How technology can help the global refugee crisis

While technology is by no means a solution to displacement, it can improve the lives of those who have been uprooted from their homes as a result of conflict or persecution

Rohingya refugees use a smartphone to watch Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's appearance at the UN's International Court of Justice in December 2019

In June 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the number of global refugees had, for the first time since the Second World War, exceeded 50 million. The following year, more than one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, with around 800,000 of these travelling via the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece.

Although the number of refugees arriving in Greece has lowered in the years since (the UNHCR estimates that 124,000 refugees arrived in Europe in 2019), this does not necessarily signify that fewer people are being displaced: instead, this decrease could well be the result of a 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey stating that Greece would send those who had not applied for asylum back to Turkey.

The tightened migration controls displayed over the past few years have meant that camps once deemed to be temporary have quickly become more permanent homes for many. According to the Brookings Institution, the average length of time refugees find themselves displaced for is between 10 and 26 years.

The tightened migration controls displayed over the past few years have meant that camps once deemed to be temporary have quickly become more permanent homes for many

A helping hand
As we struggle to cope with this crisis, technology may hold some of the answers. It has the potential to not only make the process of rehabilitating refugees more efficient, but also to benefit the communities in which they are seeking asylum. This is particularly favourable if their skills can be used to fill employment gaps. Refugee Talent, a company that aims to match refugees with employers, believes a lot of potential is currently being wasted.

“Labour mobility is one of the great challenges of the 21st century when so many people are displaced, whether as a result of conflict or climate change,” Andrew Keast, Chief Storyteller at Refugee Talent, told The New Economy.

Refugees are desperate to access technology, as it enables them to remain in touch with their family and friends back home. In fact, they will go to such extremes to secure an internet connection that the UNHCR has reported refugees living in Tanzania sacrificing rations of food in order to buy data. 

One organisation using technology to support displaced people across the world is Techfugees, a global platform that has built a sustainable ecosystem of tech-for-refugees solutions while supporting the inclusion of refugees in the wider industry. It has identified five main focus areas where technology can have a significant impact on refugees’ lives: access to rights and information; health; education; employment; and social inclusion. The company has also been hosting hackathons in Zaatari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan, which are designed to utilise the skills of the people living there in order to find technological solutions to problems the camp and its people are facing.

Technology is also being used to help refugees access information and services when needed: Everest, the world’s only device-free, globally accessible payment solution platform, allows users to digitally verify their identity for public services, thus enabling them to claim their social and economic rights. This ultimately helps refugees to be self-sufficient in the long term. The Everest team works alongside refugees to collect and scan identity papers (if they have them), record fingerprints and scan faces in order to create a digital account for each person. Blockchain technology is then used to ensure the account is secure and cannot fall into the wrong hands.

Technological support is helping to streamline the process of educating refugees

Access to services
Technological support is also helping to streamline the process of educating refugees: with the support of universities such as Geneva and Princeton, the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan and Kakuma in Kenya provide online higher education to both children and adults. Mosaik, an NGO set up to assist refugees wanting to get into higher education, is a crucial part of this movement. The organisation’s CEO and founder, Ben Webster, told The New Economy: “Leveraging technology has huge potential for improving access to education for refugees, both in scale and in terms of making programmes flexible and accessible.”

In Western Ghana, education has been brought to children living in refugee camps through the world’s first satellite-enabled, live two-way interactive distance-learning programme. Each classroom in the school has been equipped with a projector and a low-cost, durable computer, which enables them to receive lessons via a solar-powered satellite link.

UNESCO released a report in 2018 highlighting mobile technology’s key role in ensuring refugees receive an education, which will ultimately help them realise there is a brighter future ahead. In the long term, continuing education in conflict-stricken zones can trigger social and economic improvements: digital technologies that capture and analyse educational data can also play an important role in improving the basic operational, planning and controlling functions in education systems in these settings.

The doctor will see you now
Due to cramped and squalid conditions, refugee camps are particularly prone to the spread of infectious diseases. Diagnostic platforms that have the ability to ensure pharmacy services, prescriptions and treatment regimes are all standardised within these areas are now beginning to appear. Furthermore, using technology to improve health services has already proven a success in Lebanon, which has the highest per-capita refugee population in the world: in one of its camps, Syrian women have used technology for antenatal appointments, allowing them to communicate with doctors and receive health information online.

The growth in the number of refugees who either own or have access to a smartphone has also led to an increase in apps that provide these crucial medical services – or, indeed, to help them navigate seas and connect with volunteers during their journey. The demand this creates for mobile data can also be positive for network operating businesses. This was demonstrated in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp, which previously had no data service. After local network operators were taken around the camp by UNHCR staff and shown where the demand lay, three new 3G towers were built.

An AI program has recently been developed with the aim of placing refugees in locations where they are most likely to be successful in gaining employment

Employment prospects
For the refugees who are able to leave the camps, safely cross borders and arrive in a new country where they can make a life for themselves, technology can be used to aid them in the next step of their journey.

An artificial intelligence (AI) program has recently been developed with the aim of placing refugees in locations where they are most likely to be successful in gaining employment. Researchers from the University of Oxford, Lund University and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been developing the AI-powered software Annie Moore (named after the first immigrant registered at New York’s Ellis Island in 1892) in partnership with HIAS, a global Jewish non-profit organisation that protects refugees.

Alex Teytelboym, an associate professor of economics at the University of Oxford and the lead researcher for Annie Moore, told The New Economy: “Since May 2018, HIAS has placed hundreds of refugees around the US using Annie, and we estimate that Annie can boost refugees’ employment by around 30 percent.” Annie Moore is currently only being used in the US, but researchers hope that in the future it can be used elsewhere, starting with the UK and Sweden.

A perilous journey
Although emerging technologies provide opportunities for refugees to improve their chances in life, they must be used and controlled carefully, as technology can often have unintended negative consequences. ‘Digital litter’ is one of these major such problems: the increased use of tech leaves the internet littered with broken hyperlinks and sites that no longer exist. This litter can mislead refugees by providing them with false information, which can result in them embarking on a dangerous and ill-informed journey.

The electronic collection of sensitive data can also place individuals at risk, particularly if this personal information is stolen by the intelligence services of ill-intentioned organisations. For example, the development of a digital database on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh was linked to further discrimination and persecution in 2017.

However, if used correctly, technology can be fused with progressive ideas in order to move towards a more flexible and human-centric emergency relief system. Refugees will then benefit from a system that is both more efficient and helps society globally. Furthermore, technology can provide a way for people to be identified, which can enable them to maintain their social and economic rights and allow them to seek employment. By boosting their level of integration in their new country in this way, technology provides them with a better chance of succeeding in the long term.