Balkan Migration Crisis: Bringing communications for life in the pursuit of normality

Publication date: Dec 18, 2018
“Migrants”, “refugees”, “displaced people”, how many times have we heard these words? We have been hearing them so many times during the past few years that we risk missing their true meaning. Words that are commonly used, but that rarely depict the multifaceted nature of what they aim to describe. Behind those words there are actually many individuals, each of them with their own story, all different from one another, different home countries, paths, destinations, dreams, hopes, fears and needs, but all of them with one common element: the pursuit of normality. “Back in my home country the situation is difficult, every day you hear about bomb attacks or explosions”, “From one day to another you might hear that your relative is dead, that your friend is dead”. Who wouldn’t strive for normality in such situations?
Migrants using TSF's internet connection in the Bira centre

Some of them have been travelling for a couple of months, some for a couple of years, some even for eleven years. Some left their country with their families, some alone, some left with their families but lost them along the route and ended up alone as well. “And what about you? Are you alone as well, like me?” Zac asks us, with a striking tone of resignation in his voice, which tells you that there’s something wrong there, especially when you think that he is in his twenties. Some are supported by their families in their home countries, some are not, some are considered foolish, some as examples. They want to go to Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and they are ready to do nearly anything to get there, sometimes without even being aware of the risks of the “game”, as they call their attempts to reach their destinations in Europe.     
Thousands of them are now stuck in the Bira centre in the city of Bihac, Bosnia, where Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) has started a collaboration with UN Agencies to provide free internet connection with Wi-Fi access at the beginning of November this year. Walking around in the 20,000m² factory you will seldom see one of them without a smartphone in their hands and headphones in their ears. Some smiling, some laughing, some writing messages, some talking.  You could wonder why; they should have other priorities, food, warmth, medical assistance. They indeed do, but the internet connection gives them a sense of normality in a situation that is all but normal. Several humanitarian actors and UN agencies are active in the centre to assist the migrants and refugees, but despite the efforts, the living conditions in a migrant shelter can be very difficult. Coldness, darkness, lack of food, lack of information on their future, the risk of losing everything they have sacrificed in years of attempts to change their lives, frustration for being stuck in a place without possibilities of moving neither backwards nor forward. Going back would mean giving up, “if I went back they would kill me”, moving forward is just a dangerous but promising unknown. Frustration for being stuck in a place where they cannot feel accomplishment, no life, no work, just waiting and risking their lives to make their dream come true. With the free internet connection provided by TSF, they can take a break from all of this, making life more bearable.

“It’s great what you are doing here, internet is very important for these kids, otherwise they would go crazy” a humanitarian worker tells us whilst ensuring children’s rights in the centre are respected. He shows us a kid, sitting on the floor of a container, next to the radiator, door open, maximum 10 degrees outside, smartphone in his hands, watching cartoons, because yes, he needs to stay warm, but he also needs to be a kid and have fun, no matter how cold it is outside. A migrant centre is not a place for children. Children have the right to learn, to play and have fun. In a context in which this is not possible, being able to talk and chat with friends and parents, watching animated movies, brings them out for a few moments from a situation they can barely stand. “Hey, you know that I speak English” says a boy riding around the centre with a push scooter, 8, maybe 10 years old. We start talking and find out that he is stuck in the Bira centre with his family and speaks perfect English. “Bring me with you to Italy”, that’s what he repeats, two, three times. Maybe he doesn’t even know where Italy is or how difficult it might be for him to have a life there, but that’s what probably any child would say in the same situation. “Take me away”.       

The need for normality is not just for kids. Even for adults a migrant shelter is not a place where they can have a normal life. “If I feel nervous I call them [my parents] because they help me get relaxed”, says Rajan. A journalist in his home country he decided to leave to find a better future; having lost everything along the route. Thanks to TSF’s connection he can stay in touch with his family, reassure them, tell them if he has problems and give and receive mutual support when needed. Normality for many, but something extremely important when normality is not the norm anymore. Families of migrants and refugees are not different from any other families. “They are worried about me, they want to know if I’m safe” continues Rajan. “My mother cries every time I talk to her, she asks if I have enough food here” confirms another migrant. Which mother wouldn’t worry about her children and wouldn’t want to make sure they are eating enough? Even more if they are thousands of kilometres away and they haven’t seen them for years. Considering the difficult conditions, some prefer even to hide the full truth “my mother is already sick, if I told her the conditions I’m living in here she would get even more sick” says Aria.

TSF’s free internet connection does not only give migrants and refugees in the centre a glimmer of normal life, it also provides them with the opportunity to remain informed and safe. They read news about their home country to be able to know the situation their families are living in and they can also find information on their rights, asylum procedures, safety and security.    

Families and friends are meant to stay in touch, children have the right to play and learn, moms and dads have the need to be reassured and individuals alone have the need to feel less lonely and to receive comfort. In a context in which all of this is hardly possible, in which life seems to have taken a break, TSF provides every day over 1,400 persons with a means of communication, in line with its motto, indeed, “Communications for life”.

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