Last week, Reuters published an exposé on the plight of relatives of migrants around the world who must feed cash through international brokers to their fleeing relations to ensure their safe passage across treacherous land and sea in the hands of untrustworthy smugglers. Part of the story described how pre-paid mobile minutes are a form of currency in Africa, and how they can be exchanged for cash. The use of phone minutes as a means of exchange for refugees escaping war-torn regions speaks volumes about the value of communication technology in those areas, and how the system of human trafficking relies heavily on it.
The piece exposed to what extent smartphone connectivity is key to a refugee’s journey, particularly when migrants — often being held captive by their smugglers — must contact relatives to obtain funds for the next legs of their trips. Some smugglers give migrants smartphones equipped with apps including WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber so that the migrants can load payment onto the devices while flying under the radar of law enforcement.
Indeed, the very encryption debate so heavily talked-about on the front pages of newspapers these days applies to penniless refugees as well. Smugglers must keep out of the eyes of police, including wiretaps, and they rely on the encrypted nature of apps like WhatsApp to do so.
Alternately, smartphones are allowing refugees to make their own way in some cases. Google Maps is free, and a GPS-equipped device could enable a migrant to bypass some of the legs of the journey from Africa to Europe typically associated with traffickers, should they find the means. Blouin News has reported on how companies like Google are working to try to connect refugees who have already made it to Europe, and how projects like Project Reconnect are helping migrants to assimilate into their new cultures.
But whether communications services help or hurt those looking to reach safer shores, dangerous travel conditions remains a fact of life regardless for many fleeing war-torn regions. And where phone minutes are currency, time is literally money.