‘They can’t be refugees! They have smartphones!’

With the refugee crisis in full swing in Europe there are always those that jump to hasty conclusions or make rash comments without thinking them through. One of such comments you hear the most is that the refugees are not in fact refugees but economic migrants. How could they possibly be poor, fleeing, refugees if they are messaging people on their smartphones? In this article I will dissect this argument and explain why although a small minority of the migrants are migrating for economic reasons, the fact that many refugees own smartphones is neither here nor there.

First imagine that you are fleeing your home, fearing for your life as barrel bombs are dropped from above and violent extremists close in on either side. You gather your family and decide to make a run for your life. What is one of the few things you grab as you leave? Some money, clothes, food, your smartphone? A means of communication with the outside world, it is a logical choice; so why then are Europeans so surprised that many asylum seekers own a smartphone?

Photo: SWNS.com
Photo: SWNS.com

According to UN figures, although much of the media would make you think otherwise, by the end of July, 62% of those who had reached Europe by boat this year were from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. All of these countries are torn apart by war, dictatorial oppression and religious extremism, qualifying all of these migrants for asylum under international and EU law. Therefore their wealth, or lack thereof  is irrelevant when it comes to their rights to claim refugee status.

A bit of perspective: according to the CIA World Factbook in 2014 Syria had 87 mobile phones per 100 of the population. This is compared to Switzerland which has 142 per 100 people. Overall there are currently more mobile phones in circulation than there are people on the planet!

Before the civil war it must be noted that Syria was not an extremely poor country, with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $1850 in 2007, it was ranked by the World Bank as a ‘lower middle income country’, placed just above Tanzania. Although this is far from the $46,690 GNI per capita of Switzerland (2007). If you and your parents had to give up all of your possessions and live on $1850 a year, after food and clothes, would a smartphone not be at the top of your list of things to buy with any leftover money?

A photo taken at the Calais Jungle camp is shared on Twitter. Screenshot: Twitter (Image: Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
A photo taken at the Calais Jungle camp is shared on Twitter. Screenshot: Twitter (Image: Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Above is one of the photos that has recently been widely circulated on social media. Just to humor those that believe that smartphones are only for the rich I will break down a few of the phones in the photo:

Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A Samsung E1200. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A Micromax. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A Micromax. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Left: This is a Samsung E1200. They are free in the UK… (here)

Right: A Micromax A106 Unite 2. Around 85chf. (here)

Below: A Samsung S3 Mini. Around 145 chf. (here)

A Samsung S3 Mini. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A Samsung S3 Mini. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Although it must be noted that most of the refugees who have made it to Europe are not the very poorest in the world, they had to pay thousands to risk their lives to travel across the Mediterranean, should the fact that they are able to purchase a smartphone, worth less than you spend on one meal out, make them any less desperate or worthy of our aid and hospitality?

If your entire family had been killed in front of your eyes, you had walked across deserts, hidden under lorries and been beaten by border police; would you be content with your life so long as you still had your iPhone?

Sources: The Independent, shkspr.mobi/blog, CIA Factbook and the World Bank.

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