Connectivity for a World on the Move

This article was originally published on the International Telecommunications Union’s ITU Blog

Boutros is a refugee: he left Syria three years ago after his village was attacked. He paid over USD 5,000 to smugglers and it took him more than two years to get to Europe. The most precious thing he carried with him was his smartphone.

Along an arc of instability that now ranges from the Himalayas via the Middle East to West Africa, Migrants and refugees like Boutros are voting with their feet and fleeing. If there is a common thread that connects those affected by the many intractable, complex emergencies that beset the world today it is mobile technology – whether ‘dumb’ feature phones or new generation smartphones.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, there were more than 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions by the end of 2015, a significant increase from 738 million in 2000.

Moreover, the global proportion of the population covered by a 2G mobile-cellular network grew from 58% in 2001 to 95% in 2015, primarily in developing countries; and it is the developing world – driven by the increased affordability of devices – that will lead most of the growth in global smartphone adoption, reaching 63% by the end of the decade with an expected increase of 2.9 billion smartphone connections by 2020 (GSMA).

Thanks to a ‘mobile first’ development trajectory, many innovations respond to the needs of an increasingly migratory population such as multi-SIM card phones, mobile money transfers, and low-value recharges.

“Sometimes Europeans see that we have good phones and ask, ‘Why does a refugee have a phone?’ These phones are like our visas. If we lose our phones, we lose our lives,” said Boutros.

Boutros used his phone not only for communication, but also as a map during his journey. When the battery died in Macedonia (FYROM), just before the border with Serbia, he was lost for two days in the mountains without food or water until a shepherd helped him find the way.

Every migrant and refugee’s story is unique, but if there’s a common thread through the millions of tales of human mobility its connectivity. Connectivity is rapidly changing the face of migration. Refugees like Boutros are tapping into the social networks that enable them to stay connected to one another in every phase of the crisis.

Geographic boundaries and limited coverage area no longer pose the same restrictions they once did: information is shared in mere seconds via new media platforms, particularly Facebook, which connect a widely dispersed global diaspora. Connectivity also opens the door providing key life-saving information to crisis-affected communities that are not accessible due to security concerns.

But along with the many advantages that technology brings, there are disadvantages as well.

Smugglers and traffickers have been quick to take advantage of the significant number of vulnerable and desperate migrants arriving into Europe. The clandestine nature of many irregular migrant journeys means that information about boat and other crossings is shared through private channels, typically via mobile phones and social media networks.

The challenge for governments and international agencies in communicating with people on the move is that they are hard to reach, highly motivated and disbelieving of official messaging, since many originate from areas where there is weak governance and corruption.  

An absence of reliable, trusted information on safe migration choices, or conversely the prevalence of unverified rumours and speculation among crisis-affected populations drives individuals to take risky and often fatal journeys. If current trends continue, governments and international agencies will need to tap into communication channels most accessed and trusted by migrants to disseminate information about services and safe migration choice.

More people than ever are connected to social networks. More people than ever are on the move. These are two megatrends of our time, and that’s no coincidence. It is an opportunity to share information, both with refugees and migrants seeking to improve their life choices, and to support with spread of effective public advocacy and information campaigns to combat the spread of xenophobia in Europe.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Read more about Boutros’ extraordinary migration story at the  ‘I am a Migrant ¦ I am a Refugee’ website. Learn more at IOM’s Missing Migrants Project website