When Alaa Salah lost her job as an administrative assistant with the United Nations in Syria last year, she was bereft. Without work and struggling to help her parents make ends meet amid a civil war, the future looked bleak.
Then she went online.
“I was just googling ‘How to reach Europe from Syria,’” said Salah, 26. “I found an immense amount of information about various illegal ways to get there, all published on Facebook.”
Through Facebook, Salah compared prices smugglers charge to bring migrants to Europe and how to pay them in Turkey. She discovered how different European governments treat refugees and how to deal with immigration officials.
“I knew what to expect,” said Salah. “I even knew what kind of food is served in different camps around Germany.”
Around 4 million Syrians have fled their country’s civil war, according to the UN. That’s an enormous amount in absolute terms — but a relatively small number of people when it comes to sharing information on social media and the web.
“You will get a number of online offers to smuggle you,” she said. “I didn’t know whom to trust. I used Facebook to get a sense of certainty about the process.”
Facebook groups among Syrians seeking a better life in Europe have mushroomed in recent years, creating what you might call a social media diaspora. Among the largest is a group with more than 115,000 members called “The Garages Of The Unsettled.” Founded three years ago, the page provides tips on migration routes, smuggling prices and safe layovers.
“Three guys wanted to help their relatives in their journey to Europe,” said Kenan Da, 26, one of 10 administrators of the page. “It was a secret group since it was made for private aims. They just wanted to help these families and document their trip to help other relatives when they want to take the same route.”
Da never dreamed Garages would become so popular, and help refugees facing life-or-death situations.
“Everybody is trying to share his or her personal experience with those who still haven’t made the trip yet,” said Da, a Syrian computer programmer who lives in Turkey. “The group is also an aid station for any group of migrants on the way. People try to help migrants who get stuck at sea by asking other members to call the coast guard or give directions about the best routes to take after reaching eastern Europe.”
People use the group to communicate with friends and family at home, too.
“In many cases only one member of the family takes the trip, and the rest of the family living in Syria uses the group to ask for reassurance,” he said.
Using Facebook and other social media on the road requires a mobile device, however. Few migrants set out without a smart phone.
On the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, where refugees have been passing through on the way to Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe, officials often catch Middle Easterners and North Africans using handheld devices for navigation, said Bulgarian Deputy Interior Minister Philip Gounev.
“As long as you have a mobile phone with Google Earth, you can immediately walk someone through the border,” said Gounev. “We catch Syrians with 3 to 4 batteries for their smart phones and maybe even an iPad.”
The situation has made it easy for smugglers, too.
“These are new traffickers with mobile phones and tablets who don’t know the region at all,” said Gounev. “They just use modern technology to take people across. We caught a coyote-type person who was not even a Bulgarian. He was Syrian.”
Facebook helps migrants before they set out on their journey or when they are settled somewhere, if only temporarily.
WhatsApp, on the other hand, is a key tool on the road. Unlike Facebook, it functions well with a weak internet signal, migrants said. WhatsApp users can also send their GPS locations directly to each other so people don’t lose touch when miles apart — or at the same border crossing, where guards often disperse crowds in different directions. WhatsApp recently added voice calls to its features, making it even more useful.
Using the internet and mobile technology to travel thousands of miles involves pitfalls, of course.
“Social media can be also a source of incorrect information,” said Lee Komito, a University College Dublin lecturer who specializes in migration and social networking. “This information could be manipulated for personal gain, so there are some new risks imposed by the amount of information social media seems to present for all.”
Monis Bukhari, a Syrian photographer living in Berlin as a refugee, knows that firsthand.
“Every month new rumors go viral … and people start to share their false information about them,” said Bukhari, an administrator of a 90,000-member Facebook group called “The Syrian House in Germany.”
A rumor spread recently on Facebook saying that Germany was sending ships to Lebanon and Turkey to bring Syrian migrants to Europe. Hundreds of refugees swarmed the German embassies in Ankara and Beirut to inquire about the ships. The German embassy in Beirut opened a Facebook account to post notices that the rumor was false.
“Syrians are not only drowning in the Mediterranean — those who are not allowed to work or leave camps in the neighboring countries [of Lebanon and Turkey] are also drowning in depression,” said Bukhari. “Such rumors are life vests for them.”
Social media often gives migrants false impressions about Europe, too.
“I know a friend who was shocked to see that his neighbor who couldn’t even graduate from college was taking a photo near the Eiffel Tower in Paris while he was still in Damascus finishing his masters in economics,” said Salah.
The so-called lucky migrant likely faced stormy seas or cold mountain nights in his travels, however, before encountering potentially hostile police in Europe, Salah noted. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 2,500 people have died crossing the Mediterranean this past summer alone.
But social media also helps traveling migrants who may be in danger.
East German farmer Julia Bar-Tal belongs to The 15th Garden, an activist group that creates gardens in besieged areas of Syria and in migrant camps in Europe.
“Through social media we knew better and faster than the mainstream media how many people are crossing the Macedonian borders, how many people are in need of water or food, and they were sent, taken or detained,” said Bar-Tal. “Nobody can stop this form of communication.”
There are Facebook groups and apps that provide direct aid and information to migrants.
Hungarian activists created InfoAid, an app that uses crowdsourcing in six languages to fact-check tips, rumors and government rules for migrants. SAP, Europe's largest software maker, is developing an app to help migrants navigate Germany’s immigration bureaucracy. Danish programmers created an app called Refunite to help migrants find lost family members.
Now in Berlin, Salah has stayed connected via Facebook with friends and others trying to make the journey to Europe. She’s just paying forward the help she received, she said.
“Everybody connected has a share of this responsibility,” she said. “Those who arrive [to] Europe feel responsible for others still on the road. On the road, when you’re completely alone, a message on your phone is what keeps you moving.”
John Dyer contributed reporting from New York.