A blessing and a curse Smartphones and people on the move

Refugees and migrants in the digital age

What do we take with us when we leave our home? Whether the departure is planned or sudden, almost everyone takes a mobile with them. For people on the move, it is often the only way they have to keep in contact with family and friends. It can also contain useful names and addresses along their route. Albums and apps can also be used to store reminders and important documents. And by providing access to the internet, smartphones can also help refugees obtain information, translate foreign languages and make financial transactions. In essence, smartphones have become an indispensible tool for people fleeing home.

And that is exactly why smartphones of people on the move are becoming an increasing focus of police, border authorities and migration agencies. Signals from mobile phones can be tracked at sea or at national borders in order to prevent people from entering or at least to have them documented by police. Border police and asylum authorties have increasingly turned to confiscating mobile phones – a highly dubious practice. And Germany is no exception. Police and authorities read out and save data from smartphones to identify suspected smugglers or others who help people on the move, and also to confirm the owner’s identity. In doing so, they are storing people’s sensitive, personal data.

Violence and surveillance

It’s even worse for people on the move travelling the Balkan route between Greece and Austria. There, smartphones are often destroyed without grounds by authorities or masked militia members, as recently reported by Brot für die Welt’s partner organisation Border Violence Monitoring. The goal of border police is to protect themselves from possible punishment. Because without the cameras on their phones, people on the move cannot document their illegal and often brutal treatment and seek legal remedy.

In some countries, even people who support refugees and migrants are having their phones searched. Police or intelligence agencies penetrate the devices with Trojan horses in order to gain access to the data and applications contained on them. In essence, this turns the phone into a listening device in the owner’s pocket. Exactly such an attack was made public during an investigation against sea rescuers in Italy.

People on the move: blackmailed and rescued

Unfortunately, human traffickers also make use of smartphones. They use messaging apps to send blackmail videos of kidnapped migrants to family and relatives in order to extort ransom money. A Brot für die Welt partner organisation (which we will not name for security reasons) has been trying to expose these networks in Libya for years.

But at the same time, smartphones and mobiles can save lives: refugees and migrants who travel the ever dangerous routes through the Sahara can use the emergency telephone service from Alarm Phone Sahara, a Brot für die Welt partner based in Niger. The organisation’s employees are available 24 hours a day and can initiate rescue operations or search for missing people.

Militarised migration policy

How is the experience of people on the move changing in the digital age? One thing is for certain: the increasing attacks by security services on mobiles is occuring in the context of ever greater militarisation of migration policies, which have come to define people on the move as security risks. This is true not only for policies at European or North American national borders, but also along the entire migration routes . Such policy changes have been accompanied by an increase in violence aginst refugees, migrants and Brot für die Welt partner organisations alike.

The information in this web dossier was partly collected by partner organizations of Brot für die Welt. We are interested in gathering more evidence on how the smartphones of people on the move have become targets of state and private actors - and the consequences this has for people on the move and activists alike. Please contact us if you have any information on this topic or would like to become politically active.

Mobiles as surveillence devices

Location tracking

Smartphones and apps have become important tools for people on the move to navigate treacherous routes or border crossings. However, police and border authorities are increasingly using these same phones as tracking devices to prevent such crossings.

According to Airbus, for example, the “Heron 1” drone, which is being used in the Mediterranean, is equipped with technology for locating mobile and satellite phones. Frontex itself has so far denied this, but according to Airbus the drone is equipped with COMINT sensors. This abbreviation has its origins in the military and stands for “communication intellience”, referring to the recording or evaluation of telephone links to gather information. In contrast to technologies such as radar and conventional cameras – or even night vision cameras – these devices can locate people at night or during bad weather. The resulting footage from the drones, operated by Airbus, is streamed by satellite in real time to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw.

Surveillance from outer space

Soon it will also be possible to surveil mobile phones from space using miniature satellites. Frontex is awarding multi-million euro contracts for this new satellite-based phone detection technology. This will enable authorities to locate the boats which transport refugees, provided the people on board are carrying devices to contact someone in the event of an emergency at sea. The companies which manufacturer this technology are primarily contractors for militaries and intelligence services.

The EU Commission is pursuing a simliar goal by financining the “Foldout” project for surveilling national borders. Foldout is a collaboration between the Austrian Institute of Technology, the French armaments company Thales and border police from various countries. It’s goal is to test a combination of small and large drones, helicopters and satellites for use in border security. This cascade of surveillance devices includes sensors on the ground which are able to detect phones in the area. If a phone is detected within range of a cell tower, the owner is automatically located and can be tracked from the air.

