The Technical Burden of Claiming Asylum

The process for asylum seekers to undergo resettlement in the EU is plagued with an alarming ignorance of the technologies accessible to refugees. These flaws are exacerbating the existing plights of refugees seeking safety and the recession-stricken Greek state alike.

The State of Asylum Seekers

For the past several years, refugees from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other war-torn countries have been flocking to Greece in search of safety. Most have no desire to stay in Greece because they recognize that the Greek people are already over-burdened with their own failing economy and an aging population. They want to move on to more prosperous countries of the EU and the Americas, where they will have a chance at finding jobs that fit the skills they’ve brought with them.

When refugees’ rafts wash up on outlying Greek islands, they are ferried to the mainland’s port of Piraeus and then bussed off to live in camps under the jurisdiction of the Greek military. These camps contain hundreds to thousands of refugees living in white canvas tents. Somewhere between 50 and 100 camps dot the Greek countryside.

A portion of the 150 tents in Ritsona, Greece

The Resettlement Process

Minor issues aside, the Greeks have done an admirable job of meeting the basic needs of the refugees considering their resources on hand. Food and water is available and often even abundant, toilets are provided and cleaned daily, and several doctors are regularly on site. More volunteers arrive every day to make the day-to-day lives of refugees more comfortable. However, while I have been volunteering at one such camp in Ritsona, the most consistent feedback I hear from the refugees is:

We don’t care about improving the camp, we just want to move forward with the relocation process.

Faced with overwhelming numbers of migrants, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has created a new process that was presumably intended to more efficiently move refugees through the resettlement process.

The process dictates that refugees must call a Skype number in order to set up a future appointment for an interview exclusively available over Skype video call. No details were given regarding the duration of the interview or whether follow-ups would be necessary.

The Scheduling Issue

There are a number of pressing issues with this process. First, not all refugees have phones to call and make an appointment. There are no land lines at many of these camps. For those with phones, some do not have SIM cards or cannot afford minutes. Calling is simply not an option for some refugees. For those that can call, most call constantly during the few hours a day that the Skype number is supposedly staffed. For all that effort, I haven’t heard of a single case of a UNHCR representative answering to make an appointment with a resident of Ritsona.

Greece is still waiting for personnel support from the EU for resettlement, and they simply don’t have enough people answering the one phone number that tens of thousands of people are calling repeatedly. Refugees are frustrated to the point of exhaustion by the sound of an ignored dial tone.

Why demand an expensive, synchronous solution when the only reasonable way to handle tens of thousands of cases with a few agents is asynchronously?

The Internet Access Issue

Perhaps the more stressful issue for refugees is what to do if the time ever does come for the interview. There is currently no internet access at the camp. For those that have phones or tablets, the availability of a SIM card is a 3 hour walk away in the small city of Chalkida — and you can only buy 2GB of data at a time. There are no public buses from the camp to the city. I printed out walking directions to a rest stop with unsecured wifi 6 km away from camp, but the wifi there isn’t always working, and when it does, it crawls much too slowly for video.

Those that do have SIM cards use data sparingly. Not just because the walk back to town is long but because they are running out of money. How do you make a budget when you have no idea how long you’ll be traveling? Some have been on the road for two years. Some are faced with impossible decisions: one refugee needs money for an immediate surgery for his wife so she doesn’t go blind. Should he save up for her medical care, or keep buying data for his Skype call in the hopes of getting to a country his wife may never see?

There is also a dearth of electrical outlets in the camp to keep devices charged. Electricity only arrived last week, and any accessible outlets are immediately overfilled with daisy chained extension cables and charging phones. Those people lucky enough to be charging their devices sit patiently beside the charging block to avoid any chance of opportunistic theft. They can’t afford the loss of this lifeline to a new beginning.

Phones charging outside of a tent in Ritsona

UNHCR is placing the burden of access on those with the least resources, and it’s increasing anxiety and tension in the camps.

The Greek Infrastructure Issue

The infrastructure in Greece seems to be 15–20 years behind the EU/US and it’s hard to miss.

Before coming to Ritsona, my partner Kelsey and I were volunteering on a Greek island known as Chios. One windy night, the internet went out and did not come back for over 24 hours. Our next AirBnB had no internet at all and we had to turn on fuses for the hot water boiler 15 minutes before taking a shower if we wanted it warm. Our next AirBnB had no running water at all for half the day. Even our ritzy downtown hotel room’s wifi can’t maintain a video chat for 10 minutes without some sort of issue. When Kelsey and I started investigating the possibility of getting internet access to the camp, we recognized this dated infrastructure could be a problem.

