Got an old smartphone lying around? It could transform a refugee’s life.
Refugee Phones is an initiative that encourages people and organisations to donate their old smartphones to refugees and migrants.
It has delivered more than 6,000 smartphones since its launch in Sweden a year ago — and is in the middle of a big push ahead of the planned demolition of the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais.
So why do this? Europe’s current migrant crisis is the largest since the Second World War, but from those in previous generations in one crucial way: Technology.
Smartphones are giving the hundreds of thousands of displaced people making their way across the continent access to maps, information, contact details, photos, and more.
They’re often the most valuable possession that refugees and migrants own — and aid workers have worked to provide people with charging points and Wi-Fi access alongside traditional essentials like food, water, and shelter.
But not everyone has access to these devices — making it far more difficult for them to stay in touch with loved ones and navigate independently. That’s where organisations like Refugee Phones comes in.
The voluntary initiative was founded in Sweden in the summer of 2015 by Hanna Wekell and Gustav Martner, with phones going both to those living in refugee camps abroad and who have been settled in people’s homes in Sweden.
The British version began in October 2015 and is run in partnership with humanitarian organisation CalAid. The phones it collects are sent to the camp in Calais, where migrants and refugees live in often squalid conditions. “It is a humanitarian emergency of the first order in one of the world’s most thriving nations,” Leigh Daynes, director of healthcare organisation Doctors of the World said in 2015.
“If had to leave my home and flee into the unknown, what would be the one thing that I would want to bring? Definitely my phone!” UK founder Thea Hamrén told Business Insider. “Understanding how important a smartphone can be for refugees made me want to get involved — I looked around me and realised there’s probably lots of phones collecting dust in cupboards — that really could be a lifeline for someone in need.”
More than 6,000 smartphones have been donated in Sweden, compared to just 500 in the UK. Hamrén attributes this to an increased willingness of big companies to get involved.
Sony Mobile, for example, has directly donated handsets to the initiative in Sweden, while telecoms companies Telia and 3 have both donated SIM cards.
There’s currently a major donation drive underway in the UK. It’s being organised by Kris Sangani, a freelance technology journalist who lives in London who volunteers for the initiative.
It comes ahead of a planned closure of the Calais “Jungle” camp, which has houses an estimated 9,000 migrants. Sangani is particularly keen to use the phones to assist the unaccompanied children living in the camp. “We need to get these phones into the hands of vulnerable children as soon as possible,” he said.
Sangani’s focus has been on reaching PR agencies, journalists, and digital organisations that might have large numbers of old phones lying around.
It’s about “giving people the means to stay connected,” said Thea Hamrén, who works for advertising agency Mr. President, said. “There’s a gap where a lot of people who came to the refugee camps … the first thing they wanted to do was borrow a phone.”
There are currently aid groups appealing to the French government to at least delay the demolition of the Calais camp, arguing more time is needed to prepare to relocate refugees, the BBC reports. But even if it is closed, that won’t be the end of Refugee Phones’ efforts.
“As long as there’s a need, we’re going to keep on doing it,” said Hamrén.
You can donate your old smartphones to Refugee Phones by posting them to 12 Soho Square, W1D 3QF, London. Remember to wipe their memory first! The initiative’s in-person drop-off point is temporarily closed due to a fire.
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