The Balkan route as testing ground

In the summer of 2022, this technology was tested at the border between Greece and Turkey along the Evros River, and in the forests near the Bulgarian border. This region is where many refugees and migrants embark on the land route through the Balkans on their way to Germany or Sweden.

The Claim Asylum app from the initiative Leave No One Behind 

According to the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, every person who is fleeing persecution in their homeland is entitled to apply for international protection. In spite of this, the border authorities of many EU Member States are illegally sending refugees back. A new internet-based app is intended to uncover these “pushbacks” and support the refugees in appying for asylum. The Claim Asylum EU app lets you submit an application from any mobile device. It also determines and records the phone’s GPS data and can be used to send photos. This allows refugees to document that they have already arrived in an EU Member State and are entitled to review of their asylum application.

Alarm Phone Sahara

Supporting migrants 24/7

“How many people has Algeria abandoned in the desert – 170?” Azizou Chehou is sitting in a covered courtyard in the desert city of Agadez and talking on the phone. As he does so often. As coordinator of the Alarm Phone Sahara (APS) activist network, he handles a majority of the calls that reach Alarm Phone Sahara every day. Like this one from the border region between Niger and Algeria, where his fellow activists are attempting to rescue people who have been abandoned in the desert.

No sooner has Chehou hung up than he receives photos on his phone of people who have been pushed out of Algeria and abandoned in the desert of Niger. The photos are proof of the injustices happening every day. It is often said that more migrants die in the Sahara than in the Mediterranean, though there are no exact figures. Since the EU declared war on migration in Niger towards North Africa, people on the move are seeking out increasingly dangerous routes. Often they lose their way amongst the desert sands. Whether they die of thirst or end up in the hands of human traffickers – who can verify that?

For people on the move in distress

“We knew we had to do something”, explains Chehou. “In the same way that Alarm Phone coordinates sea rescues in the Mediterranean, we wanted to save lives, document injustices and support migrants in the Sahara”. For Alarm Phone Sahara, or APS, the smartphone is their central means of receiving information: about stranded migrants in distress, about medical emergencies, about kidnapped women or the most recent push back statistics from Algeria. To manage this information, APS has built a network of supporters: people who live along the migration routes through the desert, or who are closely connected to migrant communities back in their villages. They also receive calls directly from migrants in distress – or from family members who are desperately looking for their missing husbands or daughters.

Often, APS is able track down these missing people. Their activists have also succeeded in freeing multiple women from the clutches of human traffickers and from forced prostitution. But the number of people in distress is increasing. “It can’t go on like this”, says Azizou Chehou from Alarm Phone Sahara. “The inhumane migration policies of the EU and the Maghreb states must come to an end.”

In a joint publication with Misereor, we analyze the role of the EU in the implementation of a restrictive migration policy in Niger.

Alarm Phone Sahara is part of the Alarm Phone network that we also present in this chapter.

Digital Black Holes

Blackmailing by phone

Libya is a stronghold of human trafficking. If you find yourself in one of their camps, you are entirely at their mercy. There is no communication in or out. Except for the brutal blackmail videos which the traffickers send to the prisoners’ family and relatives.

“We [the human traffickers] take you, we confiscate your phone. We see numbers on your phone and we call those numbers. We say: “Do you know this person?” “Yes, I know him very well.”[…] “So you have to call his parents and tell them he is in prison.” There you go. They send a video, a bad video where [the parents can see] the person getting hit, getting beaten up. He screams. He is tied up. So we tell them: “The amount [of the ransom], you bring it to this place.” It’s like what we used to see in the movies. And then if the parents say they don’t pay, we’ll kill you that’s all.”

[Excerpt from an interview from a book by Mirjam van Reisen et al. (ed.): Enslaved: Trapped and Trafficked in Digital Black Holes: Human Trafficking Trajectories to Libya, p. 536]

Mobile phones make it easier for refugees and migrants to get around. But they are also used by traffickers, who have invented a brutal new way to profit from human trafficking: the imprisonment and torture of refugees in order to extort ransom money from their family and relatives. Since the early aughts, this practice has spread through the Sinai Penninsula and beyond, particularly to Libya.

