There’s a long way to go in our efforts to solve the refugee crisis — but technology is helping create positive change
Last month, the Syrian conflict entered its sixth year. More than 4.8 million people have fled since 2011, and around 13.5 million people are still in need of assistance to flee widespread violence, human rights abuses and the destruction of entire communities.
It’s hard to find positives in a situation where children are forced to undertake life-threatening journeys to flee death, only to make it to the shores of political systems that tell them they’re unwelcome. Amongst the gloom, though, there’s also a growing light — sometimes literally — in the form of new technologies that make it easier for the rest of the world to welcome refugees, and to challenge reactionary forms of thinking that are dominated by fear. Technology can be used to change refugees’ lives for the better, and to push back against the forces that cause people to run from unstable, violent circumstances to find safe havens in our world.
There are two sides to the story of refugees and their relationship with technology. Our images of refugees are dominated by what we see in the media: arrivals of desperate families on boats, or angry young men pushing down fences. As a result, we rarely think about refugees actually usingtechnology, and we forget that the people in those images may be app developers, or nuclear physicists. Refugees are not people from another century. Like us, they’ve watched the digital revolution play out in their lifetimes. Refugees use technology to track the safety of their families, find relief during a disaster, or help reconnect them to their prior expertise, knowledge or passions. Refugees use technology to rebuild their lives, as well as the lives of others.
Secondly, technology has made global knowledge accessible, resulting in a number of communities collaborating to develop innovations that make refugees’ lives easier. Engineers, scientists, humanitarians, educators and more are working together to come up with a range of solutions that make life more comfortable in refugee camps, help navigate the legal process of seeking asylum, gain acceptance in new communities where they are resettled, and restore broken family ties. In sharp contrast to the fearmongering about refugees that we see from many Western politicians and a substantial section of the media, these innovators have chosen to pursue rationality, logic and optimism.
These six technological initiatives are changing lives across the board, helping refugees overcome trauma and find their place in the world.
1) 3D printing and coding are reviving history and providing relief to those who have lost limbs
Health, art, architecture, engineering and design are just a few of the sectors experiencing and harnessing 3D printing. So too are refugees. The Syrian crisis has bared its teeth as a bloody, deep-seated conflict with complicated dynamics that challenge any recourse to peace. It’s literally getting under people’s skin. Violence has affected everyone from children to the elderly, with people experiencing casualty, disease and loss of limbs at a shocking rate.
3D printing is literally printing limbs. The democratic nature of 3D printing makes it accessible to a wide range of people, including refugees who have been able to learn coding and use printers to produce incredible results. Last year, a Syrian refugee used open-source technology to produce a3D-printed bionic hand for himself after losing a limb in a shelling incident. His ultrasonic echolocation device, produced through fabrication laboratories that can make prosthetics in 36 hours, helped a friend cope with blindness following sniper fire. 3D printing is also set to recreate an arch from an ancient Palmyra temple for display in New York later this year, maintaining a small part of the country’s rich history and culture destroyed by ISIS in the bloody conflict.
2. Technologists are creating communities to find collaborative solutions for refugees
The prosthetics described above were enabled by a humanitarian consortium called Refugee Open Ware, which develops affordable technological solutions for relief in conflict zones. Their innovation centres, set up in multiple locations across the Middle East, mean refugees can receive training to use technology for economic development, humanitarian relief and personal reasons.
They’re not alone. Community initiatives like Techfugees have brought technologists, creatives, entrepreneurs and communicators together to create sustainable solutions for refugees. Created by TechCrunch editor Mike Butcher, the initiative sees a global network of collaborators working together via ‘hackathons’ and other technological collaboration forums to find solutions to wicked problems. These hackathons have produced a range of solutions, such as an app for refugees to minimally share their personal detailsacross 40 languages for non-profits to assist in the resettlement process. Regional chapters are providing more and more opportunities around the world for people to help instigate social change for refugees — and for refugees to be part of the change.
“Its success will be judged on getting the tech community involved and engaged with the problems faced by refugees,” Butcher has said. “Techfugees aims to create links with existing refugee groups, charities, NGOs and refugees themselves to create a bridge between these two worlds.”
Other initiatives are working on constructing the same bridge. Germany’s Refugees Welcome, or ‘Airbnb for asylum seekers’, is a scheme that lets people offer space in their home to displaced people and receive funding via social services and microdonations to cover the costs of rent. This initiative has not only grown in number but by country, and by using a matrix to determine compatibility with a prospective flatmate, has given a lot of homes some new stories to swap and share.
3. From phones to drones, technology devices are saving lives and aiding resettlement
It’s times like these we’re glad smartphones were made to fit into a pocket — because refugees who have fled home with nothing but the clothes on their back have been able to benefit from the smartphones they’ve brought with them. In some cases, like Ahmed, a seven-year-old Afghan boy whose text message alerted authorities about 15 people who were trapped in a container, a phone has literally meant the difference between life and death. For others, free messaging services such as Whatsapp and Facebook have given them the ability to communicate without a cellular network, while GPS-sharing and databases such as Crisis Info Hub have made information more accessible to provide a safer journey overland.
Other refugees have befriended Karim, an artificial intelligence program providing psychological support to refugees who have experienced kinds of trauma we can hardly imagine. Programmed by Silicon Valley startup X2AI, Karim can have personal conversations in Arabic via text message by understanding a person’s mental state and emotional needs, and responding appropriately with comments, questions and recommendations. With minimal mental health programs in refugee camps and millions of refugees in need of therapy, Karim is a welcome addition to the socially responsible technology family.
