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Syrian Refugees And The Pull Of The Internet

How Smartphones, the Internet andGUESTSM2 Merkel’s Words Helped the Migrant Crisis Happen

By Guest Writer -Matt Burns.

As Europe’s migrant crisis unfolds, one element of the modern world is having a more profound effect on Europe’s biggest challenge since WWII than anything else, with the notable exceptions of war and ISIS. This crucial element, which is getting little attention, but playing a pivotal role is modern technology, in particular smartphones.

Between the turn of the millennium and 2011, the number of Syrians with access to the internet increased from a mere 30,000 to almost 4.5 million (or 20% of the population); a trend which is reflected in many other migrant ‘source countries’.

According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2014 Syria had 87 mobile phones per 100 people; as images coming from the frontline of the crisis illustrate, most of those mobile phones are smartphones. It is clear that many Syrians, especially the young, are tech-savvy and as a result have a wealth of information at their fingertips. Now the time has come where many feel they need to flee their homeland, the importance of internet connected-devices has become paramount to the migrants’ ability to find out about their chosen destination and make the perilous journey to and across Europe, a journey which normally culminates in Europe’s more prosperous north.

Photo from International Red Cross

Photo from International Red Cross

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the migrant crisis was the moment when the problematic situation seemed to intensify with a savage, uncontrollable ferocity in the space of a few short days. For months the migrant issue was a ‘problem’, but not a fully blown crisis. However that changed suddenly, not coincidentally, just a few days after Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel made it clear that Germany would take in any migrant who could make it there, almost setting a challenge; she also encouraged other EU countries to adopt her approach.

In a pre-internet world, these comments might have been heard only in Germany and perhaps a few other European countries, thus the impact would have been limited. In today’s globalised and highly connected world, Mrs Merkel’s sentiments were broadcast, written about and discussed by almost every news organisation in the world. As a result, the refugees, living a miserable existence, often in camps in countries around Syria, using their smartphones, had easy access via a whole range of platforms from Twitter to traditional news networks to what was almost an invitation from the German Chancellor.

Thus, these people who understandably feel they have nothing left to lose are easily tempted by such a proposition, along with economic migrants from other countries who see an opportunity, which is not to be missed.

Once migrants have seen on their screens, and been seduced by Mrs Merkel’s promises to absorb every migrant that arrives, the difficult part of the migrants’ new dream becomes reality- the march across Europe.

During Europe’s last refugee crisis, after WWII, refugees often had little idea where they would end up, nor what their new country would be like. Today’s refugees and migrants can research and find out endless information about their chosen country at the touch of a button; it is noteworthy that they effectively choose their new EU country.


Photo from UNHCR

Photo from UNHCR

During the punishing journey to and through Europe, one mobile phone app seems to be more important to the migrants than any other, certainly in terms of navigation- Google maps.
According to the New York Times, Google Maps is even starting to put a dent into the business of human traffickers, who are now only really needed by migrants to cross from Turkey to Greece. Many migrants feel as though, with aid from their GPS smartphones, they can make the rest of the journey themselves.

Apps like Whatsapp and Skype are also playing an important role, helping desperate people stay in contact with their family members, whether they have been split up during the journey or are back home. Furthermore, when they see images on their smartphones of migrants who have arrived before them being greeted in Germany by jubilant applause and a warm welcome, with hashtags such as #RefugeesWelcome trending on twitter, it only hardens their resolve to make it to this land of promise they have seen only via pixels.

One undeniable fact about the internet is the ability it provides for certain pieces of information to spread like wildfire. It is unclear whether Angela Merkel was aware this might happen when she effectively invited millions of people to her country, however in today’s ever connected world it is very unwise for any leader to make a statement without knowing the full consequences, including digitally, or make a promise without being able to keep it.

Germany is now seen as a welcoming land of hope and promise; if Germany’s resources, willingness or ability to handle the ever-growing flow of people start to dwindle, one thing is clear, it will be very difficult to put potential migrants off from making the perilous journey across Europe to reach her cities, as once something is on the internet it is going nowhere fast, much like the migrant crisis itself.



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