Amidst the ongoing coverage of the European refugee crisis, one resounding theme is the role of the smartphone. In the U.S., when we think of smartphones we usually consider them as luxury items – after all, a brand-new Apple iPhone 6 can cost several hundreds of dollars, not to mention the subscription data plan each month. We assume that owners of these phones, which enable to us to do so many things with only a swipe on our screen, must be doing well enough.
What is clear from the stories of people fleeing, however, is that smartphones are not a luxury item in many parts of the world – in fact, they are a necessity. With public wifi becoming more and more common, smartphones need not incur roaming charges as they perform essential functions for refugees: GPS mapping, keeping in touch with friends and family, accessing money and finding places of safe harbor. In some countries, it is easier and cheaper to have a smartphone than it is to use an internet connection or find clean water.
Sure, smartphones are convenient for playing games, mobile purchases and Snapchatting with your friends. But imagine that you are fleeing war, persecution and economic destruction, and can only take one bag with you, and a smartphone starts to seem like less of a “luxury” and more like a lifeline.