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For migrants trying to reach Europe, long trek is eased by smartphone

BELGRADE, Serbia — The tens of thousands of migrants who have flooded into the Balkans in recent weeks need food, water and shelter, just like the millions displaced by war the world over. But there is also one other thing they swear they cannot live without: a smartphone charging station.

"Every time I go to a new country, I buy a SIM card and activate the Internet and download the map to locate myself," Osama Aljasem, a 32-year-old music teacher from Deir al-Zour in Syria, explained as he sat on a broken park bench in Belgrade, staring at his smartphone and plotting his next move into northern Europe.

"I would never have been able to arrive at my destination without my smartphone," he added. "I get stressed out when the battery even starts to get low."

Technology has transformed this 21st-century version of a refugee crisis, not least by making it easier for millions more people to move. It has intensified the pressures on routes that prove successful, like this one through the Balkans, where the United Nations said Tuesday about 3,000 people a day continued to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia.

In this modern migration, smartphone maps, global positioning apps, social media and WhatsApp have become essential tools.

Migrants depend on them to post real-time updates about routes, arrests, border guard movements and transport, as well as places to stay and prices, all the while keeping in touch with family and friends.

The first thing many do once they have successfully navigated the watery passage between Turkey and Greece is pull out a smartphone and send loved ones a message that they made it.

Much of the change is driven by the tens of thousands of middle-class Syrians who have been displaced by war. But the use of such tools is not limited to them; the tools are also used by migrants from Africa and the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Originally from Syria, Mohamed Haj Ali, 38, has lived in Belgrade for three years, helping migrants and listening to their stories. At first, he said, most migrants passing through Serbia had paid traffickers for most or all of their journey.

But as tens of thousands completed their journeys, they shared their experiences on social media, even the precise GPS coordinates of every stop along their routes. That has reduced the prices charged by traffickers by half, Ali said.

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