Information and communications technology show up right through what researchers call the “refugee life-cycle”. People in northern Iraq use WhatsApp and Viber to talk to friends who have made it to Germany; UNHCR uses iris scans for identification in camps in Jordan and Lebanon; migrants on flimsy rubber boats in the Mediterranean use satellite phones provided by people-smugglers to call the Italian coastguard; and geeks in Europe teach refugees how to code so that they can try to get jobs. Aid groups must work out who needs their help. Governments must monitor their borders and keep track of arrivals.
As African migrants continue to travel by boat to Italy, and the 60,000 refugees, including many Syrians, who are stuck in camps in Greece try to find ways to get out, Europe is experiencing what Alexander Betts of Oxford University calls a “technological arms race”. It starts before a migrant arrives in Europe. The situation room of the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome is dominated by two large screens, one showing boats run by NGOs and EU military vessels in the central Mediterranean, and the other conditions at sea. Employees of the Italian navy take calls on an array of red telephones from migrants with satellite handsets whose boats are in distress and inform any rescue boats in the vicinity. It is essential that the location is pinpointed: the central Mediterranean, which 180,000 migrants crossed last year alone, is the deadliest migration route.