“Controlling information is one of the key tactics used by human traffickers in Libya”, explains Sam Clark, who works for a Brot für die Welt partner organisation (not named for security reasons). The traffickers confiscate the cell phones of refugees and migrants so that they cannot independently send or receive information. “The victims are forced to live in a digital black hole”, says Clark.

Stomping on human rights

It is difficult to overstate the cruelty of life in a human trafficking camp: beatings, torture, forced labour, overcrowding, cramped conditions, abysmal nutrition – the list of severe human rights abuses is long. The situation is particularly troubling for women. Almost every women who falls into the clutches of human traffickers is raped or forced into prostitution.

The EU is part of the problem

The fact that human trafficking networks have taken root in Libya over the past decades is due in part to EU policies. The EU is pursuing all means to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe – including working with dubious agents such as the Libyan coastguard. “Many of the migrants picked up by the Libyan coastguard end up in the hands of human traffickers”, reports Sam Clark. “The EU willingly accepts this”.

And the fact that little information and next to no images emerge from the internment camps also plays into the EU’s hands. This means that there is little public pressure to do something against the inhuman and unjust conditions in Libya. “How can the EU monitor every corner of its external borders with state-of-the-art technology, while at the same time there are blind spots in Libya where we know next to nothing?” says Clark.

Money transfer by phone

“The money’s on its way.”

Valeria Hernandez* (real name known to the editors) has a problem. A few months ago, she and her family fled the rampant violence in Honduras. So far everything has gone to plan. They were able to reach Mexico via Guatemala. The journey from Mexico’s southern border to its northern one also went off without any major problems. But then the family fell into the clutches of a criminal gang. This gang initially offered them help, but in reality it wanted only one thing: money. Otherwise they would never release Valeria Hernandez and her family.

But the family had long run out of money. Over previous weeks, they had continually used their phones to message family members in Honduras when they were short on money, for example to buy a bus ticket or pay for lodging. Usually the money arrived quickly, via a bank transfer on their phone. Apps allow people to transfer money easily and within minutes. But it’s not only migrants taking advantage of this possibility. Criminal networks are also using this form of money transfer, for example to receive the ransom money which they extort from refugees’ families.

Remittances: supporting those who stayed

The Hernandez family was lucky. Once again, their family and friends in Honduras scraped together the money and trasferred it to the blackmailers. Valeria Hernandez and her family were released. And made it to the USA. Now they are the ones who are transferring money back to their homeland – using their mobiles, of course. These transfers, known as remittances, are a key source of income for many familes in the Global South. In many of these countries, remittances make up a significant portion of the country’s economic activity – and far outstrip the money which the countries receive as development aid.

The global leader in received remittances is India, with the equivalent of 89 billion US dollars in 2022, followed by Mexico with 54 billion US dollars. Since 2010, the amount of money that migrants send back to their home in Mexico has almost tripled. This boom is due in no small part to the rise of the smartphone.

Luis explains how the remittances he receives from family members support his life in Mexico City.

Europol’s digital hunt for human smugglers and those helping refugees

Vanished from the scene

Anyone fleeing across land or sea borders usually needs help to do so. The smartphone is a key tool that refugees use to obtain this help – whether it’s to get information about routes or to contact smugglers. Whatever their commerical, humanitarian, political or criminal motives, smugglers and traffickers usually advertise their services on social meida, primarily on Facebook.

Angelica, who migrated from El Salvador to the USA, explains how she contacted smugglers using her smartphone:

EU police agency Europol has set up an online reporting centre for uncovering people offering such services. If possible human trafficking services are identified, Europol reports the posts to Facebook, Google, YouTube or other internet service providers. In most cases the companies comply with the associated request to delete without the need for a court order.

Diverted to increasingly dangerous routes

At its outset, the reporting centre focused on voyages across the Mediterranean in large, decommissioned cargo ships. This route was used by many Syrian refugees after the outbreak of their civil war. These cargo ships were a relatively safe means of escape compared to small and often unseaworthy wooden boats. Europol helped close this door to Europe.

After Belarus started offering visa-free travel from countries such as Iraq two years ago and thus opened up global travel to the EU, Europol began cracking down on these migration routes as well. In 2021, the reporting centre reported at least 455 social media accounts promoting “smuggling services from Belarus to Europe” to internet service providers for deletion.

