A Harrowing Journey Into Europe, Aided By Apps And Internet Access – NPR

Migrants charge their cellphones at the Keleti railway station in Budapest last month. "If technology can play a role in making [their] journeys a bit less precarious and harrowing, and help refugees stay connected," says Kate Coyer, "then they're worth investing in."i

Migrants charge their cellphones at the Keleti railway station in Budapest last month. “If technology can play a role in making [their] journeys a bit less precarious and harrowing, and help refugees stay connected,” says Kate Coyer, “then they’re worth investing in.”

Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images


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Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Migrants charge their cellphones at the Keleti railway station in Budapest last month. "If technology can play a role in making [their] journeys a bit less precarious and harrowing, and help refugees stay connected," says Kate Coyer, "then they're worth investing in."

Migrants charge their cellphones at the Keleti railway station in Budapest last month. “If technology can play a role in making [their] journeys a bit less precarious and harrowing, and help refugees stay connected,” says Kate Coyer, “then they’re worth investing in.”

Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

In Europe, fewer and fewer borders remain open to migrants and refugees arriving from the Middle East. Croatia is redirecting refugees to neighboring Hungary, even as Hungary says it’s overwhelmed — and extends its own border wall.

All of this has left migrants bereft of clear answers and buffeted by contradicting information.

“One of the most frustrating things among everything that refugees are facing is the total chaos and confusion about where they’re able to enter, when they’re able to enter, when these borders are getting closed, how much the system is changing — and the lack of reliable information that people have on the ground there,” says Kate Coyer, director of the Civil Society and Technology Project for the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest.

Coyer, who’s lived in Hungary for seven years, is working with digital rights activists to give migrants better access to information.

Refugees and migrants who made the costly journey to Europe often have smartphones: Lauren Frayer, reporting for NPR from Hungary last weekend, described many refugees as “middle-class, very tech-savvy people.”

Those phones can help migrants sort through the confusion.

“It’s important to remember that no single app or technology can give refugees what they most need, which is a safe place to live,” Coyer tells NPR’s Arun Rath.

“But if technology can play a role in making those journeys a bit less precarious and harrowing, and help refugees stay connected and have access to reliable and up-to-date information, then they’re worth investing in.”

Interview Highlights

On her efforts to support migrants’ access to information

Like so many people in Budapest, I was incredibly moved by what was unfolding. And I just couldn’t help but observe how many people did have smartphones, and how they were trying to charge their phones, trying to find Wi-Fi access. So, we bought some 3G mobile hot spots, which, you know, they’re smaller than most cellphones. You load them with a SIM card, put some data on there, and you can be a walking hot spot. So you can provide free, open Wi-Fi networks just from having this little device in your pocket or in your bag.

Providing Internet access was actually easier than trying to provide the capacity for people to charge their phones. Eventually, after a couple of days, we were able to set up a small booth with some portable battery packs with some USB ends. You could just have people charging their phones there.

On the websites and apps that migrants are using while en route

First and foremost, people are using communication apps. They’re using things like Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype — and then I would also add that GPS navigation and Google Maps have been absolutely critical.

I met a family from Syria, and they were really anxious about getting on the buses that the Hungarian government was providing. There was a real lack of trust. And so for them, they would rather walk the 120 miles from the border of Serbia to Budapest. And so GPS navigation was a way that they were able to get from one point to another.

On the ways governments are making information available to migrants

There’s definitely some really useful apps being created that have information, that have routes in different languages. I just saw something yesterday that had been produced, which was a map that showed some of the known land mines in Croatia and Serbia, now that people are being pushed to go through different borders — and that is potentially lifesaving information.

On trends she’s been surprised to see

There is something really distinctive going on with the way that people are able to navigate for themselves more than they would have been able to do in the past. I also think that the smartphone usage is also transforming the way that aid is being delivered. There is a lot of sharing of very explicit information about what donations are needed where, so that a lot of the humanitarian aid and individual donations are really being targeted in ways that, I think, are making some of the aid more effective.

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