Around the world, more than 60 million refugees have abandoned their homes to flee from desperate circumstances. Notably, six of every 10 Syrian citizens, an estimated 12.5 million people, have become refugees, an unprecedented number for a single country, according to the Pew Research Center.
The Syrian refugee crisis is a complex political and humanitarian issue that has left many policymakers and public citizens searching for answers and desperate for a solution. Naturally, in our increasingly digital age, that has raised the question: What role can technology play?
It turns out, a big one.
A number of innovative mobile apps and online platforms have emerged in the U.S. and elsewhere to help migrants connect with lost loved ones, find aid, and even assimilate into new countries. Here are five startups that are using technology to help refugees.
Inspired by Airbnb’s sharing model, Washington, D.C. resident Amr Arafa built a website for refugees and victims of domestic violence to find free, safe places to stay. EmergencyBNB has 8,000 users and is growing fast. As of now, there are hosts in 30 states and Washington, D.C., and the service has expanded across the globe to countries including the U.K., France, Egypt, and Turkey. Arafa argues that the sharing economy matches perfectly with the needs of the people the website serves.
“It is important for the victim to connect with a caring neighbor, rather than being lonely in a sterile hotel room,” Arafa explains. “Human interaction lets them know that they are not alone and that there are people out there who are empathetic, who care and, who want nothing from them in return.”
Arafa immigrated to the United States from Egypt over 10 years ago. When he got his green card in 2015, he realized his position enabled him to help others.
“Having lived in the U.S. since 2005, as a graduate student and as a professional, I have realized that an immigrant’s journey is not an easy one – let alone that of a refugee,” says Arafa. “It has not been an easy ride, but at least it was what I chose. At least I knew in the back of my mind that I could just return home at any point if things didn’t work out. Refugees, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They have lost their countries and their lives as they knew it, all so suddenly. They have no place to fall back on. They have no plan B.”
Sometimes, the problem in a major crisis isn’t a lack of volunteers—it’s that everyone wants to work on a problem, and no one knows exactly what to do. Enter Techfugees, a nonprofit organization that aims to focus the volunteer efforts of the tech community. The organization, founded by TechCrunch Editor-at-Large Mike Butcher in London, has hosted hackathons and conferences in an effort to galvanize a global network of tech-oriented minds to create and build solutions to the problems plaguing refugees.
“We’re not saying tech can be a magic wand waved over this huge issue,” Butcher told The Telegraph. “But it’s 2015, not 1939, and smartphones and the web have the capability to find lost families, report human rights abuses and perhaps even disrupt the smugglers.”
The group has more than 15,000 members and chapters across the globe. It has produced solutions such as GeeCycle, an online platform that helps visitors donate their old smartphones to Syrian refugees, and Info Bus, a mobile tech hub that provides Internet access and legal resources in refugee camps.
Launched a year ago, Refugee Maps is an online platform that plots the locations of donation hubs and fundraising events around the world, as well as links for those interested in learning more. Co-founders Pranay Manocha and Magdalena Gajewska built the map after working with nonprofits to learn how he could best apply his skills as a developer and her skills as a geospatial consultant.
Refugee Maps screen
“[My co-founder and I] went in knowing that we’re not the best people to help refugees, but we’re the best people to help others helping refugees,” Manocha, based in the U.K., tells Free Enterprise.
Over the past year, Manocha says that around 200,000 people from around the world have used the site, not just to look for resources in their own area, but also in cities around the world. The map often directs visitors to Facebook groups, where they can engage with like-minded volunteers in other countries. Though the platform was built to help with the Syrian refugee crisis, Manocha notes that the technology behind the map could easily assist in natural disasters and other emergencies.
“We were just thinking about what we can do to help, not about how big it might get or if we’d help enough people,” Manocha says. “When we launched, we thought that even if we could just help 20 people, that would be enough.”
EmpowerHack is a collective focused on supporting the needs of women and children refugees. The group organizes hackathons and has launched a volunteer-run accelerator geared toward finding solutions to very specific problems regarding health, gender-based violence, employment and education. EmpowerHack makes a concerted effort to partner with non-governmental organizations and nonprofits that work on refugee issues to ensure that the technology built during hackathons and through the group’s accelerator are solving real problems.
“Not only is it a new way of working for us, it’s a new away of working for our partners as well,” says co-founder Han Pham. “We’re learning as we go. I think the lessons we’re coming away with are completely applicable in any business environment: learning how you build relationships and stretch each other, and streamlining and optimizing the way that innovation occurs.”
Most of the British group’s volunteers are female, and not all of them are tech experts. Doctors, scientists and humanitarian aid workers all consult on the technologies being built. One project that exemplifies how the collective works is the health app HaBaby,which is designed to assist pregnant refugees by providing information about potential health issues, aiding in doctor-patient communication and recording a limited patient history.
Based on insights from their NGO partners, the app is being redesigned to better support field doctors trying to standardize healthcare for pregnant women in Greece’s refugee camps. Meanwhile, the web platform Breaking Barriers helps refugees overcome obstacles by teaching courses on employment, language skills and the British working system, as well as partnering with other organizations that can help secure work placements for refugees.
ReDI School of Digital Integration
Since February 2016, this German non-profit has been attempting to “digitally integrate” asylum seekers by teaching them to code and other digital skills. ReDI’s goal is to help refugees find jobs in Germany’s growing IT sector.
Some of the school’s graduates have gone on to launch apps to help their fellow refugees. Let’s Integrate is an online platform that arranges meetups between Germans and refugees, so that both sides can better understand one another. Ultimately, the platform aims to expand across Europe. ReDI graduates are also working on an app called Bureaucrazy, which will help Syrian newcomers navigate the complexities of the German government. Of course, refugees aren’t the only ones who have a hard time dealing with bureaucracies, and the team is exploring ways the tool can be used to help German citizens, too.
“If we want to help the people stuck in refugee camps around the world or getting trafficked, we need to empower and collaborate with people like [Bureaucrazy’s developers],” ReDI co-founder, Anne Kjær Riechert, told The Guardian. “They know firsthand what the situation is like, and hence can be part of building the real solutions.”