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"Refugees need phone credit almost as much as food and water"

Samantha Lind of charity Phone Credit for Refugees describes the vital work to give displaced people mobile phones to connect them with their loved ones

Sunday 07 October 2018 09:35 BST
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It’s so easy to forget the human factor when talking about the refugee crisis. The United Nations say we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with around thirty people each minute being forcibly expelled from their homes. For those of us fortunate enough to have a safe place to call home, the sheer magnitude of the problem can be can difficult to comprehend. In a world where over 68 million people need our help, what can one person do?

About three years ago, the news was full of images of migrants in Calais, France, running across busy motorways to leap onto moving lorries. The police were trying to control the situation, but there was panic and chaos everywhere. In the camps of Calais, men, women, and children were sleeping in ragged tents or under bridges or in parks, and the few volunteers on the ground were completely overwhelmed by all of the people that needed their help. And this wasn’t just happening in Calais – it was happening in Lebanon, France, Germany, Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Greece, Libya, and Indonesia too.

For refugees on the move, having access to mobile phones to use the internet and make calls is almost as essential as food and water. Aid worker Isaac Kwamy told Reuters that when he met migrants on the move in Europe “very few of them said, ‘We are hungry, we need food. Or we are thirsty, can we have water?” Kwamy said. “They were literally asking, ‘Do you have Wi-fi access and where can we charge our phones?’”.

It’s not hard to see why this was so important to people. A mobile phone allows refugees to stay in touch with their loved ones, communicate with support agencies, be aware of dangerous situations, plan their journey, and stay safe. The isolation, fear and adverse psychological health felt by refugees is made worse by the separation from natural support structures – family, friends and community, and having no means of keeping in touch with relatives still living in conflict areas.

For Fahim, a refugee from Afghanistan, having access to phone credit saved his life when he and four other boys were trapped in the trunk of a car driven by a smuggler and losing consciousness. For others like Sharif, phone credit is a lifeline that keeps them connected to loved ones and gives them comfort and hope in the worst times.

So, how can you provide practical support for people when in most cases, there isn’t any formal aid infrastructure in place and they’re half a world away? This is a problem that social worker James Pearce set out to solve when he created the group Phone Credit for Refugees in February 2016. The aim of the group was simple – to provide a safe space for refugees and donors to connect to provide mobile phone top-ups for those most in need. The group began modestly, with a few of Pearce’s friends joining the group and donating money to provide phone credit, but it quickly grew as this important need was recognised.

Two and a half years later, the group has 80,000 members and has completed nearly 50,000 top-ups to a value of almost 700,000 pounds. Giving is a fundamentally social act, and research shows that spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. This is a huge part of why Phone Credit for Refugees has grown so organically and successfully – not only are we giving to help others, but we’ve also become a close-knit community. The group is volunteer-led, with a small group of admins from around the world spending hours a day logging requests, topping up phones, building community ties, fundraising, and problem solving. Or as Pearce puts it, ‘essentially making a small miracle happen each day with the help and support of a lot of very kind people’.

But being a volunteer-led group that relies solely on public donations also has its drawbacks. At any one time, we have around 700 people waiting to have their request for credit considered by one of the admins, and anywhere from 500-800 people who’ve already had their situation assessed and deemed to be unsafe waiting for their phones to be topped up. As the money trickles in, the team work to top up phones for the most vulnerable people first – particularly those sleeping on the streets, unaccompanied minors, and women.

The team have a weekly fundraiser on a Friday and have a number of recurring monthly donations that help keep things ticking over, but each week is a gamble as the team hold their breath to see how many people they’ll be able to help. Over the past year the team has had to make some tough decisions to cut back their services in an attempt to make donations stretch as far as possible and that those in danger have access to credit when they need it most.

We can’t do this alone. The refugee crisis shows no signs of improving, and every day there are more people at risk. We need you to spread the word – join our group, campaign for us, and tell your friends about is! We found that when we gave refugees the chance to speak to the outside world we didn't just connect them to their families, we connected them to ourselves and to each other. When we take credit requests, we’re not just processing data – we’re reaching out to someone on a human level, and trying to bring a bit of light and warmth into their lives. Our community is our strength, and we need you to help us to continue to grow.

For more information visit www.pc4r.org. To make a donation to Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People click here

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