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There isn't always an app for that: How tech can better assist refugees

21st October 2016

Alex Glennie is a Principal Researcher, International Innovation at Nesta. Meghan Benton is Senior Policy Advisor at the Migration Policy Institute. 

Refugees are natural innovators. Often armed with little more than a smartphone, they must be adaptable and inventive if they are to navigate unpredictable, 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 across the border to the relative safety of Gaziantep, a city in southwest Turkey. Yet once he was there, he found it very difficult to communicate with those around him (most of whom only spoke Turkish but not Arabic or English) and to access essential information about laws, regulations and local services.

To overcome these challenges, Mojahed used his software training to develop 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). Since its launch in 2014, it is estimated that Gherbetna has been downloaded by more than 50,000 people.

Huge efforts, but mixed results

Over the last 18 months, an explosion of creativity and innovation from tech entrepreneurs has tried to make 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 honour 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 two million users a month, but according to an interview with Josephine Goube (one of the cofounders of the initiative) 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.

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 centres, 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.

Joining forces for good

Many tech and social entrepreneurs jumped on the refugee crisis bandwagon after the images of Aylan Kurdi spread through social media. To ensure that this enthusiasm is sustained and directed towards useful initiatives, governments will need to engage thoughtfully with these efforts, such as by signalling more clearly what problems need to be solved and providing different forms of financing for promising ideas and services. For example, Nesta is currently partnering with the European Commission to deliver the Social Innovation Challenge, which is focused this year on generating innovative ideas to support the reception and integration of refugees in Europe.

Tech entrepreneurs will also need to commit to this partnership by responding not only to the needs and priorities of refugees and NGOs but to policymakers as well. This is starting to happen. For example, the Techfugees community - a group that has organised hackathons, conferences and projects to help innovators working in this space - is encouraging its members to support humanitarian organisations like the UN High Commission for Refugees, rather than continuously developing new third-party apps.

However, 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. As the digital humanitarianism space matures, taking steps to work together in this way should be prioritised by policymakers and innovators alike. 

This article originally appeared on the Nesta blog. A version of this article is cross-posted at Refugees Deeply, an independent digital media project dedicated to covering the refugee crisis.

Image credit: Internews Europe (Creative Commons) / Flickr

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