Smartphone usage in Migration

How Smartphone technology provides tools during the course of irregular migrants’ journey

By Cecelia Marshall, September 24th, 2016

Abstract: This paper looks at the role smartphones play throughout irregular migrants’ journey. It explores the implications that arise from this technology, including, how migration is facilitated, how costs and risks are minimized and how instant information and communication is accessed to make immediate decisions when problems arise. It also briefly touches on the challenges that may arise from smartphone usage when smugglers or state actors project false information via this technology.

Research Question: Which tools do smartphones provide irregular migrants along their journey?

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In today’s society, the speed and intensity of communication and information has increased significantly and shape our lives to a great extent (Dekker & Engbersen). The internet has been exemplified as a “network of brains” (Gerbaudo). Information transmitted via the internet is linked to the usage of smartphones, therefore, the purveying of information is now mobile.

This information mobility is practised widely by irregular migrants[1], especially those travelling on the so called, “Balkan Route” to reach Central and Northern Europe. Irregular migrants reaching Europe from North Africa and the Middle East are making their journey through perilous conditions and with other scarce resources. However, the one tool most of them have in common is the possession of a smartphone(Sebti). This smartphone is equipped with applications such as Google Maps, WhatsApp, GPS and social media including Facebook, Twitter and Skype, which migrants use to facilitate their journey, lowering the costs and risks associated with migration.

Smartphones are now considered the “Swiss Army Knife” of migrants (Livingston) and have actively facilitated and transformed the nature of migration (Dekker & Engbersen ).

In this paper, I will touch on how the convention of the smartphone and various applications have facilitated the migratory journey of irregular migrants and, in particular, the implications this technology has on their journey.

I will also touch on the challenges and risks associated with relying too heavily on smartphones and social media. More specifically, I will examine by how securitization breaches by governments deceive migrants by posting false information.

Research Method and Analysis

The theoretical framework used in this research is transnational socialization (Nedelcu).

Transnational socialization is the theory of transmitting information and connecting through a social presence by means of technological interconnectedness. With instant communication and technological possibilities, migrants adopt different ways of thinking and practice, which reflects the adoption of transnational and cosmopolitanism[2] orientations (Nedelcu).

Smartphone tools and their applications

Along the journey that the migrants take to Europe, conditions regarding border closures, passages, and sea forecasts change often, eliciting prompt response. Despite this, a majority of irregular migrants possess smartphones which “offer a rich source of insider knowledge…that is discrete and unofficial,” making migrants “streetwise” with regard to their journey (Dekker & Engbersen).

(Photo Credit: Pixabay)

In one instance, the International Rescue Committee sought to uncover the amount of migrants’ traveling to Europe with smartphones by asking to see their belongings (Ram) (Handelsblatt). In almost every backpack there was a smartphone.

“Our phones and power banks are more important than anything, even more important than food,” one Syrian man on the Greek island of Kos told Agence France Presse(Assir).

Migrants with access to mobile networks tend to be more resilient (Hannides, Bailey & Kaoukji) since their mobile access gives them mediums to be in direct contact with other refugees for advice on the best routes, places to shelter along the journey, and updates on border crossing closures. This allows them to stay updated and to make prompt critical decisions.

The most often used applications were found to be Google Maps, WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and social media such as Facebook and Twitter (Sebti). To make Selfies is also a popular practice among migrants, as photos are then sent to family and friends to notify them of their current location or safety.

Networks for migrants are created via the messaging service, WhatsApp and Facebook, groups which share useful information, such as sea safety advice, contact numbers for police and rescue organizations and can alert group member when they arrive safely (Hannides, Bailey & Kaoukji).

(Photo Credit: Pixabay)

Smartphones can also be used in cases of extreme distress and emergency relief response.  In one such example, irregular migrants were crossing the Mediterranean when their boat’s motor broke down. With no emergency numbers at hand, one passenger telephoned a relative (in the origin country) whom then tweeted the situation together with the boat’s GPS coordinates. The coast guard was able to rescue them(Frouws, Phillips, Hassan & Twigt).

Initiated by independent volunteers and solidarity movements, some European border crossings, train stations and refugee camps have additionally began providing phone-charging stations, free Sim cards and Wi-Fi to migrants (Hannides, Bailey & Kaoukji).

(Photo Credit: Pixabay)

One such group based in Croatia, launched the project, “Open Net” which creates mobile Wi-Fi hotspots for irregular migrants by equipping their volunteers with mobile Wi-Fi devices in backpacks (Schroeder) who then walk around the border cities where connection is most needed.

Implications of Smartphones

While smartphone possession has noticeably become a commonality among irregular migrants(Ram) (Handelsblatt), this has had a variety of implications on their movement, choices made and information being exchanged along their journeys.

Like the Internet, smartphones have become an asset for collecting information about the intended destination (Nedelcu). In general, people know more than they used to and have greater and more instant access to knowledge and ability to counteract disinformation when it arises (Gerbaudo).

The costs and risks associated with migration have been diminished (Nedeulcu) due to smartphone usage. Irregular migrants are less dependent on human smugglers to guide them once they cross the Mediterranean Sea, therefore lowering costs. Migrants now use Google Maps to determine their directions to the targeted locations.

Most communication applications, such as WhatsApp, Viber and Skype, are also free and allow migrants to text or call with others, thereby cutting costs as well.

Though risks associated may have been lowered, they have not been completely eliminated. When borders are closed or a threat is posed, migrants are made aware of this on Twitter, Facebook pages or private WhatsApp messages.

