There have been comments and even open criticism regarding the use of “good” cell phones by refugees. There are people who do not realise that a person who is today a refugee is someone who yesterday was someone “like you and me”, someone who had a life, a family, a house, a job, a car and, very probably, a “good” cell phone.


Deema, a young dentist from Damascus fled with her cousin and a friend. When crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece they landed on a small island. Everybody was extremely exhausted and nobody knew where they were. A refugee from Afghanistan had a charged phone and got in touch with UNHCR. Edema told us that this phone call saved 70 lives that morning. Photo: Emma Fredriksson, Tekniska museet.

In a press release regarding its upcoming exhibition I’m Alive – Mobile Technology, Life and Death (opening Oct.12), Tekniska Museet, Sweden’s National Museum of Science and Tehnology, reminds us that our daily use of smartphones to perform errands, communicate with friends or purely for the sake of enjoyment is something we almost take for granted. But for displaced people who are on the move away from a life of uncertainty in their homeland, a smartphone can be of much greater importance, they can represente a lifeline. People may share the same places and inhabit the same digital environments, but their use of technology may have very different purposes. On the same beach where you are updating your Instagram followers on your holiday adventures, other people in vulnerable situations are sending selfies to tell their families that they are still alive. Some people may their phone’s GPS when driving in the dense city traffic or when measuring how far and fast they have just jogged.  But this same function is also used by refugees in order to find the safest way across the death-filled sea.

Anna Chiara Cimoli recently interviewed Peter Du Rietz and Magdalena Tafvelin Heldner, Tekniska Museet’s curators responsible for the project and the exhibition.

How did the museum decide to focus on phone technologies, and why did you choose this peculiar viewpoint? 

Communication technology has been one of our most important fields for many years. We have large collections on different kinds of phone technology, for example, and we have also had many exhibitions in this field.  Sweden is one of the world leading countries when it comes to communication technology, with companies such as Ericsson and Telia. We have also been early adopters of communication technology for a long time in Sweden. You could say it is part of the Swedish national brand. Another national brand has been generosity towards refugees. Sweden was during 2015 the European country with the largest number of granted asylums per capita and number two after Germany in absolute numbers. The use of smartphones by refugees and mobile internet combine these national brands.

How did you do the research? (field research, through interviews, based on existing literature, attending hackathons, etc.) 

We contacted the Refugees Welcome movement and a refugee shelter and through these organizations we came in contact with several refugees who were willing to be interviewed by us. We interviewed nine refugees from Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and Eritrea. We also scanned internet for information on what was being done in this field in the fields of journalism, research and volunteer initiatives.

Is there a “new market”, so to speak, regarding apps for migrants? What is the role of personal creativity (= what is the role of migrants themselves in shaping the tools they need?)? In which fields is there more investment regarding these new apps (mapping, money transfer, free text messaging, translation, etc.)?

Yes, you could say that. However, existing apps (such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber, translation apps, Google maps etc.) are most commonly used. Many refugee initiatives concern starting Facebook- and WhatsApp groups for refugees.

Big organizations, such as the Red Cross and UNHCR, have also developed apps, so there is certainly a market for app developers.

Through which forms of mediation is the exhibition going to show the complexity of the issue? Have you planned to involved some refugees? 

In the exhibition we have used some of the tools refugees themselves used during their journey, such as Google maps, to visualize their way to Sweden. The exhibition also includes visualization that describes solutions which have helped refugees and where digital and mobile technology plays a vital role.


Khaled in Macedonia after a walking most of the way from Greece.  During his trip the GPS was especially important to find the way but it was also dangerous. He walked with unknown people through unknown landscapes. During nighttime they had to switch off their phones in order not to be tracked. Photo: private from Khaled’s smartphone.


Hanadi, one of our respondent who left Syria after a bomb attack. Their house was destroyed and she started her journey with her two daughters, 6 and 8. In Greece her smartphone fell into the sea. Days of fear followed. After 25 days in a refugees camp she could finally meet with her son and together they walked through the Balkans and travelled by train from Austria to Sweden.  Photo: Emma Fredriksson, Tekniska museet.