Ulla-Stina Henttonen is a 2017 SAIS M.A. Global Theory and History graduate with an interest in media, perceptions, and international security.

As popular uprisings broke out around the Arab world in the spring of 2011, we were told that social media had revolutionized revolutions. Microblogs, instant messaging services, and social networking sites were harnessed to bring people together and to amplify voices that had rarely been heard in traditional media.

During the five years of war and destruction that have followed the initial revolts in Syria, smartphones have proven to be the Swiss army knives of modern conflict, bringing a host of 21st century survival tools to a user's fingertips.

Stay Alive and Stay Online

As daily lives have been disrupted and large parts of the country spiralled into a humanitarian disaster, the role of social media has changed from its early years. For Syrian civilians, social media today is no longer a means of reform and liberation, but first and foremost, one of survival and escape.

In 2011, the number of people connected to mobile Internet and social networks was growing exponentially across the Middle East. An increasing number of Syrians had a smartphone, and in early February, a five-year ban on Facebook and YouTube was lifted, allowing free access to social media. When infrastructure then started to crumble, free messaging services like WhatsApp and Facebook became the most reliable way to navigate everyday lives, and to stay in touch with those who had stayed and those that had got out.

Those who stayed depended on social media as their primary source of information. When the water supply in Aleppo was disrupted, a post spread through Facebook listing the safe drinking-water points throughout the city. Facebook also started serving as the unofficial proof of identity, and an express background check. When traveling in the country, soldiers at checkpoints would demand to log on to a person’s social media profile to confirm their identity and map their connections to the conflicting parties.

With Just the Clothes on Their Backs and Phones in the Pockets

Facebook and other social media platforms adopted new functions in the war zone, but they also began shaping international migration in an unprecedented way.

Where and when migrants move has never been a coincidence. Migrant flows have always been steered by a complex combination of push and pull factors, personal networks, and available information. Today, more often than not, those factors come together in a carefully crafted plan designed and executed with a smartphone in hand.

For many, the planning begins through contacts with family or friends already in the west. Neighbours who made it safely to Sweden, relatives in Germany, or just a rumor that asylum approval rates have gone up in the Netherlands. Special Facebook groups have also been created to share tips, warnings, and information. Questions and concerns vary from immigration policy to weather conditions, and from trusted smugglers to preferred camping gear.

Almost There

When the asylum seekers touch ground in Europe, many pull a smartphone out of a zip lock bag and send out an update to families who sit at home, waiting for the phone to beep. Once they arrive, social media continues to serve a pivotal role, not just to communicate with family and friends or looking for missing loved ones, but also dealing with officials, and looking for employment or accommodation.

Agencies operating at the refugee camps, processing centers, and along the migration routes are not blind to the crucial importance that social media plays in the process. While their work still includes the traditional element of humanitarian aid; handing out blankets, food, and water, today they also hand out other kinds of necessities; SIM cards, chargers, and wifi passwords.

During the war in Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has distributed tens of thousands of SIM cards to asylum seekers at camps and reception centers. In September 2015, Facebook joined their efforts, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the social media giant’s commitment to bringing wireless network to refugee camps. The UNHCR staff on site emphasized that the need for Internet is not a frivolous demand from millennial migrants, but a genuine need. Asylum seekers use Wi-Fi to follow updates from camp coordination on social media, and to communicate with asylum offices over Skype.

Not Just the Good Guys

Where there are people in desperate circumstances, there are others willing to take advantage. With the brutal business of human smuggling booming on the Mediterranean coasts, smugglers are advertising their services on social media. They post pictures of world-class cruise ships, tailor package deals for families, and offer low-cost options for those that don’t have five thousand euros to spare.

Although Facebook, Instagram and Twitter offer a good platform for marketing illicit services, the accessibility of information threatens to cut a slice of the smugglers’ profits. Information spreads fast. People warn each other about scammers, and share tips on making the voyage without the help of smugglers.

In Europe, the fear is not so much the safety of refugees in the hands of criminals, but rather the possibility for terrorists and criminals sneaking into the continent under the pretence of seeking asylum. The November 2015 attacks in Paris showed that some of the terrorists had returned from Syria using the same routes with tens of thousands of other migrants, and around the same time, two men were arrested at a reception center in Finland after other residents had recognized them as perpetrators from beheading videos uploaded to YouTube by the Islamic State.

Navigating forwards

With affordable smart phones, real-time access to information and global connections are no longer luxuries reserved for the wealthy few, but a force that is fundamentally altering the way people move. Technology alone, however, does little to curtail vulnerabilities related to migration. For now, much of the change has been driven by resourceful people at the grassroot level, but to realize the full potential of new technology, it is time for policy-makers to get with the times. Bringing together technological innovation, new data, and the existing momentum for immigration reform, smartphones can help guide better policy from temporary shelter to permanent integration.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesbos Island, Greeceby Proactiva Open Arms from Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.