragic, more outrageous when refugees die on Austrian soil than when they die in the Mediterranean? Which kind of weird patriotism is at work here, even for people who would never call themselves patriots? How does the non-grievable refugee become grievable when s/he happens to die on „our“ territory?
In any case, the death of these 71 people raised more consistent questions as to the responsibility of the Austrian government for the situation of refugees. And the government reacted even before accused: Apart from making the (rather absurd) statement that the refugees were already dead when the lorry crossed the Hungarian-Austrian border, the government also immediately named the culprits for this terrible deed: smugglers, human traffickers[ix]. And a huge police action against human trafficking was started. Thus, the refugees were stuck in Hungary – and Hungary was stuck with the refugees. So, at one point, the Hungarian police left the railway stations in Budapest and, thereby, made it possible for refugees to board international trains. Refugees came to Austria who did not stop them but sent them on their way to Germany. At the same time, Germany and Austria pressurized Hungary to stop the refugees. Hungary tried – and failed. Hundreds of refugees walked towards the Austrian border. And due to the power of these images, Germany and Austria decided to open their borders. For some time. For a very limited amount of time. But still.
These are the facts – to which one should probably add that there were huge differences between German and Austrian „welcome culture“ during this time: While Germany accepted a very high number of refugees, Austria mostly helped them to find their way to Germany, distributing water and food in the main railway stations and showing them the next train to Germany.
Still, given the size of the country, also a considerable number of refugees stayed in Austria. In provisional camps. In soccer stadiums. In gyms. In schools. This situation could well have re-enforced the common understanding of refugees as a threat. But it did not. Instead, the camps were crowded by people who wanted to help. It was regularly announced that no more donations should be brought as there were no more storage facilities. At the railway stations you could see men in suits and ties and women in high heels buying half of the supplies of a supermarket and distributing them among refugees. And a surprising high number of people announced via Facebook that they now had a Syrian protégé/e, adoptive child, very good friend and how much happiness this brought to their lives.
The ungrievable lives of refugees had suddenly become valuable. Well, the lives of some refugees. Mostly, the welcome culture welcomed Syrians. And, maybe, this limitation was important to discern one group of refugees that people could deal with when confronted with an otherwise anonymous and threatening „flow of refugees“. War refugees. Mostly well-educated as the media emphasized. People who did well in their country before the war and wanted to go back as soon as the situation had improved.
Probably, this assessment is too cynical and too focused on rational judgement. Probably, many or, even, most people are not without empathy for suffering of other human beings. But, at the same time, they are afraid. Concerning their own tiny privileges. Concerning their own modest life standard. And, even, concerning their own national or regional culture – whatever that might mean but, obviously, it means something or different things for different people. And, thus, it feels good to see fear overruled by empathy for a short period of time. To see people as people and not as the enemy. To see suffering as suffering and not as a threat. And to help.
But, obviously, helping is not enough. Or even problematic. Helping cannot take place at eye level. Helping can be patronizing. Helping can make one person strong because another person is weak. All this is unavoidable – but it should be kept in mind for helpers to stay cautious and modest. When seeing a criminal led to death penalty the Christian reformer John Bradford said, „there but for the grace of God goes John Bradford“. In the same vein, helpers could easily be in the situation of refugees but for the mercy of birth in a specific part of the world they are not.
Refugees need help. But they should not need help. They should have rights, warranted by the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. Maybe, in a globalized world of exploitation of the Global South by the Global North, they should be granted still more rights than enshrined in these documents. But even the so far established rights are usually not recognized, at least not universally, not even by many helpers and supporters. Very frequently, entitlement to a legal status, to social security, to a „normal life“ (as protesting refugees phrased it in November 2015) are not linked to universal rights but to individual merits: niceness, intelligence, gratefulness, willingness to integrate. It is a symptom of a racist situation when non-whites are only accepted when they are nice, intelligent etc. while whites are accepted because they are white. Or, when non-citizens need to display personal virtues to be accepted while citizens are accepted by virtue of their passport. And a state of acceptance or toleration on the basis of being nice, intelligent, grateful etc. is a precarious one – as soon as you are not nice, you are out.
Obviously, the problem behind all this is nationalism. Or the concept of the nation, in general, the extraordinary success of the construction of national identities[x]. Politically, national affiliation constitutes the main difference between us and the others. Between the citizens and the non-citizens. The citizens are entitled to be here, the non-citizens are allowed to be here – if everything goes well. Even the term „welcome culture“ points towards this difference: We who are entitled to be here welcome you. On our terms and as long as we consider it appropriate. You are the guest, you have to be polite and modest – and as long as you play by these rules we shall welcome you; this is the difference between the welcoming part of ‘us’ and the populist and radical right part of ‘us’ welcoming you under no circumstances.[xi].
So, it should not come as a surprise that the period of the welcome culture ended so soon. This period was not enough to really change the discourse on migration. Not because it was not long enough but because it was not radical enough. In order to change the discourse on migration it is necessary to change the discourse on the nation. To downgrade the importance of national identities. To overcome national borders. To focus on the ways in which people can live together – people who live together anyway, artificially (but no less emotionally) separated by their passports. This seems like a long shot but, in fact, it is probably what will happen anyway - due to the normative force of the factual, of migration which will not be stopped by border regimes.
Border regimes do not stop migrants, migrants come to Europe in spite of border regimes, but the stricter the border regimes the more migrants die at borders. And the summer of migration was not enough to end that. But the summer of migration was enough to help some thousands of refugees to get to Germany. To travel relatively safely. To arrive at relatively safe places. To make their lives relatively more safe. The loss of their lives was perceived as a loss and, therefore, this loss was prevented. And the lost life of a Syrian baby became grievable and has been grieved. This is not nothing.
[i] I would like to thank Cornelia Hülmbauer for proof reading as well as Leonardo Schiocchet and Cornelia Hülmbauer for their comments that greatly improved the text.
[ii] Schmitt, C. (1922/2004), Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität. Berlin: Duncker&Humblot, p.13
[iii] See e.g.: http://sputniknews.com/us/20150919/1027228017.html, retrieved 2016-07-22
[iv] See e.g. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/16/frances-perpetual-state-of-emergency/, retrieved 2016-07-22
[v] See e.g. http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/oesterreich-innenminister-warnt-vor-notstand-wegen-obergrenze-a-1095474.html, retrieved 2016-07-22
[vi] Agamben, G. (2002), The State of Emergency, http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpagambenschmitt.htm, retrieved 2016-07-22
[vii] Butler, J. (2009), Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? London/ New York: Verso
[viii] See for the history of the summer of migration: http://bordermonitoring.eu/ungarn/2015/09/of-hope/, retrieved 2016-07-22
[ix] See e.g.: http://diepresse.com/home/panorama/oesterreich/4807792/A4Fluchtlingsdrama_Ein-Lastwagen-voller-Leichen, retrieved 2016-07-22
[x] Cf. e.g.: Anderson, B. (1991), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London/ New York: Verso
[xi] See e.g. Sayad on the requirement of “politesse” of migrants; Sayad, A. (2015), Immigration und “Staatsdenken”, in: Mennel, B./Mokre, M., Das große Gefängnis. Wien: transversal, 35-64, here: 48-49