Technology provides refugees the ability to stay in contact with family members, to make choices and avoid danger based on crowdsourced feedback, and to find food and shelter. However, it seems as though the only conversation about the Syrian refugee crisis – in regards to technology – is whether a refugee can own a smartphone and still be called a ‘refugee’.
Images of refugees on the shores of Turkey and Greece, on the borders of Hungary and Serbia, and in the train stations of Germany and Sweden holding smartphones has triggered a response from some asking whether the refugees are really ‘in need’ if they can afford a smart phone. The definitive answer is ‘yes’. However, what I’ll be focusing on now is how technology and the Internet of Things is helping refugees as they make their way out of the conflict zone and (with hope) into safe havens.
The role of social media was highlighted during the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt. Four years later after the Egyptian revolution, technologies have continued to evolve at an exponential rate. Now, there are even more ways for technology to help people fleeing the conflict in Syria.
Internet in a Backpack
At the Central European University, the Civil Society and Technology Project has come up with an amazing connectivity program. It has purchased mobile hotspots that it places in backpacks to provide internet to refugees. An employee, volunteer, or refugee him/herself can wear the backpack and supply hundreds or thousands of refugees with online access. All the networks are free and named “Free Wi-Fi, please no YouTube” to cut back on data streaming.
Tracking Potable Water
The UN has stated that both governmental forces and opposition forces have cut water supply to Syrian civilians for military gains. In Aleppo, the International Committee of the Red Cross introduced an internet site that provides locations within Syria with clean, drinkable water. Many Syrians started contributing to the site to help keep it up-to-date.
Interactive Travel Forums
Pages have been created on Facebook and other websites to help with travel across borders. Many of the pages are hosted by less-than-honest ‘coyotes’ promising to transport refugees across international borders for a (usually hefty) fee. However, there are some crowdsourcing sites where refugees share tips from recent experiences in regard to safety, food, and transport. Some even use GPS contact points to locate safe havens in more dangerous zones.
Remote Charging Stations
The UNHRC has distributed almost 90,000 solar panels that can be shared to charge cellphones. They’ve also handed out tens of thousands of prepaid SIM cards.
Connectivity, the Internet of Things, or, more generally, technology, has indubitably saved lives already. However, there is room for improvement, especially if countries can improve accessibility and adoption. If you’d like to read about how IoT is helping refugees, specifically in the realm of education, please read our accompanying article, Refugees and IoT’s Education.