Monday, February 22, 2016

Tech part two

During the refugee training a few weeks ago, communication emerged as the foremost and most flawed part of the response to this crisis. I knew all too well that language barriers hinder communication between refugees and volunteers, but I hadn't considered communication between refugee camps/aid centers throughout Europe and how long-standing geopolitical tensions in the Balkans constrain aid to refugees.

For instance, refugees might desperately need jackets one week so all of the camps request jackets and then the following week the jackets become redundant. Or perhaps one camp will serve refugees bad food (once a camp in Macedonia gave out spoiled canned fish) and by the time the refugees got to Serbia and Croatia, many of them were sick. Volunteers typically don't know when or how many refugees are coming, but if they knew the special needs of the incoming group then they could make proper arrangements as they wait for them to arrive.

Here's where technology should fix the problem. There are a few apps and WhatsApp group text message threads that link the camp leaders, but for one reason or another people don't use these tools fully. I'm not a member of these threads, but when speaking with people who are I've gotten the impression that their political vexations curb their participation. This may sound petty, and to a certain extent it is, but these tensions course through every layer of life in the Balkans so it no longer surprises me.

Though I don't use WhatsApp to correspond with volunteers, I do receive messages from refugees and migrants whom I befriended as they continue north. This morning a group from Afghanistan sent a photo where they posed in front of an Austrian flag. Instagram also lets me keep tabs on acquaintances who were eager to connect virtually. These photos add a dose of harsh reality to my otherwise ordinary (read:somewhat superficial) feed. Though the photos themselves blend in as highly edited pictures of monuments, landscapes, and friends having a good time, just beneath the surface lies hardships that preceded those smiles and encumbrances still to come.

Last of all, smart phones have helped to crack down on the smuggling epidemic. Refugees will take photos, potentially endangering themselves, of smugglers and send them to volunteers who then take it up with the police. Some NGOs in Belgrade send workers to hostels and bars in Belgrade where smugglers are known to convene in order to take photos and match them with the visual evidence police have gathered.

The most obvious role technology plays in this and, well, everything these days is getting the word out and immediately analyzing that word from a variety of viewpoints. This crisis has been a non-stop story for months now, and everyone can access the constant stream of new developments, critiques, and policies. For better or for worse, this particular crisis changes its shape so often it likely won't run the risk that other ongoing stories face in saturating the airwaves and thus causing consumers to lose interest. Here's hoping, anyway, because this story is not going away anytime soon.

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