How Tech is Helping to Solve the Refugee Crisis

Smartphones as survival.
July 9, 2018, 5:06am
Illustration by Kristopher McDuff

This article is supported by World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine Backpack Challenge, where you live out of a backpack for 40 hours and go through a series of challenges which represent hardships a refugee may experience after being forced to flee their home. In this series, we look at radical approaches to solving the world refugee crisis.

Back home Nirary Dacho was an IT guy. He used to lecture in programming at the university and had worked as an analyst for eight years. He could speak English. He knew how to code. He held a masters’ degree in web science. He had a good life.

Then one day ISIS came and his family had to flee Syria for Lebanon. He came to Australian in 2015 after his parents, sister, and brother were given a humanitarian visa.

Five months and 100 unanswered job applications later, Dacho had the sinking feeling that in this new life he had more chance of becoming a security guard or a taxi driver than picking up where he left off.

“If you go now and order an Uber driver, you’ll find someone from my background and he’s an engineer but he couldn’t get a job,” Dacho says.

It was around that time Dacho had started to lose hope. He had been to job fairs and refugee events in the past and nothing had come of them. When he heard about the Techfugees hackathon, he decided he would go but he had no expectations.

At that event he stood in front of 100 people and told his story. Getting refugees into jobs was the issue, he explained. That day he met his future business partner, Anna Robson, and together they came up with the idea for RefugeeTalent, a job agency that connects refugees with skills and experience to employers.

In the two years since, their company has gone international and now serves as a case study for the ways in which technology is being used by refugees and the tech community to help improve the lives of refugees the world over.

“The global effort is looking at things like camps, how refugees move from one country to another, how they prove their identity. In Australia we focus on helping people live here,” says Anne-Marie Elias, a co-founder of the Techfugee hackathon which runs once a year.

“The first rule is we don’t do things for refugees, we do things with refugees. If it’s a hackathon for the sake of technology, it’s not for the people.”

Worldwide 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced, the equivalent of the entire population of Thailand. Of these, 57 percent come from only three countries: South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria. Every two seconds another person is forced to flee.

Many of those who flee carry smartphones as an essential survival tool. Last year, mobile phone usage across the Middle East and North Africa grew to 64 percent, or roughly two thirds of the population of the region.

A study by Open University released around the time the Syrian Refugee Crisis was at its peak in 2016 found smartphones allowed refugees to access information, translation services, and call for help when they were in trouble. In one video reported by The BBC, 30 people making a boat crossing were able to call the Turkish coast guard when their boat sank.

This has created opportunities for creative applications of technology to save or change lives.

One group of researchers with Stanford University developed a machine learning algorithm to match a refugees’ background, skills, education, and language skills to a particular region as a means to help the resettlement process. Another Jordanian project aimed to open up 3D-printing to refugees. For a country that UNHCR says is currently hosting 740,160 refugees, many of whom have lost limbs, the ability to design and cheaply print custom parts for prosthetics is a lifeline.

Sometimes these projects have been as simple as helping refugees find homes.

During the Syrian Refugee Crisis, young Germans wanted to set up an Airbnb-style platform which would help connect refugees with those who had a spare room. Around 18 months ago, Refugees Welcome brought the idea to Australia. Filip Rajec, the organisation’s Tech Development Manager, says that since it started up 34 people have been placed with hosts.

“The vision statement is more than accommodation, but is to provide the opportunity for refugees to live with an Australian family and vice-versa, for an Australian family to live with a refugee so the cultures can mish and mash,” Rajec says.

While the platform is still in development, the goal is to build a fully functional system that can independently match guests with hosts.

Of course, technology has its limits. With greater access to information comes a greater chance of the spread of misinformation for those in transit and while many of the refugees who fled Syria in 2016 were digitally literate and could afford smartphones, others aren’t always so lucky.

“When I first came to Australia in 2008, I never touched a computer before,” says Abioloa Ajetomobi. “Even though I was in a good job, a good paying job in my own country, it was all done by hand.”

Ajetomobi is the Director of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Innovation Hub and her work has been around using technology to build basic skills.

“Being able to live in Australia means you need to feel as part of the community and there is no way to do that without technology,” she says. “Even for the young people in schools, where English is not their first language, they’re put in front of a computer and expected to do their assignments.”

To help, the ASRC developed an app to help people learn English and they use a second app, Slack, to help people find work. That app works by networking 400 jobseekers to ethical employers, and each other, so that they can share information, insight, and techniques for interviews or resume writing.

“Everybody thinks about what [these people] are or what they don’t have,” Ajetomobi says. “We have clients that come from different facets of life with incredibly diverse skills, we’ve got people who have been farmers right down to professionals, archaeologists, soldiers -- it’s a very broad base of skills.

“Not being able to speak English or navigate technology doesn’t mean they’re foolish.”

This article is supported by World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine Backpack Challenge. You can participate now by signing up here.