World Refugee Day: How Technology Has Innovated Aid for Refugees

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Written by Jacqueline Christ

On World Refugee Day, an event that raises awareness for the 21.3 million refugees worldwide, the need for tech-based aid is more urgent than ever, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. In the latest global trends report, the agency stated that forced displacement reached a record high, with 24 people forced to flee from their countries every minute in 2015. The UNHCR has classified Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia as countries that make up more than half of the world’s refugees. Despite agency aid through advocacy work, asylum and migration assistance and cash-based interventions, much of the aid provided doesn’t reach the millions of citizens displaced worldwide. Why? The magnitude of refugees who seek asylum in other countries and the absence of technology used to link refugees to aid.

By the end of 2015, the 3.2 million people that sought asylum in other countries were still awaiting placement. The number of applications has also skyrocketed to an unprecedented 2 million. In addition to the overflow of refugees, gaps in technology halt internal aid to refugees. At-risk countries such as Syria often lack stable lines of communication and technology necessary to track down displaced citizens. Due to little resources, more than 5 million Syrian refugees are scattered throughout the region or trapped in exile, facing difficulties finding forms of relief.

In the past couple years, the UNHCR has coordinated with technology companies to change that. To boost communications for Syrian refugees, Google collaborated with NGOs to generate information-sharing apps and websites that assist refugees with locating humanitarian services, seeking asylum, finding access to food and shelter and tracking down family members.

Refugee.info, an online platform that equips refugees with information on their rights and the asylum process, has been highly successful—with more than 205,000 visitors. The Refugee Aid app, a location service that helps displaced citizens pinpoint the nearest humanitarian centers, is another startup that has benefited thousands of refugees in crisis.

Along with mobile solutions, advocates push for updated tech in refugee camps. The majority of Syrian refugees are scattered throughout Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in camps with overcrowded and impoverished conditions. According to a study by the UNHCR, 93% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line. Although some forms of technology are available, oftentimes camps do not have enough resources.

According to a case study by the UNHCR, the expansion of technology in refugee camps is necessary. The agency found that access to mobile phones in camps is vital for the facilitation of legal advice and communication with family members overseas. The agency proposed a central communication system to be implemented in camps, the distribution of satellite radios and increased funding for airtime.

Although Syrian refugees are often destitute of basic necessities, the majority of Syrians have mobile phones. According to CIA World Factbook, Syria had 81 mobile phones per 100 of the population in 2015.

“The supporting use of technology in humanitarian response and relief is now the new normal,” said Stephen O’Brien, the UN Under-Security General for Humanitarian Affairs to CNET News in 2015.

O’Brien noted that the innovations in technology can be life-saving. “The technology of being able to make sure that as people get in they can, despite the violence, make an assessment very quickly…This is making sure that, instead of it taking weeks, you can do it in hours. This is a massive life-saving added value.”

The situation in Syria has become increasingly deadly. In May, 964 civilians were killed in Syria, according to a report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Of the 72 civilians that died from torture or drowning while sea-fleeing, 24 children and 9 women lost their lives.

With information at their fingertips, refugees possess the tools needed for survival in the areas of crisis with tech companies stepping in to help with these solutions that can make the difference between life and death.

Photo by Sebastian Rich