After visiting three telecommunications stores looking for someone to help, we were finally taken to an upstairs office of a Cosmote retail shop. As we explained what we were looking for, a helpful saleswoman periodically searched for details on a computer running Windows ‘98.

She suggested we sign up for an ADSL internet connection, but we were worried that Ritsona’s location would make this too slow. It is far from the nearest telephone exchange (where packets are multiplexed and accelerated on a faster pipeline) for the connection to support the throughput (300 kbps for low resolution) needed for Skype video chat. The further the signal travels, the longer it takes, so it drops off pretty quickly when the network consumer is in the middle of the countryside.

After calling a technician familiar with the area, she confirmed that the only exchange is quite a few kilometers away and the speed would be too slow to maintain Skype video chat connections. The Greek internet infrastructure hasn’t been expanded very far from the main town.

Requiring cheap and fast infrastructure to serve internet to 1000’s of refugees for data-expensive video calls from Greece is just not realistic.

Our only option for internet access is satellite delivery. Only Cosmote offers this service in the area, and the biggest plan available is 100GB / month. With 100GB, we could theoretically provide each family with about 3 hours of Skype chat per month — which we hope is enough, though UNHCR hasn’t specified how long the interviews will take.

The real bottleneck is the theoretical maximum upload speed of 6 mbps. In realistic conditions, it’s likely to be closer to 2 mbps. That bandwidth limits us to about 6 concurrent interviews at a time. If more than 6 people happen to get scheduled for an interview at the same time, there will be trouble with maintaining connections (again, all this assumes the internet is used for nothing but Skype).

But perhaps the biggest issue with requiring satellite internet is the bureaucracy that surrounds setting up a contract. Cosmote needs a Greek Tax ID before issuing the service to us, but the small NGO that was planning to fund the project is from Sweden. To make it worse, the minimum term for a satellite connection is 2 years. We don’t even know if this camp will exist in two years, let alone whether this particular NGO will be at the camp.

In an effort to distribute the liability, the NGO decided to split the cost and ownership with the two other NGOs at the camp, which essentially cubed the amount of bureaucracy and time wasted waiting for approval up the chain of command. Meanwhile, refugees are sitting around camp wondering whether they’re ever going to leave this forest, let alone Greece.

The legal and technical realities of the proposed process are straining NGOs and refugees alike.

The Onus of Access

UNHCR’s relocation process has placed a substantial burden on refugees, volunteers, NGOs, and Greece. I imagine the committee that devised the idea was sitting in a conference room in a major metropolitan area with blazing fast wifi and just didn’t consider that refugees are being housed in tents far out in the middle of the Greek countryside within mostly-demolished air force bases that were abandoned when dial-up was still the sole connection option.

The onus of access cannot be placed on entities (such as refugees and NGOs) with significantly limited resources if UNHCR expects to make any headway into this issue. Refugees can’t afford the cost of individual access. Volunteers can’t afford the cost of group access (you can’t provide such a needed resource for only part of the camp without a riot). And NGOs can’t navigate the bureaucratic hurdles on telecommunication access mandated by the government.

In fact, perhaps internet access is not the right solution at all.

A Method That Works

As a computer engineer from the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t say this often — but I think the problem here is best solved by old tech.

How about instead of requiring refugees to spend hours a day and precious phone time calling a number that nobody answers, the camp admins use older technologies like spreadsheets and email to sign refugees up for an interview time slot? Refugees can spend their time and money more productively, only one agent is necessary to process all of them, and the agent can take care of it whenever they are ready.

And how about instead of using Skype video chat, UNHCR representatives arrive in person to interview each of the families at the camp? No data required, no device required, no satellite required, no contract required, no bureaucracy required, no liability required, no stress when the video chat inevitably cuts out.

Video chat fails for me in the Bay Area in 2016 on a regular basis — what are the chances it will work perfectly at high volume in the Greek countryside with infrastructure from 1998?

In order to adequately address the problems of asylum seekers, the UNHCR needs to better understand the conditions on the ground and re-design a process to match the technical capabilities of the refugee camps.