How smartphones offer Syrian refugees a lifeline

Startups and nonprofit organizations are offering high-tech assistance to the hyper-connected wave of Syrian refugees.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
4 min read
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Ihab, a 30-year-old Syrian migrant, talks to his mother on the phone after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters/Corbis

The tourism season has drawn to a close for another year on the Greek island of Lesbos. While the beaches have emptied of sightseers, they remain strewn with cellophane wrappers.

For Syrian refugees making the risky six-mile trip from Turkey across the water, those wrappers are the only form of protection for their most prized possession: their smartphones. Once on the island, which over the last year has become a main point of entry into Europe for Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland, refugees rip the makeshift protection off their phones and discard it on sand.

"The refugees in this case are not your stereotypical poor, downtrodden refugees," says Evert Bopp, whose nonprofit, Disaster Tech Lab, is tasked with setting up local Wi-Fi hotspots in disaster zones. "These people are, in general, quite middle class."

The proliferation of smartphones adds a wrinkle to one of the worst refugee crises in recent history, with more than 4 million citizens fleeing the civil war in Syria since 2011. Refugees are no longer completely helpless or lost, with the mobile device serving as their lifeline to family and support organizations.


A Syrian refugee unpacks her mobile phone, moments after arriving in a dinghy on Lesbos.

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters/Corbis

The group's tech-savviness has meant new opportunities to lend aid, whether with replacement handsets or using Airbnb-style strategies to locate housing. It also makes refugees better able to help themselves.

"Not only do they have some money, but almost all of them carry smartphones on them," Bopp said.

The crisis has returned to the forefront after this month's massacres in Paris. The ISIS attacks raised the issue of terrorists potentially entering Europe or the US by way of refugee status. As governments are grappling with the issue, nonprofit organizations and startups have stepped up.

Wi-Fi on arrival


Installing Wi-Fi on the island has been tricky.

Disaster Tech Lab

Disaster Tech Lab is ready for the refugees once they arrive on Lesbos. The organization doesn't offer comfort in the form of food or blankets. It offers the comfort of Internet access.

Bopp's team ran into early hiccups when they traveled to Lesbos in September intending to install Wi-Fi networks for two refugee camps. One camp, Kara Tepe, lacked any infrastructure, including power. The team had to install lampposts with solar panels and use simple computer-to-computer connections to carry Internet signals to the rural area. It formed a partnership with a university on Lesbos to build a long-distance radio link that stretches across the north and south ends of the island.

The Internet serves refugees, volunteer workers and the various nongovernment organizations (NGOs) set up to help the refugees.

As refugees log into Wi-Fi, the landing page that springs up is Crisis Info Hub, which is a collaboration between Google and multiple NGOs. Hub provides them with access in their own language to critical information like ferry schedules and prices. This requires a lot of behind-the-scenes maintenance, given the constantly changing situation on the island.


Migrants charge their phones after reaching the shores of Lesbos.

Christian Minelli/Corbis

Providing that lifeline

Not every refugee is fortunate enough to reach Europe with a device.

A new project, Geecycle, aims to fill the communications gap by providing second-hand phones. It was created at a London hackathon run by Techfugees, a voluntary team of tech industry workers formed in reaction to the refugee crisis.

Disaster Tech Lab also takes satellite phones to the beaches of Lesbos to give people getting off the boats a way to call their relatives. Some refugees abandon the lines for medical aid just for the chance to use those phones.


Satellite phones are being provided on the beaches for those without smartphones.

Doug Kuntz/Disaster Tech Lab

"For these people to actually be able to just grab a phone and call their family back home and say, 'I'm OK, I'm in Greece, we're all alive,' that's making a huge difference," Bopp said.

Similar projects to Geecycle exist for laptops and other equipment, which enables access to a range of initiatives that help refugees learn to code, receive language lessons and even conduct business. Supporting refugees has as much to do with ensuring that they're educated and can make money as it does with assisting survival.

New solutions

It's not just the arrival point where aid is needed. Groups like Techfugees have sprung up to foster new ways of helping refugees who travel deeper in Europe.

A number of Airbnb-like initiatives, for instance, have sprung up, allowing people with spare rooms to offer temporary shelter to refugees along the way. "For the refugees and for anyone else in need of refuge, it's really difficult to forge a direct connection between themselves and those who might be able to offer them a place of refuge," said Sholi Loewenthal, founder of one such project called MyRefuge.

A similar site, Refugees Welcome, has already found housing for 365 refugees.

A permanent home

Those reaching their final destinations can turn to projects such as "Arriving in Berlin," which was created by refugees. The interactive map provides information in English, Arabic and Farsi about services and amenities refugees might need, such as free German lessons or doctors who speak their own language.

These ideas are critical as experts say there is no straightforward "solving" of this crisis.

"It's great what's going on right now, but this is not a problem that is going away next year," said Katharina Dermühl, a founder of Migration Hub, a Berlin co-working space for startups helping refugees, who spoke at Techfugees' hackathon. "It's about supporting people who want to stay and building them into our societies."

Disaster Tech Lab, however, won't be staying in Lesbos forever. The group plans to eventually hand over the Wi-Fi infrastructure to the local authorities. For now, the refugees continue to come even as the weather grows colder.

"I expect us to be on the island for the next four or five months," says Bopp. "At least."