Smartphones 'vital' to Syrian refugees

Considered more important than food, they are used for staying in touch, linking to Facebook groups

KOS (Greece) • When Wael and his relatives from Syria climbed into an inflatable boat in the dead of night to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece, they abandoned all their belongings - except their smartphones.

"Our phones and power banks are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food," said Wael, a 32-year-old from the devastated Syrian city of Homs who reached the Greek resort island of Kos last week.

Refugees are using Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members to share photographs and experiences, find smugglers' phone numbers, map their route from Turkey to Greece and onwards to northern Europe, and to calculate expenses.

They use WhatsApp to help the coast guard pinpoint their location once their boats have reached Greek waters, and Viber to let families know they have landed safely.

"We could not take anything with us on the boat; we were all so crammed. But these phones are our most precious belongings," said Wael, who fled Syria with his wife and 12 relatives, including three children. They are among more than 160,000 refugees and migrants who have arrived in Greece this year.

In Kos, Syrians can be seen taking photographs of each other on the beach using their smartphones, and ordering coffee at local cafes where they can connect to the Internet.

"We have taken photos of every step of our journey and sent them to our families," said Wael's cousin, Raed, adding that social media is a "vital" resource for refugees who have no legal way to reach Europe.

"No one gives us visas, so we have to find alternatives. On Facebook, we Syrians help one another and give one another advice," said the 30-year-old, who left behind his wife and six-month-old, ill daughter. He hopes to reach Germany and reunite with his family.

"There are entire conversations about which country is best for each person. For instance, Germany is good for family reunification. Sweden is good because you get your papers immediately," he said, citing information he found on social media.

Aside from Lebanon, where he lived in misery with his family as a refugee for some 18 months, Raed had never left Syria before going to Turkey and then Greece.

"Asylum and migration in all Europe" and "Asylum in Sweden, Holland, Norway, Germany, Britain, Austria and Switzerland" are just two of the dozens of Facebook groups that Syrians are operating and using to learn about the perilous and, in some cases, deadly journey to Europe. A closed group, called "Bus stop for the lost ones", is one of the most popular, boasting more than 42,000 members.

Asks one user: "Guys, in which German federal state should I hand myself over to the police? Where will I get a residence permit the quickest?"

Another user, posting a picture of himself and two other men, wrote: "Thank God... We have arrived on the (Greek) island of Chios."

A user asks if US$2,500 (S$3,500) will be enough. "Go for it," someone responds. "I made it with US$900."

"We do this to help one another," explained Said, a 22-year-old computer engineering student from Daraya, south-west of Damascus.

"We want to help our fellow Syrians, so no one gets cheated by smugglers. Whenever someone finds a smuggler who charges less, his phone number gets passed around," he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Smartphones 'vital' to Syrian refugees'. Print Edition | Subscribe