Tech Transformers

How smartphones are helping refugees in Europe

Luke Graham, special to CNBC

As thousands of refugees and migrants move across Europe, many are making use of technology in order to make their journey safer and share life-or-death information.

The migrants, many of whom are from Syria, displaced by the civil war, as well as Afghanistan and Eritrea, are using smartphones to keep in contact with relatives and each other, while using GPS to find their way around Europe.

According to Paul Donohoe, from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a large number of refugees have smartphones, which are proving to be a vital resource.

"If they lose their phone, that's quite a challenge," explained Donohoe, speaking to CNBC. "They have to get a new one so they can communicate with their family."

A Syrian refugee, from Kobani, carries her baby as she arrives with other Syrian refugees on a dinghy on the island of Lesbos, Greece August 23, 2015. Greece, mired in its worst economic crisis in generations, has been found largely unprepared for a mass influx of refugees, mainly Syrians. Arrivals have exceeded 160,000 this year, three times as high as in 2014.
Alkis Konstantinidis | Reuters

A photo project by the IRC, called What's in my bag, documents what possessions refugees and migrants have brought with them. Many of them had brought smartphones, chargers, as well as spare cell phones, emphasising the importance of keeping in touch.

Donohoe said many refugees use free messaging services, specifically WhatsApp, Facebook and Viber, to communicate with other refugees and family members who have been left behind. Some even take selfies to let their family know they have reached Europe safely.

Back in Molyvos & the boats keep coming. Refugees jubilant to be in Greece with Turkey behind them. #SelfietoSafety

IRC is the main responder on the Greek island of Lesbos, where up to 4,000 people are arriving each day, according to Donohoe. GPS, a common function of most smartphones, has proven vital to many refugees.

"(GPS) prepares it for when they wanted to cross the border town along the Greek side across to Macedonia," explained Donohoe. "GPS allows them to do that."

Donohoe also met a Syrian refugee whose boat sank as he crossed the straights from Turkey to Lesbos. He used WhatsApp to alert the Greek coastguards, and used his phone's GPS to make sure he swam in the right direction towards the island.

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Kate Coyer is the director of the Civil Society and Technology Project at the Central European University. She has been helping refugees in Hungary by creating wi-fi hotspots which allow them to connect to the internet. She emphasised how important phones have become to refugees.

"The majority of refugees are traveling with mobile phones, or at least one amongst families or groups traveling together" she told CNBC via email. However, she added that many do not have phones, which limits their access to important information.

"It is a vital tool and for people who have taken so little with them from their homes, and lost most of what they had along the way, their phones are among their most valued possessions."

Phones not only allow refugees to keep in touch with their families, but also to share crucial information about prices, traffickers or how to travel safely through Europe.

"They are also using GPS navigation tools, Google maps, online translators, currency exchanges," added Coyer. "There is anecdotal evidence to suggest the power of these online tools could help bring down some of the costs and dangers of trafficking. It wouldn't eliminate traffickers, but it can help refugees from being taken advantage of to the nasty extent that they are now."

Read MoreWhy Europe migrant crisis risks turning into disaster

Keeping in touch online is proving vital for families who have become separated. The Red Cross has set up a website called Trace the Face where migrants or their families can upload pictures to help them reconnect.

A child holds a self-made placard reading "SOS help me" outside the railways station in Budapest, Hungary September 2, 2015. Hundreds of migrants protest in front of Budapest's Keleti Railway Terminus for a second straight day on Wednesday, shouting "Freedom, freedom!" and demanding to be let onto trains bound for Germany from a station that has been closed to them by Hungarian riot police officers.
Laszlo Balogh | Reuters

European citizens are also using technology and the internet to try and help.

For instance, Welcome to Europe, a non-profit organisation, provides contact information as well as practical and legal advice to refugees and migrants, while website Refugees Welcome, set up by a group of Germans, has created an AirBNB-like service to help house refugees. Users register their spare bedrooms and the site matches them with those in need of accommodation.

Since the website started in November last year, Refugees Welcome has found homes for 138 refugees, mostly from the Sub-Saharan region and Iran. Currently, the service is only set up in Germany and Austria, but there are plans to create more overseas.

"Due to the many press releases in the European media and a feature by a radio station in the United States, we are now receiving inquiries from different countries within Europe such as Greece, Portugal and Scotland, but also from Australia and the U.S.," the website's founders said in a press release.

Facebook is also proving to be a useful resource for refugees to communicate and hundreds of regional Facebook groups have been set up to welcome refugees and provide them with useful information and contacts.

Follow Luke Graham on Twitter: @LukeWGraham

- This article was updated since first published to include a clarification from Kate Coyer.