Neustadt near Coburg in Oberfranken – while the eight young Syrians sit waiting in their third-floor apartment for the chicken on the stove to cook, the dinner table has already been laid: cutlery, plates and eight smartphones. They never stop ringing, vibrating or whistling. In the space of a few short text messages, parents back home in Syria are describing what's happening in Damascus today. In one chat a friend is talking about his accommodation in Aachen, which he's just moved into. Meanwhile, friends they've met online are sending invitations to play Candy Crush. Every few minutes one of the men picks up his phone, unlocks the screen, looks at any updates on his Facebook news stream, answers a message, puts it back down only to pick it up again in a few seconds. This is the 21st century's daily choreography – and the telephone is the refugee's most valuable tool.
It's Rasoul al-Hamade's turn to cook today in the refugees' shared apartment. The 25-year-old was studying petrochemistry in Damascus until he decided to escape the poisonous gas attacks and barrel bombs and cross the Med on an inflatable dinghy in spring this year. By May he'd reached the Greek island of Kos with his rucksack packed with a few clothes, money and, of course, his phone. Rasoul arrived on Kos at dawn but he already knew exactly what the next stage of his journey was. Get the ferry to Piraeus and from there on to the Balkan. "I'll show you", he says as he takes his smartphone out of his pocket. He opens Google Maps and zooms in on the border region between Greece and Serbia closer and closer until a black line becomes visible, an open railway bridge. "Here!" That's where he wants to cross the border. Others who have already made it across, had sent him the bridge's co-ordinates by WhatsApp.
There are special Facebook groups where refugees share information. Anyone who speaks Arabic can find out about routes, people smugglers and accommodation. That's a how the smartphone serves as an escape tool. But this is just one of the reasons why this device has become indispensable to people like Rasoul. Almost just as important as the link it maintains to their old homes is the role it plays as a central integration aid to accompany them in their new life. If the 2011 Arab Spring was the first Facebook rebellion, then we can call the huge numbers of refugees arriving in Europe in 2015 the first digitally-driven mass migration. And all these digital refugees en route gathering around power sockets with their chargers in hand as well as those constantly reaching for their phones who've already arrived, are opening up our eyes to the current networking state of our planet.
Rasoul al-Hamade always carries his phone in his trouser pocket. It's a non-descript black Samsung with rounded corners. He bought the used device soon after arriving in Germany because his last phone was stolen somewhere in Macedonia. The Samsung looks fairly battered but it doesn't bother Rasoul. The main thing is that his window to the world, the rectangular touchscreen, works ok. His girlfriend tries to call him on WhatsApp but while with his group of friends he discreetly rejects the call. Later on his sister sends him a message with photos of his cousins and nephews. He replies with a few snapshots from his time in Oberfranken: Rasoul on a bike ride with a donated bike and dinner in his apartment. Images of his new life.
"I've yet to meet a single refugee who doesn't have at least a basic mobile phone with them," says Vassilis Tsianos. The sociologist from the Kiel University of Applied Sciences has written a whole book about modern migrants, Mobile Commons. In July and August he interviewed some people on the Greek island of Kos who were making their way to Central Europe. Again and again it became apparent just how important the digital connection was to the refugees. "They were all so closely networked and shared information and plans online," says Tsianos.