Refugee Info Bus, a high impact UK-registered charity dedicated to supporting refugees on the move, or who have just arrived in Europe, with up to date, accurate and accessible legal information and assistance, as well as free mobile wifi and phone charging.
Prosperity is one thing, however, nobody can achieve prosperity without papers to work, and access to the rights that enable their children to be educated or receive medical care. Being warm, safe and having a degree of stability in your life is vital to prosper. Our mission is to assist refugees in having access to the rights that people with European passports take for granted. We currently work via two mobile buses in Greece and Northern France, and have a strong online service, with a following of pre-dominately Syrian and Afghan displaced people, stretching from Germany to Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.
Our first Refugee Info Bus began life as an old horsebox, purchased, stripped out, cleaned-up and converted into a mobile office and WIFI hotspot for refugees and asylum seekers living in the Calais ''Jungle'' Camp. Within a year, we facilitated over 91,000 WIFI logins and delivered more then 1,000 workshops to 3,000+ individuals in the UK and French asylum systems.
According to the United Nations, internet access is a human right. For refugees, it is a lifeline, allowing them to keep in touch with their families and loved ones on the other side of the world. At Refugee Info Bus, we also see Wifi as an essential tool in order to facilitate refugees rights to be realised.
The continuing refugee crisis in Northern France may not make daily headlines now that it’s ‘Jungle’ camp has gone, but for over a thousand refugees stranded at the French port cities of Calais and Dunkirk, life is still a daily struggle.
De-industrialisation means that the region has had a disproportionately high unemployment rate; which helps fuel anti-migrant sentiment. Police and CRS violence is rife, and displaced people have tents and belongings confiscated daily.
With no centralized camp, individuals are scattered across the town, finding temporary shelter wherever they can: in forests, industrial parks, and beneath hedges.
We have continued to provide Wi-Fi and phone charging facilities, as well as access to legal information, to an average of 800 homeless refugees a month. We drive up, turn on the Wifi and phone charging stations and people rush to the van where they can sit, charge their phone and call and message their friends, family and loved ones, sheltered from the weather in a comfortable, safer, environment. Living homeless as a refugee is fraught with anxiety, loneliness and danger. Making contact with parents, partners or children that have been left behind at home, or even stranded in transit countries can relieve this tension slightly. Every day we see the positive impact that our Wifi service has on the wellbeing of our service users.
In March 2017, we expanded our operations to Greece. Despite working on the ground for over a year in Calais, I was little prepared for the horrendous precarity and terrible conditions in which families are living on the Greek Islands. Unable to access the basic documents needed for meaningful survival in the Greek system-a Greek ID, travel documents etc-individuals are condemned to a seemingly endless purgatory, every day living under the threat of being returned to Turkey. The fear of this eventuality haunts the camps, the specter only becoming more terrifying as the human rights situations there deteriorates. Reports of arbitrary detention, political repression, forced returns and the violent aerial bombardment of Kurdish areas in Syria continue to terrorize Kurdish peoples and other minorities.
In Greece, by providing free Wifi, phone charging, legal information and advice, we helped refugees navigate the complex and ever-changing asylum process in what is one of Europe’s major points of entry. Operating in camps across the mainland and islands, we did this work using both handouts, and audio and video materials. Refugees were also able to meet daily with our team of legal caseworkers, who spoke Farsi, Dari, Urdu, Arabic, Kurmanji, and Sorani, who have personal experience of the asylum process in Greece.
The lack of relevant services is startling, with the combination of poor legal aid, logistical obstacles including language barriers and an overwhelmed court system preventing NGOs from reaching the majority of the 58,000 individuals spread across approximately 50 different sites. Many organizations have been forced to admit defeat in such a context, focusing their efforts on appeals alone, hoping at least to catch the most difficult of cases. The result is a situation in which thousands are facing the rejection of their asylum claim primarily due to a lack of relevant and accurate information.
The Refugee Info Bus has sought to overcome these limitations through our Greek Legal Information video series, co-opting the power of the internet, facebook and visual media as a strategic tool to empower refugees. Launched in October 2017, Refugee Info Bus’s multilingual videos provide clear and accessible explanations of the complex asylum system. Uploaded to our Facebook accounts, these videos are able to reach audiences far greater than those encountered via our mobile van.
The series, which over the past 8 months has included 31 videos and has reached over 500k people, is devised and produced by our video team based in Athens, with refugee team members taking on research, production, and presenting roles. Speaking to an audience of whom they have been part, Refugee Info Bus team members are able to effectively reach their peers, who often possess varying levels of literacy, dispelling some of the complexities and frustrations that characterize the ever-changing goal posts of the Greek and European asylum system. Currently, presenters speak in Arabic and Farsi, with English subtitles overlaid so that these videos might also act as a resource for English-speaking friends and supporters.
We have found that most refugees we have worked with-including those who are barely literate, navigate the internet via Facebook. By using facebook as a gateway to the digital world-we can help people improve their digital literacy, but also their understanding of their rights and how they can go about being granted the rights they are entitled to.
Gratified by the success of our grassroots project in Greece and Calais and aware of the need to continue and expand our service. Financial support from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity and mentoring from leading NGOs and humanitarian experts will enable us to advance, broaden and improve the quality of our work-providing more internet, more and better information in languages other than Arabic, Farsi and English.