Connected refugees

by Quentin, PhD student, Sociology of Migration, University of Telecom Paris Tech

Migrants are the actors of a culture of bonds. This is an agreed postulate in the contemporary migration researches which has never be so true than when you look at the entrance of the refugees camp of Grande Synthe.

The “Charging center” is literally the heart of the camp, this is the first building we meet, even before the kitchen area or the petrol distribution point. Dozens of power lines, chargers and smartphones stack up and get tangled under this old porch. Refugees are waiting, discussing, meeting each other or playing football until their batteries are full again.


Our mapping process is close to the end, the most distant part of the camp remains to be explore, the living areas too – places to eat, places for the children to play… These areas change all the time : a bike workshop just appears, it was not there the day before. We could spend time and time again there would still be new things to map.

Some refugees are waiting for us to continue the tasks. As I discovered the camp, A. ( who arrives at Grande Synthe only a few days ago ) proposes to make me visit the place and to teach me the good practices of cartographers. He already masters all the tools.

Our approach combines GPS and field papers that A. live annotates, following the middle road of the camp. He puts POI, then a row of trees, a “Coffee Shop” that he insists to rename “Coffee and Tea Shop”. Well naming the places is important, making his own mental map of the camp to become reality. I mark with the GPS all the points he chooses to highlight. We navigate from place to place, building his personal wayfinding process through his relation with the camp. We reveal the structure of the camp, this will be really useful for the other associations in the goal of future developments planning.


Mapping the camp with A is also the occasion for him to tell me his story, his journey. He reveals himself. We meet other refugees, speak with them, they are curious, interested in what we are doing, mapping the camp his definitely a way to create new links, new connections between residents, between volunteers. We discover that in term of mapping, the needs of the refugees are already far from the camp, they want to know how to go safely to the lake to find fishes, how to go to town center, how to go outside …


We continue with the digitalization of our work. Pointing out, drawing , categorizing and uploading everything to open street map. We must act quickly, our computers have limited autonomy, even for us, the life of a battery is important. The camp as a whole seems to be organized around this need of recharging.

A.and me become friend on facebook and take a lot of selfies. His smartphone is full of app, much more than mine. Facebook, whatsapp and viber are the most used. Sygic gives him a GPS without internet connection,n to find good direction during the journey. He speaks with his family, his parents or his friends who are still in Iraq. Applications help him to increase his desire of presence, being here and there at the same time. Refugees are the modern navigators, using smartphone as a compass.

At the end of the day the camp empties slowly, there is less agitation but the “Charging Center” is still full of people, trying to get a network. How many of them will attempt the crossing tonight ? Keeping hope may sometimes be only the result of a living 3G connection.

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