“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.