Rising prices

Meanwhile Europol has also cracked down on people who help refugees cross the English Channel into Great Britain. For example, the reporting centre looks for suspicious accounts offering inflatable boats or life jackets for sale.

But rather than preventing border crossings into Europe, such controls actually make them more difficult. This criminalisation drives up the price for refugees seeking assistance, forcing them onto even riskier routes.

A hotline for people in distress at sea

0033486517161. Many people who try to reach Europe by boat have this number with them. It is the number of the Alarm Phone. Activists from Europe and Africa launched the hotline ten years ago. Since then, their shift teams are available 24/7. They have assisted about 7.000 boats in distress and have saved many from impending disasters. During the emergency calls, though, the activists have also often witnessed violent pushbacks or deadly abandonment.

The Alarm Phone is much more than an emergency hotline. It is the voice of solidarity in the Mediterranean, as a report by the activists illustrates.

A voice of solidarity

When you talk with travelers on a boat in distress, you have only your voice and nothing else and often only very little windows of time to communicate. To start a conversation with “hello my friend” and with saying who we are, is a given. In this way we say ‘welcome’ in a moment when everything seems to be blocked. It can make clear that we are neither the police nor the coastguard. It is you and me who will now communicate. We will take time to sort out what is needed.

Sometimes we have difficulties understanding each other – not only because of language barriers. Distress can sometimes make voices shrill and incomprehensible when people are scared to death. Panic can also make words meaningless. One of the most important tasks is to break first that spiral of fear so that it is possible to speak and understand one another.

Despite these obstacles, we are surprisingly often able to start a conversation. Besides the facts that you have to collect, you can sometimes convey a sense of solidarity through sound, a sound that will echo still in your ears when the communication has ended.

"Thank you, we are safe"

Sometimes, there are brief conversations that last for maybe three minutes or less – a woman shouting into the phone: “Hallelujah, they came already! We are safe!” The sound of the victory cry ‘BOOOZA’, uttered by those who just arrived in Spain is something you will never forget. Sometimes a “thank you we are safe” comes with a thumbs up or a smiley on WhatsApp.

Sometimes there is silence. The battery died or the phone was thrown into the sea to avoid detection by coastguards. Sometimes the voice itself is silenced by the water of the sea. These are the moments when silence can break your heart.

Rarely and only when we are lucky, do we have the time to say goodbye. Saying goodbye as a way to say ‘welcome to Europe’ or instead “the next time, inshallah you will make it” – and to wish strength and pass on with your voice as much energy as you can.


This insight is based on a text from the Alarm Phone homepage.

Pushbacks on the Balkan route

Smartphones as weapon

The shaky phone video shows a man limping across a field, whimpering and in enormous pain. Then it zooms in on the background: Men are standing in a trench and behind it, wearing masks and various uniforms. Even though these images are pixelated, you can clearly see what is happening: one masked man is beating people with a kind of whip, the other with a long stick. “They strike you wherever they can. Your head, legs, arms – everywhere”, one of the victims later explains.

The acts shown in this video are occurring in the very heart of Europe, at the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. The refugees are captured by Croatian security forces, carted off to the border in a van and then chased across the border with beatings. One of the victims managed to take a video. But this is the exception, as mobiles are usually confiscated and destroyed before pushbacks. The perpetrators don’t want any witnesses to these brutal, illegal and shockingly normalised pushbacks at the EU’s borders.

Exposing injustice

The activist network Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a partner organisation of Brot für die Welt, wants to expose the injustice of these pushbacks. BVMN is made up of 13 local organisations, which in addition to documenting pushbacks also provide emergency aid to people on the move along the Balkan route from Greece to Austria. They have created an interactive database of pushbacks in southeastern Europe and publish monthly reports on the severe human rights abuses which accompany these pushbacks. “Around 90 percent of the people we talk to have been victims of torture or some other form of violence”, reports Claudia Lombardo Diéz from BVMN.

Smartphones are a key tool for documenting these assaults. Videos and photos taken of victims during pushbacks or illegal detentions do more than just expose these practices. Activists also analyse the images in minute detail to draw conclusions about the exact locations of the crimes and the perpetrators involved. This information is used to submit reports to EU or UN bodies, or to file complaints in court.

Systemic destruction of phones

“The systematic destruction of smartphones makes our work more difficult”, says activist Lombardo Diéz. “And the consequences are even worse for the migrants affected.” If you take someone’s mobile, you’re taking their ability to communicate with family, travel compansions and those back home, and to plan their next steps. You are also violently taking away personal momentos such as photos and videos.

