By Jessica Sofizade

Today is World Refugee Day, a day where we consider the experiences of those who have undergone forced migration; where we educate ourselves about their current situations globally; and where we celebrate the rich contribution they make to our societies.

Refugee Week 2020 have promoted 8 Simple Acts inspired by the overall theme Imagine, to illustrate what “we can all do to stand with refugees and make new connections in our communities”. These include: Imagine, Watch a Film, Read a Book about Exile, Tell a Joke, Take a Tour, Thank your Climate Justice Hero, Share a Song, and Join the Movement. In this article, I would like to focus on the first Simple Act: Imagine.

Imagine you are told that in 15 minutes, you will need to leave your home. You’re not sure where you’re going, or when you’re coming back (if at all). What objects would you take with you?

Of course, this thought-experiment cannot compare in the slightest with the actual horrors experienced by those who are forced to migrate, often under very traumatic circumstances. Nonetheless, it is a small step towards understanding just a few of the difficult decisions which some people face, and can help us to empathise, understand, and self-educate.

Should you bring things which are practical, or sentimental? Should you travel light, or bring as much as you can? How would you feel, making these decisions in just a few minutes? Would you feel pressured, anxious, scared, or nervous about the future?

One familiar criticism asks how refugees, who are meant to be in need of our help and in a desperate situation, are still able to have smartphones.[1] Moreover, several provocative articles have tried to exacerbate tensions by reporting on migrants taking selfies upon their safe arrival in Europe.[2] One aim of such claims is to question whether or not they are “economic migrants”, whether they are actually in need, what their priorities are, and whether we should offer them our help and protection.

This line of thought astonishes me. Why on earth wouldn’t you bring your smartphone? It is probably the most useful tool you could bring along. Simple smartphones are also affordable for a majority of people.[3] A smartphone can access the internet, it is small and easily portable, it can be used for translation, maps, and communication, and can provide entertainment and relief, which can be vital after constant stress and anguish. Smartphones can help to navigate new and unfamiliar environments. It can also send GPS locations. It can store photos of family members, friends, and home. And yes, it also allows the owner to send photos or selfies to loved ones to show that they are safe.[4]

In a study by UNHCR and Accenture in 2016, it was found that mobile phones and internet access are just as crucial for the safety of refugees and food, shelter and water.[5] Marie Gillespie even argues that the most important items for refugees are: “Water, phone, food,” in that order. [my emphasis][6] She suggests that smartphones and social media platforms are used “in five primary ways – communication, translation, information, navigation and representation”.

GSMA has also reported on the importance of mobiles for refugees, including family reconnection, education, livelihoods, mobile money, new digital tools, platforms and apps, amongst many more reasons. For example: “an important emerging trend is the development of digital services by refugees themselves. One example is Gherbtna, a platform which helps newly arrived Syrians navigate Turkish services, such as health and education. Designed by a 26-year-old Syrian computer programmer, Gherbtna had 40,000 downloads as of September 2016”.[7]

Refugees can use social media platforms during their journeys, which can be empowering by making them less reliant on smugglers.[8] Through apps such as WhatsApp, they can create networks which help them decide on safe routes of passage. Nonetheless, “rumors” can often be precarious, changing, and unverified. There are moreover significant dangers smartphones can pose for refugees, such as the examination of data on mobile phones upon application of asylum. In certain cases, if a refugee cannot prove their identity, authorities may search within their phones, and come to a conclusion based on this data as to whether they should be deported.[9]

Those who have attended my Social Media Education presentations/trainings know that there are many more digital dangers which can be faced online. These include discrimination, hate speech, cyberbullying, radicalisation, inappropriate content, grooming, phishing, scams, disinformation, and fake news to name just a few. Nonetheless, there are clearly several crucial reasons why smartphones are indispensable tools in today’s world, particularly for refugees and migrants.

In the little thought experiment above, would your smartphone be in your top 10 objects to bring? Top 5? Or even top 3?

By Jessica Sofizade

[1] There is an interesting contradiction apparent here: “the anti-immigration brigade were complaining that migrants are unskilled and just want our benefits. And now they’re arguing that migrants are too wealthy instead, implicitly arguing we should prioritise helping the poor.” –

[2]For example:

[3] For example, on the CIA website, under “The World Factbook: Syria” – “the number of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants” for mobile cellular telephones,  it found 97 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. (2018 est.):


[5] For the full report see here:



[8] – however, it has also been suggested that “criminal groups also take advantage of smartphones. Many advertise their services on Facebook, creating pages such as ‘Smuggling into the EU’ to find customers and even promote special offers”-

[9] For example in Germany: BAMF has also recently been challenged by migrants for accessing personal data on their mobile phones:

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Kairos Europe, its partners or their employees.

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