Abdul Rahman Al Habab sits cross-legged in his family’s tiny corner of a large tent and pores over his prized phone. Every few days the father of three from Deir Azzour, Syria, turns on the Internet and checks in with his brothers, now in Germany and Sweden.
He asks what they hear about the war in Syria and Europe’s refugee crisis. Then he checks in with friends on the WhatsApp messaging service, and scans his Facebook feed and Arabic news headlines.
All day, every day, refugees in Greece are exchanging information with neighbors and strangers, anxious for news about when the borders will reopen, conditions at the new camps, how to apply for asylum and relocation, and emergency medical care and money in the meantime.
The problem is Mr. Habab still has no clear information about his rights, resources, or options. He has a growing distrust of what the United Nations and other authorities say — and no idea what to do.
Habab, who was interviewed last month, is one of more than 53,000 refugees and asylum seekers caught in Greece since March, when Macedonia shut its border, cutting off the route to western Europe, and the European Union and Turkey signed a controversial deal effectively criminalizing the Mediterranean Sea passage.
With Greece struggling to set up refugee resources and camps at the EU’s request, the EU’s policy changes left refugees with little accurate information with which to make life-changing decisions.
Internews, an international nonprofit media development organization, recently launched an Athens-based multi-language network, News That Moves, for refugees that seeks to dispel the fog of uncertainty created by rumors.
“Information is aid,” argues Alison Campbell, Internews’ senior director for global initiatives. “When you tell people that you can get information in a place and they try to and they cannot, that is a disaster. That will just build more distrust and frustration.”
She adds, “Sharing information with refugees and asking refugees for their opinions and needs is the right thing to be doing as opposed to just issuing instructions and messages.”
'Like the Stone Age'
Habab’s questions echo throughout Idomeni, where 12,000 people have amassed in a squalid informal camp along the closed border: “Akhti [my sister], what’s the news? What do you think I should do?” he asks as his eldest, nine-year-old Sara, listens in.
Habab scrolls through his WhatsApp conversation with the Turkish smuggler who organized their “boat of death” to Greece, and then abandoned them in the water. Those nightmarish hours are saved on his phone along with photos of their lives before Syria’s uprising against President Bashar al-Assad twisted into a regional war.
“It’s like we are back in the Stone Age, before the time of the pyramids,” he concludes of being kept in the dark.
This decade’s mass migration of people fleeing war and death in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia has been significantly shaped by the technologies at hand.
Smartphones have proven a lifeline in Europe, allowing people to navigate their ways across countries via GPS and to keep in touch on WhatsApp throughout perilous journeys and separations. But these media have also provided a platform for rumors to spread dangerously, from outdated information on borders as conditions changed, to the proliferating Facebook pages run by smugglers and human traffickers falsely promising a vacation-like trip.
Greece grapples with new reality
Initially, refugees in Greece were mostly just passing through, concerned with news on the price of transportation or routes to Europe passed by word of mouth and Facebook. But the border closures and EU-Turkey deal — implemented with little preparation — changed everything.
Informal and squalid camps sprung up around Greece, from the sprawling Idomeni in the north to the squares and port of Athens and Lesbos Island, as the Greeks and aid organizations struggled to shift to long-term care.
Now in Athens representatives from phone companies wait outside metro stops to sell refugees data plans. In rural Idomeni, where Internet service is poor, several times Macedonian border police have fired tear gas at refugees who rushed the border after rumors spread it was opening. In March, a false map circulated, spurring hundreds of refugees to risk death and try to cross into Macedonia.
The UN and other aid organizations provide information channels, but they remain patchily available in refugee camps. For refugees, and even humanitarian workers, the provided information is often unclear, reflecting how the EU has not thought through key parts of these latest policies, Ms. Campbell says.
Such has been the case with the EU emergency relocation program recently enacted for Greece and Italy. Before March, Greece had very few asylum requests; now, the cash-strapped country isn’t equipped to handle the massive influx. To register for the program and begin the asylum request process, refugees are told to call a Skype number — only the lines are usually busy and Internet access, especially in the north, is a luxury. After trying for two months, Habab has concluded the program is “a lie” – a sentiment refugees across Greece frequently shared.
As of May 5, just over 3,000 requests had been processed and 876 people transferred, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Greek authorities are building tens of new refugee camps to house the now static population. The camps are still largely closed to NGOs and journalists — and in the resulting void, rumors swirl about the bad conditions, from having to pay to charge phones and shower to facing deportation from them.
Last month, Habab’s neighbor, Odiy, voluntarily went with his wife and three surviving children to a newly opened camp. He returned distraught two weeks later, telling everyone there were no doctors and poor food, “like a jail.” Other Syrians in Odiy’s section of Idomeni repeatedly cited his case as part of why they did not trust the new camps.
Campbell argues that there need to be assessments in Greece to determine how refugees access information (and misinformation) and how to target these platforms with the news they need.
That’s the idea, for example, behind News That Moves, which publishes on several platforms, including Facebook and pamphlets, in Arabic and Farsi. By speaking with refugees and tapping into their networks, News That Moves seeks to debunk rumors and provide news that reflects and responds to what people experience.
It’s a daunting task. EU immigration policies can be a complicated maze for refugees with different circumstances and nationalities to navigate, while pledges from Western countries to provide money and resources to Greece and relocate refugees have barely materialized.
In the meantime, Habab is waiting in Idomeni for news. In a recent WhatsApp message, he lamented the uncertainty.
“I am a human," he writes. "It is my right to live.”