'Facebook refugees' chart escape from Syria on cell phones

Story highlights

  • "There's a lot of technology," said Alessandra Morelli, from the UNHCR
  • Refugees fleeing Syria are using social media apps for advice, maps, addresses
  • Facebook pages tell the the type of tent to buy, and advise them to destroy their boats

Lesbos, Greece (CNN)If you have the right passport, it only costs around $36 to buy a one-way ticket aboard a ferry from the Turkish coast to this Greek island in the Aegean Sea.

The ferry completes the journey in about 45 minutes.
    The going rate for Syrian refugees, however, is around $1,350 per person. That money has to be paid in cash to smugglers who shove passengers out to sea on board inflated rafts packed full of dozens of migrants.
    Joseph, a Christian who fled Syria to Turkey with nine family members less than two weeks ago, says he was loaded onto a seven meter raft carrying a total of 62 passengers.
    Joseph, who did not want to reveal his full name for fear of reprisals against family members still in Syria, crossed the Aegean with his family Wednesday night. All together, they spent the equivalent of around $14,600 for the dangerous journey.
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    "This is very expensive but the soul is expensive," he explained.
    The war had not yet directly hit the government-controlled coastal town of Tartus, where Joseph worked as an accountant. But he said the writing was on the wall.
    "If not in one month, then in three months or six months it will hit us," he said. "Syria is finished."

    Campsites and smart phones

    Joseph and his family were resting in the shade of a dusty stadium where Greek authorities have been processing Syrian refugees, before sending them to the Greek capital aboard massive ferry boats.
    Refugees and migrants are scattered all across this island. They wash their clothes on the beach below the crumbling ramparts of a 1,400-year-old castle that once defended Lesbos. They camp in tents in the parks. At night, they trudge past bars and restaurants where Greeks drink ouzo and dine on grilled fish.
    But the wave of migrants washing up on these shores display a level of tech savvy coordination that has caught even veteran aid workers by surprise.
    "There's a lot of technology... the level of organization that I see here in this context is new," said Alessandra Morelli, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with experience working in previous humanitarian crises.
    "When they arrive, they know exactly where they have to go, who they have to talk to. They know what to buy," she explained. "Facebook indeed is playing an incredible role."

    'Facebook refugees'

    Nineteen-year-old Kenan al Beni is an excellent example of one of these "Facebook refugees" from Syria.
    Al Beni and six of his friends from the southern city of Suweida, who ranged in age from 19 to 20, had all landed on the coast of Lesbos early in the morning on Thursday.
    When their boat ran into trouble at sea, al Beni said he and his friends called the Greek coast guard on their cell phone.
    "We have all of their numbers. We have GPS in our cell phones. We send them in WhatsApp and they come and save us," he explained, referring to the popular phone messaging app.
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    He and his friends were clearly prepared for this journey. Many of them wore waterproof pouches around their necks carrying their identity documents.
    He went on to show a series of Facebook pages on a cell phone where Syrians compiled advice to fellow travelers on the migrant trail to Europe.
    One page included photos of what kind of tent to purchase for camping, as well as directions to an affordable hotel in Athens.
    "Everything we need," al Beni said, was being shared on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Viber.
    The teenager said he was trying to get to Germany to continue his university studies, since the war had made higher education impossible in Syria. His brother was already there, having recently made the same journey with the help of smugglers.

    Island swamped by migrants

    According to the United Nations, some 70% of the migrants arriving on Greek islands like Lesbos are Syrian refugees. The rest of the new arrivals are a mixture mostly of people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
    For the first time on Wednesday, the UNHCR documented families arriving on Lesbos from Yemen, another country that has descended into civil war in recent months.
    The U.N. says approximately 50 boats of migrants land on Lesbos each day, depositing from 1,500 to 3,000 new immigrants.
    They have turned this Greek island into an unofficial gateway to Europe.
    Hundreds of discarded fluorescent orange life jackets litter the rocky beaches of this island. And along the shore, the waters of the Aegean lap against the limp remains of inflatable rafts slashed by passengers with knives upon arrival.
    Refugees said the sabotage of rubber boats is another strategy recommended on Facebook, to prevent Greek authorities from towing migrants back out to sea.