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There’s Not Always an App for That: How Tech Could Help Refugees More

The refugee crisis prompted an explosion of apps and digital tools to help displaced people on their journey. Meghan Benton and Alex Glennie, authors of a new Migration Policy Institute report on tech sector assistance to refugees, explain why results have been mixed.

Written by Meghan Benton and Alex Glennie Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A Syrian man looks at his cellphone in the Kara Tepe refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, August 20, 2015. AP/Visar Kryeziu

Refugees are natural innovators. Often armed with little more than a smartphone, they must be adaptable and inventive if they are to navigate unpredictable and often dangerous environments and successfully establish themselves in a new country.

Take Mojahed Akil, a young Syrian computer science student whose involvement in street protests in Aleppo brought him to the attention – and torture chambers – of the regime. With the support of his family, Mojahed was able to move to the relative safety of Gaziantep, a city in southwest Turkey.

Yet once there, he found it very difficult to communicate with those around him, most of whom spoke Turkish, not Arabic or English, and to access essential information about laws, regulations and local services.

To overcome these challenges, Mojahed developed a free smartphone app and website for Syrians living in Turkey. The Gherbetna platform offers both information – for example, about job listings – and connections, through letting users ask for help from the app’s community of contributors. It is estimated that Gherbetna has been downloaded by more than 50,000 people since its launch in 2014.

Huge Efforts but Mixed Results

Over the last 18 months, there has been an explosion of creativity and innovation from tech entrepreneurs aimed at making life better for refugees. A host of new tools and resources now exists to support refugees along every stage of their journey. Our new report for the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration explores some of these tools trying to help refugees integrate, and examines how policymakers can support the best new initiatives.

Our report finds that the speed of this “digital humanitarianism” has been a double-edged sword, with a huge amount of duplication in the sector and some tools failing to get off the ground. “Failing fast” might be a badge of honor in Silicon Valley, but what are the risks if vulnerable refugees rely on an app that disappears from one day to the next?

For example, consider Migreat, a “skyscanner for migration,” which pivoted at the height of the refugee crisis to become an asylum information app. Its selling point was that it was obsessively updated by legal experts, so users could trust the information – and rely less on smugglers or word of mouth. At its peak, Migreat had 2 million users a month, but funding challenges meant the platform had to fold. Its digital presence still exists, but is no longer being updated, a ghost of February 2016.

Perhaps an even greater challenge is that few of these apps were designed with refugees, so many do not meet their needs. Creating an app to help refugees navigate local services is a bit like putting a sticking plaster on a deep wound: It doesn’t solve the problem that most services, and especially digital services, are not attuned to refugee needs. Having multilingual, up-to-date and easy-to-navigate government websites might be more helpful.

Refugees and migrants recharge the batteries on their cellphones on board a ferry from Lesbos to Athens, September 9, 2015. (AP/Santi Palacios)

Refugees and migrants recharge the batteries on their cellphones on board a ferry from Lesbos to Athens, September 9, 2015. (AP/Santi Palacios)

A New ‘Digital Humanitarianism’

If the new tools are able to adapt to the needs of users, connect better with government services and scale, they could help mitigate some of the most thorny integration challenges, including improving refugees’ access to services, helping newcomers enter work more quickly or even strengthening community cohesion.

For example, house-sharing platforms such as Refugees Welcome and Comme a la Maison help newcomers settle in more quickly by placing them with families. If taken to scale, we can imagine these initiatives forming the basis for a more collaborative approach to integration, with former migrants and communities playing a greater role in welcoming newcomers instead of immigration and social change being something that is done to communities. They could also reduce pressures on housing – a critical challenge, given the large numbers of new arrivals in countries like Germany and Sweden.

Similarly, coding schools like REDI school, or distance learning programs like Kiron, help asylum seekers address skills gaps while they are stuck in reception centers, housed in rural areas or waiting for their applications to be processed. They could even train refugees for prized digital economy jobs in the future. But these programs currently serve a minority of refugees, specifically those who are well-educated and highly motivated.

Digital technologies could also help bring jobs to people, wherever they are, through freelance platforms such as Workeer. If these innovations could be scaled and expanded to support people with lower levels of education, they could potentially be disruptive.

Bridging the Tech-Government Disconnect

Many tech and social entrepreneurs jumped on the refugee assistance bandwagon after the images of drowned 3-year-old Alan Kurdi spread through social media. To ensure that this enthusiasm is sustained, governments will need to engage thoughtfully with these efforts. This engagement needs to be a two-way process, with tech entrepreneurs being willing to respond to the needs and priorities of refugees, NGOs and policymakers.

This is starting to happen. For example, Techfugees – a group that has organized hackathons, conferences and projects to help innovators working in this space – is encouraging its members to support humanitarian organizations such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, rather than continuously developing new third-party apps.

Yet there is still a lack of enthusiasm within parts of the tech sector for working with government officials, who are viewed as being too slow and bureaucratic.

Bridging this disconnect could unlock new ways of supporting refugee integration, by marrying the relative strengths of the tech sector (speed, passion and fresh ways of doing things) with those of governments (resources, coordinating power and the ability to make far-reaching policy changes).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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