So is Emily (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard), a life-preserving robot that can rescue refugees at sea. Developed by researchers from Texas A&M University’s Center for Robotics-Assisted Search & Rescue, the robot aims to address the danger of sea crossings. It’s not unusual that leaky boats can capsize, run out of fuel or break down. Of the more than 1 million refugees crossing into Europe by sea, 4,000 have lost their lives. This is where Emily plays an important role in rescue efforts, having already been piloted in Greece where almost 2,000 refugees enter Lesvos each day. Emily is controlled remotely, with the ability to locate people at sea and be reeled out for people to grab on. The robot is still in its pilot phase, but it gives us a glimpse of what we’re capable of and the capacity of technological development to save lives.
4. Social media is one of the most disruptive innovations we’ve seen in our lifetimes
Social media interacts with virtually (excuse the pun) every individual who owns a mobile phone or a digital device — and, as we saw in the Arab Spring, can be a powerful tool for social change. Hashtags are a simple but effective concept, and more and more people are realising their potential to put massive, real-time and searchable repositories of information at citizens’ fingertips. In February this year, doctors and nurses at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Hospital in Australia stood by their duty of care not to discharge a child to an offshore processing centre renowned for child abuse, sexual violence, malnutrition and denial of basic human rights. Under the hashtags #LetThemStay and #LadyCilento, tens of thousands of people from Australia and around the world stood in solidarity with these professionals. The Twitter presence was so strong that with a single tweet, the movement managed to receive crowd-funded pizza for protesters on the ground, sent from as far and wide as Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The community drew the attention of figures as prominent as the Chief of the Australian Medical Association, who was able to organise urgent action via #healthasylum, a forum on refugee healthcare.
These knowledge bases have been significant platforms for solidarity, with many instances, such as #refugeeswelcome, putting pressure on governments in countries like the United Kingdom to act in the interest of humanity. #PorteOuverte also saw Parisians offering safe havens during the Paris attacks, demonstrating their viability in humanitarian crises. The ‘power of social media’ may be a cliché, but it has real effects when it comes to social progress, humanitarian action and the exponential growth of the information age. It hasn’t just raised the profile of refugee issues. It’s helping form lasting global communities that are forcing greater transparency and action at the decision-making level.
5. The provision of energy is improving safety and education in refugee camps
Energy is vital to human protection and dignity. It provides a range of services that refugees otherwise wouldn’t be able to access — as simple as reading school books at night and feeling safe on the streets. In refugee camps that experience complete darkness at night, women and girls are particularly vulnerable; violence, harassment and rape are a daily reality. With better lighting, refugees feel better protected. That’s not just from sexual violence — it’s also from theft and wild animals. It sounds simple, but when you turn on the lights, you’re also turning on accountability.
In partnership with UNHCR, The IKEA Foundation has donated sales from lamps and bulbs to help distribute more than 56,000 solar lanterns and 720 solar street lights in Ethiopia and Jordan. The same initiative has also seen more than 37,000 children enrolled in primary school in Bangladesh, Chad and Ethiopia — and now, their homework can be done after dark. The third phase of the project will see the unveiling of a solar farm to provide energy to 27,000 refugees in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp.
It doesn’t stop there. Battery storage is making its way into the humanitarian sector and further enabling education for refugees. A mobile school for children in Calais, France — home to around 7,000 refugees, predominantly from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq — will soon be powered by a solar panel and storage system. In partnership with UK company Circuitree, the School Bus Project will use hybrid ion-saltwater batteries to store solar energy cleanly and cost effectively. Energy technology is improving human rights for refugees, and its effect is getting stronger as the technology and humanitarian sectors discover more and more ways to work together.
Solar lighting enables education and income-generating activities after dark. Photo: UNHCR
6. Big data is helping the world see the bigger picture
The Refugee Project has just collated 40 years’ worth of refugee data into a single hub. Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Project sought to create a visual interface for this database. The accompanying data visualisation is an incredible, mind-blowing way to comprehend the enormity and complexity of the world’s flow of millions of refugees since the 1960s.
This is already improving global knowledge on refugees, but needs more development. Looking towards the future, this isn’t just worthwhile for citizens’ understanding and education, but also for cross-border collaboration on the refugee crisis. We have the technology to predict mass migrations and save lives before they are risked, by drawing on data to identify patterns, trends and connections. With the degree of data available, a proactive approach, when combined with cross-institutional collaboration and good data analysis, offers a powerful way to create change. The UN has recognised this. Better use of big data has the scope to deal with cause, not just effect. A thorough analysis of refugees’ motivational factors could mean a breakdown of country, region, demographic, culture, conflict and religion, moving beyond tired models of conflict and economics, and towards an approach that can facilitate better international cooperation and problem-solving. Harnessing our access to incredible amounts of data is also the means towards better future projections and long-term planning that can mitigate suffering. Real-time decision making is the future.
There is a long way to go before the refugee crisis becomes manageable and humans are able to safely seek and receive asylum. As with any sector, technology is just a small part of the solution. The refugee crisis and political structures behind it are wicked problems that need collaboration between a range of sectors — but technology is certainly helping this along, connecting people around the globe and giving us reason to believe in new possibilities. On a personal level, it gives us the means to do something about the problem. And globally, it shows us that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are also determined to use their skills for the good of humanity.
Header image by European Commission DG ECHO