The destruction of mobiles at EU borders is not only intended to destroy evidence. It is also a sort of psychological violence which the EU uses to force people on the move on the Balkan route to turn around.

Confiscation of mobile phones

"Your phone, please!"

Reading the information on someone’s phone is a deep intrusion into their right to privacy. That is why we have strict requirements about proportionality and data protection. But these rules don’t seem to apply to asylum seekers. According to the Society for Civil Rights (GFF), the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) reads out the information contained on many asylum seekers’ phones and even makes a copy. They claim this is done to help verify a person’s identity and nationality. Immigration authorities may also search data carriers belonging to undocumented persons in order to determine the destination country in the event of a deportation.

However, this reading out of people’s phones violates the basic German right to “informational self-determination”. Authorities maintain that the refugees are given the choice whether to hand over their passwords. But according to the GFF, refugees often do not receive a concrete description of what the search entails and how their data will be processed. When claiming asylum, applicants are at the mercy of the powerful authorities; they are afraid that their benefits will be cut or even that their asylum application will not be processed if they do not hand over their phones. 

Authorities collecting data

Authorities check whether asylum seekers’ address book or calls and messages contain country codes that correspond to their home country as stated in the interview. They also search for country identifiers on websites visited. Authorities extract data from photo albums that reveal the location where a photo was taken. The login names for various apps are also listed.

Reading out phones is expensive – according to the GFF, the voice recognition software alone cost 17 million euros. And the required labour is high as well. But the results paint a clear picture: in the period from the beginning of 2018 to August 2022, the BMAF read out 45,500 phones. In only 227 cases were asylum applicants’ statements refuted, which corresponds to a rate of 0.5 percent.

A dodgy practice

On 16 February 2023, the Federal Administrative Court of Germany ruled that this regular reading out of phones by the BAMF is not covered by the Asylum Act. The court thus upheld the complaint of a 44-year-old Afghan woman who, together with the GFF, took this phone reading case to the Administrative Court in Berlin two years ago. The Berlin court has already deemed the measure to be unlawful.

However, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the minister presidents of the federal states announced in May 2023 that the early reading out of cell phones to verify identities should continue to be allowed. The federal government would “examine the need to make changes resulting from the decision of the Federal Administrative Court”. To put it another way: if the reading out of cell phones is not legal, we will just change the law. The Bundestag has now amended the law to not only legalise mass readouts of data, but even to expand them. In future, the Federal Ministry of Finance will even be able to read data stored in the cloud. Asylum seekers who do not voluntarily hand over their phone will be threatened with a home search.

In view of the massive encroachment on privacy rights, not to mention the high costs and ineffectiveness of cell phone read-outs, this decision is incomprehensible.

Big Data and migration

What the future holds

Mobile phones leave behind traces. These traces do more than allow people to track the routes of invidual migrants. By combining the data of thousands of people, it is possible to obtain real-time maps of current refugee and migration movements as well as to forecast such movements in the future.

Network operators routinely record when a call is made or a text message is sent from a mobile. This traffic data includes the location of the cell tower and a time stamp. Even more data records are generated when phone users access the internet – this data is constantly collected in the background without the user doing anything, unless they disable the recording of GPS coordinates or Wi-Fi networks. This information can be enriched with data from other sources, such as phone-based money transfers.

Surveillance of refugees

Mobile phone providers in individual countries make this data available in anonymised form. Collected together, they enable conclusions and forecasts to be drawn about entire migration movements. If authorities use data from different mobile network operators, they can even track migration across neighbouring countries.

In addition to movement data, authorities also analyse publicly available internet content to create forecasts. This information is collected not only by private individuals and scientists, but also by Google and Recorded Future – a company founded by the CIA – which collect these data in what are known as “event databases”. These databases contain information on past civil wars, uprisings and protests, but also major movements of refugees. Using artificial intelligence, they combine archived and current data, such as social media posts, to predict future events.

Data use or data abuse?

What happens to the collected information depends on the interests of the persons collecting it. Movement data and forecasts can be used by humanitarian aid organisations to identify and plan measures for migrants and refugees. However, they can also be used to take repressive measures to stop people on the move – as is done at the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw. Who has access to which data will become an increasingly important topic in migration policy in the future.

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