International organizations are evaluating the increased use of smartphones along the migrants’ journeys (Hannides, Bailey & Kaoukji) to better devise protocols or resources they may provide them to both make their journey less risky and better inform them about the migration pre-departure.

As in previous years, during natural disasters, smartphone applications have been designed to deal with recovery efforts and rescue responses. Recently humanitarian relief organizations and aid agencies have researched how best to respond to refugee communication needs. Therefore a multitude of applications have been created specifically for migrants (Price). “Refugee Aid” is just one example of a new application in which non-governmental organizations provide verified and timely information that refugees can access in various languages (Hannides, Bailey & Kaoukji).

Wi-Fi and charging stations follow next behind the smartphone in terms of importance to irregular migrants (Assir). At aid and train stations along the migration corridor and border crossings, free Wi-Fi is often available. Migrants log in and then are redirected to a home page, listing essential services and information on how and where to purchase food, water, and what they should expect to pay for certain transportation services.

By harnessing the power of smartphones, irregular migrants have not only become less dependent on human smugglers, thereby lowering the cost and risks of migration. In fact, with smartphones, migrants have now become more independent and active in their individual decision making process for their future destinations and solutions.

(Photo Credit: Pixabay)

Challenges posed by Smartphones

Challenges also arise through the reliance on smartphones. Migrants do not have a reliable ability to know whether the information provided on social media sites or by way of messaging applications is factual (Frouws, Phillips, Hassan & Twigt).  Migrants are then connecting to unidentified sources made from the internet. Therefore, the source could be posing behind a false identity (Dekker & Engbersen).

In one case, the Hungarian government used a social media account to spread the false rumor that a train was leaving promptly to Austria and Germany. However, this train was in fact transporting migrants back to a refugee camp. With Twitter, many migrants received the correct information and did not board the train (Frouws, Phillips, Hassan & Twigt).

Further, while some applications such as Skype, WhatsApp and Viber are private messaging services, other useful applications (Facebook, Google Maps, Twitter) make a user’s location known through GPS and location services (Dekke & Engbersen). This creates serious risks given the possibility for the monitoring  by state security (Gerbaudo). The security of the migrant is compromised and state institutions can use this information to locate crowds of migrants en route and swiftly close borders before they arrive.


This paper briefly described the ways the smartphone, encompassing applications, internet and social media, is used by irregular migrants en route to their projected country and how it has become one of their most vital survival tools (Kozlowska).

These tools have allowed them to become less reliant on smugglers (Price) and to gather current and relevant information as conditions change swiftly.

Smartphones play a complex role setting new migration patterns and throughout this current phase of modernity(Nedelcu) the acceleration of the information and communication technological revolution combined with human mobility contributes to the need of further investigation of social transformations.


Ram, A. (2015, December 5). Smartphones Bring Solace and Aid to Desperate Refugees. Retrieved September 23, 2016, from

Schroeder, S. (2015, September 21). Refugees in Croatia can’t get to the Internet, so the Internet comes to them. Retrieved September 23, 2016, from

Kozlowska, H. (2015, September 14). The most crucial item that migrants and refugees carry is a smartphone. Retrieved September 18, 2016, from

Assir, S. (2015, August 19). Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber light way to Europe for Syrian refugees. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from

Bram Frouws, Melissa Phillips, Ashraf Hassan and Mirjam Twigt (2016): Getting to Europe the ‘WhatsApp’ Way. Danish Refugee Council. Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat. June 2016.

Rianne Dekker and Godfried Engbersen (2012): How Social media transform migrant networks and facilitate migration. International Migration Institute. Paper 64, November 2012

Harry H. Hiller, Tara M. Franz (2004): New ties, old ties and lost ties: the use of internet in diaspora. New Media Society 2004 6: 731.

Myria Georgiou (2002): Diasporic Communities On-Line: A Bottom Up Experience of Transnationalism.

Mihaela Nedelcu (2012): Migrant’s New Transnational Habitus: Rethinking Migration Through a Cosmopolitan Lens in Digital Age. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 38, No. 9 November 2012, pp1339-1356

Paolo Gerbaudo (2012): Tweets and the Streets. Introduction. London, Pluto Press.

Theodora Hannides , Nicola Bailey and Dwan Kaoukji (2016): Voices of Refugees: Information and Communication Needs of Refugees in Greece and Germany. Research Report-July 2016 (BBC Media Action)

Bassam Sebti (2016, February 17). 4 smartphone tools Syrian refugees use to arrive in Europe safely from

Livingston, Alan. (2004): Smartphones and other Mobile Devices. EduCause Quarterly 2004

Horn, H. (2015, October 30). Coding a Way Out of the Refugee Crisis. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from

Price, R. (2015, September 09). Google Maps is putting Europe’s human-traffickers out of business. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from

CIA-World Factbook. (2015). Syria, Afghanistan, Iran. Retrieved September 18, 2016, from

IOM, Glossary on Migration, International Migration Law Series No. 25, 2011

[1] When referring to “irregular migrants,” the International Organization for Migration (IOM) definition is adopted, which applies to any person whose movement across state lines falls outside the regulatory norms and without necessary authorization required (IOM). The irregular migrants mentioned in this paper are specifically those en route to Europe, either from the Middle East or from North Africa.

[2] The theory of “Cosmopolitanism,” when used to study migration, is seen as “heuristically productive” especially in terms of the digital age and technological advancements.(Nedelcu).


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