The unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe is overwhelming. The sheer volume of people displaced by conflict and making the journey from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region to Europe has not been seen since World War II.

Yet along with the crisis, there has been an unprecedented volunteer response. One of the most striking realities of volunteer work on the ground is how people from every region of the world speaking different languages can coordinate an effective response to a crisis without being part of an overarching organization. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find large NGO or coordinated government presence within most of the areas affected by the refugee crisis. 

We constantly receive questions - how did you volunteer? Who did you go with? How did you know where to go?

The same apps you use to send ridiculous selfies to your sister or emoji sentences to friends are also responsible for everything from coordinating donations to shift responsibilities to keeping in touch with refugees as they traverse the complicated path through Europe.

During our time in Greece, we used everything from Slack to Facebook to Whatsapp to coordinate and communicate within various volunteer groups. Ride sharing, apartment sharing, urgent donation pickups and deliveries all planned in a matter of seconds.

For refugees, leaving a refugee camp where they are safe and provided with resources and information into the next stage is akin to jumping into a pitch black cavern.  No one has any idea what the next camp, the next road, or the next country holds. As refugees left the camps where we worked, we constantly kept in touch with them. They would provide us with up to date information from their journey to pass to other refugees considering the same path, and we would pass along any helpful advice that would help them along their route. 

When we returned to our respective homes, it was impossible to feel disconnected from the crisis we had just left. We continue to keep almost daily contact with several of the people we met while in Greece.

In addition to being an aid to the volunteers, smartphones and the private messaging service WhatsApp have been critical to almost all refugees making the treacherous journey to the European Union from the Middle East. Without a doubt, technology has lowered the barriers for those considering taking the risk to reach Europe and has become a main factor in the increasing numbers of refugees arriving on the shores of Greece and Italy. Refugees use digital networks as a virtual roadmap to help them navigate their journey and stay connected to their families back home. There are large messaging groups they join to exchange information about the route, different smugglers and prices, the status of border closings, or where to get in touch with UNHCR and other organization. In a humanitarian crisis that is muddled in bureaucratic legal confusion, these groups often are the only way to shed light on the situation and provide the only reliable information for the refugees.

What is clear is that technology has forever changed how stakeholders operate within a refugee crisis. Refugees are staying in touch with friends and family and exchanging real time information. Volunteers are coordinating shifts and donations and staying involved upon returning home. Facebook friend requests, daily Whatsapp conversations and other social media platforms allow volunteers to stay engaged as opposed to easily slipping back into the comforts of normal life.

If you had to flee your country, what’s the one piece of technology you would take with you?
This striking film, designed to watch on a mobile phone, helps the viewer to experience with immediacy the confusion and fear facing refugees.

Source: BBC Media Action