Cellphone usage vital to refugees

Media attention on the southern border has re-ignited commentary on the usage of smartphones by refugees.

It’s become a trend yet again to suggest that someone using an iPhone (for instance) cannot be a “genuine” refugee, as if biblical images of poverty and destitution are the only ones we can accept as reality.

This interpretation is completely unfounded.

In the summer of 2017, preceding my senior year as a student of security and risk analysis at Penn State Altoona, I traveled to Austria to conduct university-funded research on refugees and their usage of smartphones.

While there, I interviewed a group of young men who had recently arrived as refugees in Austria. Nearly all of them owned and used smartphones.

Far from being an item of luxury, refugees (in my study and in countless others) described phones as invaluable tools for the dangerous position of statelessness.

Given the turbulent and often hasty conditions of departure, it’s not surprising that the smartphone is one of the few items refugees are most likely to take with them for traveling.

Nor should it be shocking that a person departing from nations with unreliable landline networks might own a smartphone. Such is the case with the much-maligned migrant caravan.

Exactly half of those I interviewed believed that use of cellphones and laptops during migra­tion was just as, or more important, than what we traditionally think of as necessities like clothing, medicine, food and shelter.

Said one asylum-seeker: “I think the most important thing is when we have a cellphone. Without food, we can do something. But without cellphone, I don’t think so.”

Every person I interviewed reported using their smartphones for self-education. Most specifically mentioned using their phones to teach themselves German, the official national language of Austria. Smartphones are also tools for learning new trades and skills.

To use the example of one person I spoke to: learning to cut hair.

Once arrived in the host country, the cellphones can take on more familiar roles: keeping in touch with friends, teachers, employers, neighbors and supporters, but also asylum-relevant government offices and agencies, not to mention maintaining contact with family in their home countries.

The phone serves another, less obvious purpose as a first-person archive of a refugee’s journey. Photographs, notes, contact infor­mation, documents, etc. The importance of this archive to someone who has been uprooted from their home cannot be overstated.

In most cases, possession of a smartphone did not spare my interviewees from desperate and violent circumstances, as promoters of this criticism might have you believe.

My observations in the field dovetail with a large body of research on this topic by academics like Carleen Maitland to more mainstream publishers like The Economist.

In fact, the notion that refugees who carry cellphones are not genuinely endangered is a conspiratorial one.

It’s so easily debunked that when used as argument against asylum-seekers in the United States, one really has to question the credibility of whoever is pushing it and of whoever chooses to publish it.

Matthew Adams



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