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Technology and the Ukraine Refugee Crisis: Field Notes from Eastern Europe

The sight of people visibly exhausted by stressful and harrowing journeys lies side by side with challenges familiar to any traveler today - charge my phone, connect to WiFi, send a WhatsApp message to mum, look up the railway timetable online.

April 25, 2022

By: Duncan Drury, Lead on Connectivity, Infrastructure and Energy Programs at NetHope
All Photos, Credit: Rakesh Bharania

The war in Ukraine has had a deep effect on neighboring countries and Europe as a whole, as over 5.2 million people (UNHCR), largely women, children, and the elderly, have crossed borders fleeing the violence. Rakesh Bharania and I recently visited 54 sites across Romania, Moldova, and Poland to assess the technological aspect of the response to the refugee crisis, and to better understand how refugees themselves use technology in their journeys. We witnessed refugees regularly using smartphones and the internet for tasks ranging from research into complex international refugee options, to contacting loved ones still in Ukraine, to resting and recuperating from harrowing journeys. We watched as the humanitarian response developed from local volunteers and local governments to international organizations. Each stage of the response made use of technology to manage the outpouring of goodwill in the form of volunteers and donated goods, and to address issues of human safety in a constantly evolving situation.

When we arrived at Bucharest Station in Romania, shortly before a train carrying refugees, one of the first things we noticed was the large numbers of volunteers registering with the local emergency services organization – an expression of goodwill and solidarity we saw in every location we visited. In the busy station, Romanian Red Cross and Save the Children were organizing services in waiting rooms that had been converted into refugee service centers. Leonard from Save the Children showed us the mother and children room:

"Mothers who arrive with their children have spent days traveling from all over Ukraine, all the time focused on the safety of their children, not knowing how long the journey would take. By the time they reach here they are exhausted. The most important thing we can do for them is help them with their kids for a few minutes or hours and let them have some headspace to take care of themselves, contact loved ones, and plan the next stage of their journey."

He was mounting a smart TV to the wall and looking for a way to show Ukrainian language programs to the 20 or 30 kids that were gathering while their mothers took 40 winks, had a cup of tea and a sandwich, or made phone calls.

"This old station has thick walls, and the WiFi doesn't reach this room very well. We can open the YouTube page but searching or showing a video just doesn't work, so we are showing what we can from USB sticks."

In another room a host of yellow-vested volunteers (those speaking Ukrainian wearing orange vests), helped refugees navigate the process of choosing where to travel next and how to get train or bus tickets.

"There are only two ticket machines here. I'm helping people with information and obtaining tickets with my phone to try and speed things up."

Ionut from the Romanian Red Cross showed me the table where refugees charged their phones:

"Some of us brought extension cables from our homes and gathered up what phone chargers we could find. Some already broke and the cables go missing. People want to use their phones to make onward arrangements and let their husbands know they got here safely, but there is no way to charge them while they are traveling so many have run flat. The chargers and cables often go missing."

I can relate to the panic around a dying battery, but not with the life and death events that are playing out over the border.

We observed similar situations at other transport hubs in Moldova and Poland. In Poland, large centers for refugees have emerged, organized by local government and volunteers, in exhibition spaces, disused shopping malls and sports arenas. In Przemyśl, Jürgen from Medair explained, "Refugees line up under the flag of the country they wish to go to. A volunteer will explain to them what is on offer, what they need to do, and try to match them up with a bus or a lift. There is also room 13, for the people who don't know where to go. It's the busiest room."

As each day passed and we visited more sites, we saw the ubiquitous collections of flyers and posters taped to prominent walls grow larger, providing details of buses to different countries (Germany, Bulgaria, Italy, Portugal), warnings about sharing personal data safely, local sources of assistance and occasional heart-breaking requests for help locating missing children.

An area of particular concern in all three countries was the prevention of human trafficking, and gender-based violence. Stories of single men offering transport to younger single women were spreading in media reports across Europe, by word of mouth amongst the refugees, and we saw posts warning of this on the noticeboards. Michaela from FONSS, an organization coordinating and supporting social services organizations across Romania explained.

"It is a real risk. Vulnerable people are getting into cars, and there is no record of it. We have no way of knowing that they reached where they wanted to go safely. We know there are people out there exploiting the crisis. It's really worrying. We are trying to set up a system with the help of World Vision to address this."

In Przemyśl refugee mall in Poland, Medair had taken on the role of registering drivers and their vehicles in a tent separate from the refugees. A Medair volunteer that asked not to be named told us

"It's important that we collect this information, but we need to look after the personal information of the drivers properly too. We are taking down their dates of birth, home addresses, ID details."

The information also helps match drivers with those seeking transportation - registering in the mall under the flags of destination countries.

In Warsaw, at an indoor arena that normally hosted concerts and sports events, Lukas, a social worker, showed me the room he wanted to set up for teenagers.

"They really have nothing to do, and nowhere to go, so they spend most of their time sitting on the folding beds in the main room, dwelling on what they have seen and what is to come. It's really depressing. Mothers with babies are always taken care of but no-one thinks about the older kids."

A month ago, the older kids were spending their time doing the same thing as my own sons - playing Minecraft and Roblox and talking to their friends online. As many of us saw in the pandemic, our children tackled physical isolation and separation from their peers with technology. Lukas wants to set up some computers and an internet connection in this area under the arena seating.

"Older children from Ukraine will be able to reconnect with their friends and get some normality back into their lives if they can get online."

In Siret, Romania close to the border crossing with Ukraine, the road was lined with many stalls offering refugees food, clothing, push chairs, advice. Many of the organizations offering these services had also brought along a WiFi router to deliver free WiFi to both refugees and those offering help. We saw over 20 networks available with names such as FreeUkrainianHotspot. As networking professionals, we were struck by how these networks overlapped with each other, filling up all the available radio spectrum and fighting to be heard. Without coordination, none of these networks provided a usable service – they were effectively jamming each other.

Siret, Romania

As has been reported widely, cybersecurity for vulnerable people and humanitarian organizations supporting them has been a particular concern in this conflict. Part of our mission included understanding the cybersecurity and data protection risks around collecting data. Most organizations meeting the immediate physical needs of refugees were not collecting any personal data, but in the safe journey applications we saw, designed to protect people, personal data was being collected not only from refugees but those volunteering as well. It was great to see that everyone involved in this was concerned that this data collection was done securely and responsibly but several people involved voiced worries about their lack of capacity and experience in developing appropriately protective systems.

The concerns about cybersecurity we had anticipated before leaving were less prominent on the ground. Many cyber threats faced by the humanitarian sector and refugees are less visible – while data is being stolen or intelligence gathered – normal activities will still be possible. More visible threats such as denial of service attacks on communications networks and systems used by humanitarian actors are often only a concern once they have taken their toll. It is difficult to find the right balance that addresses these challenges when faced with immediate human suffering.

Palanca, Moldova

Whilst the violence in Ukraine is often described as medieval or like the Second World War, the refugee experience is very much of the 21st Century. Crossing the border in Palanca, Moldova, refugees are as likely to be met by YouTubers live vlogging to social media as by Orthodox priests offering reassurance. The sight of people visibly exhausted by stressful and harrowing journeys lies side by side with challenges familiar to any traveler today - charge my phone, connect to WiFi, send a WhatsApp message to mum, look up the railway timetable online. Using technology, particularly smartphones, is a normal part of most refugees’ experience. Being able to charge and get online is a fundamental need. Meeting the needs of people on the move requires meeting those needs in predictable, secure, and easy to access ways.

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