People Are Outraged to See Refugees With Smartphones. They Shouldn't Be.

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How can you be a refugee and afford that phone? . (Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

There's a lot of outrage on the Internet about migrants coming ashore and immediately taking selfies. You seriously do not want to read the comments in the Daily Express after the site ran a story under a photo of smiling Syrian refugees with phones on selfie sticks. This particular tweet, showing a woman taking a selfie when she reaches land, is doing the rounds of anti-immigrant websites, and is considered proof that these are rich people, "economic migrants" rather than real victims of tragedy.

Personally, I think the first thing I would do if I got off an inflatable dinghy after a long trip like that is take a selfie of myself and my kid to prove that I'd made it. I suspect that the happy Syrians are doing much the same thing. In fact, according to Middle East Online, many migrants consider their smartphones to be more important than food.

"Our phones and power banks are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food," said Wael, a 32-year-old from the devastated Syrian city Homs who reached the Greek resort island of Kos on Thursday morning. Refugees are using Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members to share photographs and experiences, find smugglers' phone numbers, map their route from Turkey to Greece and onward to northern Europe, and to calculate expenses. They use WhatsApp to help the coast guard pinpoint their location once their boats have reached Greek waters, and Viber to let their families know they have landed safely.

It should also be noted that in much of the world, cellphones are not luxuries. We in North America had land lines and then connected computers, and then cellphones and smartphones; in much of the world, there are no land line phones. The smartphone is their only computer; that's why phablets and giant phones started in Asia while iPhones had to play catch-up in screen size. It's their only means of communication, their only tie to family, their only source of news. The cellphone companies can only charge what the market will bear, so phones and cell service are a lot cheaper than they are in North America.

The migrants are not necessarily poverty stricken either. In the Independent, James O'Malley notes that the people in Syria are not considered that poor, and that there is a high penetration of cellphone use.

Syria is not a rich country, but it is not a poor country either: it ranks as a “lower middle income” according to the World Bank. In 2007 (the last year stats for both were available) Syria had a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of $1850 which is more than Egypt at the time, which was only at $1620. Mobile phone penetration is similarly high in Syria as Egypt too. According to the CIA World Factbook in 2014 Syria had 87 mobile phones per 100 of the population, compared to Egypt’s 110 per 100 (the UK has 123 per 100 people).

O'Malley also addresses the question of why refugees have smartphones instead of plain old cellphones, and the answer is pretty obvious: that is just about all you can buy these days. He notes also that they are not that expensive, considering how useful they are, particularly if you are on the move. Another point the commenters go on about is the cost of the plans and the roaming, but in Europe, it's even easier than in the States to go without roaming because WiFi is ubiquitous.

In the New York Times, Matthew Brunwasser describes how important the smartphone is to the migrant:

In this modern migration, smartphone maps, global positioning apps, social media and WhatsApp have become essential tools. Migrants depend on them to post real-time updates about routes, arrests, border guard movements and transport, as well as places to stay and prices, all the while keeping in touch with family and friends. The first thing many do once they have successfully navigated the watery passage between Turkey and Greece is pull out a smartphone and send loved ones a message that they made it.

There is another factor to be considered as well. Just as the smartphone was part of the revolution in Egypt, it is also documenting the tragedy in Syria. One activist turned refugee tells Mideast Online:

We Syrians took pictures of every protest and every massacre. We aren't going to stop sharing our stories now. Migration is part of our story now.

It's so easy for people who use their phones for more frivolous purposes — like using their camera phones to Instagram their lunch — to be critical of migrants taking selfies. It's also easy to categorize people who can afford a phone and a selfie stick as "economic migrants" instead of "real" refugees, and somehow less worthy.

bombed Aleppo building
Perhaps the luxurious Aleppo home of "economic migrants.". (Photo: ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)

It's likely that the people who lived in these apartment buildings were fairly comfortable, with jobs to go to and cars to get them there, middle-class urban Syrians, now being derided as "economic migrants." They are now probably on the road with little more than their smartphones. Being an economic migrant looks pretty rough to me.