Digital solutions to refugee issues
It’s called ‘digital humanitarianism’ and it’s a new phenomenon in which technology is emerging as a key tool being used to help by migrants and refugees worldwide.
Software developers and computer engineers are increasingly developing digital solutions to some of the issues created by the global migration crisis which has seen about 65 million people displaced at the end of 2015.
Experts say technology is now changing almost every part of the journey for refugees and migrants.
Many migrants and refugees are using smart phones and apps to plan their trips, avoid bottlenecks or pitfalls.
They are also using smart technology to find out about services and assistance available to them along their journeys.
A new report by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute has audited these digital tools and provides advice on how governments can better support their development and use.
Titled Digital Humanitarianism: How Tech Entrepreneurs Are Supporting Refugee Integration’, the report says that the use of digital tools has expanded enormously over the past year.
The report says that although the movement has shown promise, it needs more financing, better organisation, and inclusion in policy talks with governments.
It says that since 2015, computer programmers have launched a number of digital tools designed to help refugees.
One, an app called ‘InfoAid’, is for individuals and families traveling through southeast Europe. It provides information about national borders and transportation, and advice on security, among other things.
Another, called ‘Trace the Face’, is backed by the Red Cross and can help immigrants reunite with loved ones by posting images and searching for photographs online.
But the report also found that a number of good ideas from this flood of high-tech development have resulted in wasted energy. It said that too many teams were working separately and creating tools that perform similar tasks.
Lead author of the report Meghan Benton said existing technology like Facebook was also popular with migrants.
“One of the challenges I point to in the report is the fact that there have been hundreds of apps developed that try and be the default – the one app to help people access services when they get to a new city,” Ms Benton.
“And I think that we’re finding with some emerging evidence that refugees would prefer often to use existing platforms like Facebook or WhatsApp or just to have government websites that are easier to understand.”
The report says that the technology industry is learning from its mistakes. It is moving away from the “let’s create an app” model and finding better ways to serve refugee communities.
The report lauds the work of the ‘Techfugees’ movement, which attempts to organise programmers into collaborative groups.
The group coordinates conferences and projects among its 15,000 members in 14 countries, and held an event in Melbourne recently.
Techfugees support ‘user-centered design’ which is about listening directly to what refugees say their needs are and then designing high-tech tools based on these needs.
Techfugees also plans to use its expertise to help non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the UNHCR, with their tech needs.
The report says governments have only recently learned about some of these inventions. So, while the tech community might be going in the right direction, governments are not yet sure how to make use of their efforts.
The report calls on governments to identify the needs of refugees, invite the tech community to join policy talks, and help finance the best inventions.
It identifies an issue in that governments and many NGOs have mostly overlooked, which is the need new refugees have for credit. Refugees usually have problems opening bank accounts. The report suggests crowd funding and peer-to-peer lending as another way to help the new arrivals.
While jobs are the best way to earn money, most refugees cannot work legally in their new home until they are offered asylum and Ms Benton says that when the asylum offer finally arrives, the refugees are often housed in rural areas, far from work opportunities.
She says technology may be able to help reduce costs for job training and education and some software tools could connect highly skilled refugees with employers.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist