Technology is not the first form of aid that comes to mind when addressing the global refugee crisis. Food, shelter, safety, asylum, and resettlement programs all sound much more important and necessary for helping refugees.
What most people don’t know, though, is that a surprising number of refugees own cell phones, even smartphones. In 2015, a study of the refugee camp in Za’atari, Jordan — the second-largest refugee camp in the world — showed that 86 percent of young people in the camp owned mobile phones. Of those refugees, 50 percent used their cell phones to access the internet every day.
Many refugees credit their safe escapes to their technology, claiming that they received group texts and other information electronically that helped them flee. Most of this information came through apps that gave directions to border crossings, weather reports, language translations and more.
The main source of this technology is a nonprofit called Techfugees. This company brings the global tech community together to create technology for refugees that will empower them amidst the crisis. It all started as a childhood dream of its founder, Mike Butcher. Born in Britain, Butcher had the rare opportunity to grow up near a military base where the British government housed Asian refugees. He developed a deep empathy for the refugees and their plights.
When he was old enough, Butcher knew he had “to do more than just give to charity.” So he decided to try and rally the tech community in Europe together. As a technician himself, he knew these people had the creativity and the passion for helping the refugee crisis. He set up a Techfugees Facebook group and Twitter feed in September 2015. The online community grew almost overnight into a global phenomenon, with thousands of people giving input for providing technology for refugees.
Today, Techfugees has more than 15,000 members across the world. Its mission statement expresses its five central principles: giving refugees internet access or technology, creating online educational resources for learning languages, providing a digital but stable storage of identity documents, allowing access to necessary healthcare; and facilitating the inclusion of refugees into their new community.
Instead of directly creating or providing this material, though, Techfugees serves as a creative hub for new ideas to provide technology for refugees. Its main focus is its “hackathons,” which it has held in London, Sydney, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Hackathons are breeding grounds for startups and innovators. Techfugees invites anyone with a technological idea that could help refugees to come, and award the best ideas with funding and connections to companies and sources to make their ideas a reality.
The first Techfugees hackathon, hosted on Oct. 15, 2015, in London, was a huge success, with more than 700 technicians attending. Each hackathon held since then has received even greater attendance. The hackathons also have speakers from successful startups to encourage and inspire the attendees. Most of these speakers have come from aid programs like UNICEF, the Red Cross, and the U.N. Refugee Agency. Tech companies also sponsored the event and winners.
Each hackathon has had a different theme. The Paris hackathon was focused on coding languages. The winner was RefuHelp, which pitched a platform that provides necessary information — like where to sleep, get food and more — using minimal text in their own language. The members were refugees themselves, so they knew how important it was to get the necessary information technology for refugees. They received, among other promotions, a three-month mentoring program and funding from Paypal France.
The latest Techfugees hackathon, which took place in Jordan, had a special focus on solving problems in the refugee camp itself. It empowered the refugees to solve problems in their midst of their own accord. Two female Syrian refugees won, using crowdsourcing to find water leakages in the piping and fix water shortages.
This revolutionary technological approach to the refugee crisis is quickly spreading. Programs around the world are hosting hackathons and sponsoring new technology for refugees. In May 2017, U.N. Women held a hackathon in Oslo and awarded an app called Digital Grab Bag. This app records identification data for refugees and provides an easy verification process when crossing borders and seeking jobs in new countries.
These hackathons are doubly effective by helping refugees as well as bringing people of different professions from all over the globe together. Innovators and businesses collaborate to create and fund new technology, then work with nonprofits and aid programs to supply the technology directly to refugees.
Techfugees has shown how technology can be the driving force in responding to the refugee crisis. With the right amount of innovation and resources, technology is not only transforming the living conditions of refugees around the world but empowering them to transform their own lives.
– Sydney Cooney