Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Refugees Stuck in Greece, No News Is Bad News

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Refugees Stuck in Greece, No News Is Bad News

Article excerpt

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, everyday, 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 realityInitially, 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. …

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