How refugees are using social media and other technology

Last year more than a million migrants and refugees fled from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, searching for safe places to settle. CNET senior writer Ben Fox Rubin joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how mobile phones, apps, social media and other technologies are part of this global story.


Last year, more than a million migrants and refugees fled places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, searching for safe places to settle.

As part of a new series called 'Life, Disrupted,' the CNET News team traveled to Greece to see how mobile phones, apps, social media, and other technologies are part of this global story.

Joining me now is CNET senior writer Ben Fox Rubin.

First of all, this is a human crisis on a scale that most of us have not witnessed before.

You guys are a site that covers primarily tech in all of its different incarnations.

Why go here and look at the tech angle of this?

To me especially, what was important to look at regarding this is, is that CNET more often that not, I guess, is looked at for reviews or what's the latest feature that's coming to your iPhone.

However, technology has really embedded itself into so many aspects of people's lives, and so it was fascinating to me to really see how technology affects people in this very critical, very important way, relating to the refugee crisis.

What were the things that they were using most often?

The smartphones.

So people would either bring their smartphone -- Refugees, migrants would bring their smartphones either from home or they would buy them when they came to Europe or they would buy them right before they actually went on their trips, and they would use them for any number of things.

They would use them to connect to other refugees.

There would be different travel groups, and they would be able to connect to people all over Europe to just share information.

In any particular country, they would be able to use their smartphones to access information to find food or shelter or maybe even work -- different things like that.

And one of the other aspects that I actually thought was really interesting was you could really store so many of your memories from videos and photos in your phone.

And so a lot of interviews that I had would sometimes end with somebody pulling out their smartphone and showing me pictures of what their life was like back home, you know, and they would have a different haircut.

They wouldn't be wearing secondhand clothing that was donated to them and, more often than not, that they would have a smile on their face, and this was a great way to just remember, you know, 'I used to have a life, and now things are different.'

And so it was this really interesting way of connecting people in a variety of ways just through this one device.

And it's a trunkful of memories inside a phone, which also makes it an incredibly valuable object.

It's interesting that you say that because, people that I bumped into in New York, more often than not, you're gonna see somebody with a cracked smartphone -- you know, the cracked phone screen, whatever.

I don't think I bumped into a single refugee that had a cracked phone screen because -- My interpretation of that is that they guard them so closely -- they realize that this is really their lifeline, their connection, to so many different things, whether it be information or connecting to family members that are in a different country or just, you know, accessing news or a mobile game or something when you're bored.

So I definitely agree, and, you know, obviously, every single place that we went to, too, you would always find people crowded around chargers, as well, because you need to make sure that it stays powered on.

And the chargers, it was almost like an old-fashioned well, with these tiny, almost --

We called them a water cooler, yeah, yeah.

It's like the charging stations are the new water coolers, basically, so, yeah, and that's where people would connect and share information and different things like that.

There's a little bit of almost an 'Underground Railroad,' I imagine, where they're getting information from the people who've gone on ahead of them.

It's being relayed back.

'Oh, well, I just heard from so and so.

He's into this next country now.'

And they say 'X' about this particular route.

It was fascinating how fast that was getting back because everyone had different social networks and the charging stations where those networks meshed.

Yeah, most of the time, they would use either WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, but that's exactly right.

That's exactly what I had heard, is that information would just spread very, very quickly.

I talked to one Greek official who said they have all these problems in the country -- they have all these refugees that they can't house, they have an economic crisis going on in Greece, but one of the only problems that they don't have is the ability for information to spread.

And so it's important to note, though, that sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's a bad thing.

Sometimes, a rumor will spread really, really quickly, and so this is one of those aspects where technology might not actually help.

It might actually hamper, where the wrong information will then spread like wildfire, and that could also be problematic.

You showed in your series the camps that were setting up in different parts of Greece to Wi-Fi networks in Calais.

You guys went kind of up and down the spectrum.

But what are the problems that tech solve?

I think that there are some realities on the ground.

There just aren't enough helping hands.

There isn't enough money.

There aren't enough aid groups.

There are too many people that need help, and a lot of their problems are very multifaceted -- you know, either families have been separated and they need to be reintegrated.

There are also a lot of people with psychological problems, that they've just experienced a lot of difficulty on their way to getting to Europe in the first place.

I mean, an app isn't gonna solve that.

A smartphone does help in a lot of different ways, but, at the same time, it doesn't fill in every gap.

And so one of the aspects that I thought technology helped the most was in organizing grassroots organizations and in also helping refugees organize and share information.

But it wasn't this silver bullet.

It wasn't something that solved everything at all.

You know, there's still an enormous amount of need despite all the technology available.

It's great to see that this is what the end product of what Silicon Valley generates, can do, but, on the other hand, there's still so much that it do.

It is worth mentioning that technology really did serve -- The fact that so many refugees had smartphones, it did serve as this leveler.

There are a lot of people that were basically fishes out of water.

This is the first time that they're in any given country, they don't speak the language, and being able to access information and share information among refugees is really critical, and it's very vital.

And I think that that does make things a lot easier and much more seamless for them to integrate into these areas, but it doesn't solve everything.

Ben Fox Rubin of CNET.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.