One of the first questions aid worker Isaac Kwamy was asked in Greece's camps for refugees and migrants was not whether there was food or water, but whether there was internet access.
“Very few of them (migrants) said, 'We are hungry, we need food. Or we are thirsty, can we have water?” said Kwamy, who visited camps in June. “They were literally asking, 'Do you have Wi-fi access and where can we charge our phones?’” As the head of emergency response at NetHope, an alliance of aid groups and companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Cisco that provide technology services during humanitarian crises, Kwamy said the need for connectivity came as no surprise.
Not only do asylum seekers and migrants need the internet on their smartphones to plan their journey towards Europe, he said, they also use it to apply for asylum, and to stay in touch with family through mobile apps like WhatsApp and Facebook.
“One man, who got separated from his family, had not spoken to his daughter in two years. And only this year he managed to speak with his daughter on Facebook through Wi-fi that NetHope had set up,” Kwamy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Since September, NetHope has deployed Wi-fi hotspots along the migration route in Europe, though many connectivity sites in the Balkans have now been deactivated as most refugees and migrants have moved on.
Some 48,000 refugees and migrants are stranded on the Greek mainland by the closure of Balkan borders, which has shut the main overland route used last year by a million people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond headed for western Europe.
Asylum seekers in Greek camps can only book an interview with the Greek Asylum Office through Skype, a web-based phone service. Many only have a window of one hour when Skype lines are open.
Once individuals complete the so-called “pre-registration”, they are granted a temporary right to remain in Greece, and access to basic services. Currently, only those based in Athens are able to apply for asylum in person, at the city's two pre-registration sites.
This makes internet connectivity even more crucial, said Katerina Kitidi, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s refugee agency (UNHCR) in Greece.
“It’s a gateway to information, and a gateway to the right of services like the asylum procedures,” she said.
With many refugees and migrants now stuck in Greece, Kwamy said NetHope is planning to convert existing internet hotspots into faster, more reliable broadband in August.
‘Information as aid’
In his 17 years as an aid worker, Kwamy said it is the first time he has seen such a reliance on the internet during a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s as important as eating food, drinking water, being treated (medically), being given a tent,” he said.
Imad Aoun, a Save the Children spokesman in Greece, said providing access to information has become a critical element of the refugee crisis in Europe.
Aoun said providing internet access helps with language barriers between aid workers and refugees, and also lets migrants make informed decisions about the route they should take and the risks they are taking.
“There’s the impression that the internet is a luxury and if you're a refugee you don't have the right to be connected,” he said. “That’s not true. They have the same right as everybody else.”
In June, the UN passed a resolution to amend Article 19 which made internet access a basic human right.
“It’s important we don't see humanitarian work as the provision of items,” Aoun told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“A lot of it now is becoming about internet connectivity and providing information as a form of aid… It's part of making sure that we're offering a dignified form of assistance.”