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The Refugee Crisis: Tech Tools in Life-and-Death Situations

How many times have you said, “I would die without my phone!” when you’ve maybe forgotten it at home or accidentally dropped it in water? For urban dwellers, smartphones furnish the tools of everyday life from delivering takeout to setting up dates, but for refugees of the Syrian conflict, having a smartphone is a matter of survival.

Mechanisms that many take for granted — such as location sharing, peer review, and customer feedback — are helping Syrian refugees find safety abroad. The Daily Dot calls refugees’ use of technology tools a “higher stake version of what most westerners use smartphones for every day.”

For refugees coming from Syria, the most essential tool is a smartphone. Images of refugees taking selfies or bathed in the blue lights of their phones on Greek beaches have become emblematic of this crisis — to the ridicule and outrage of many who mistakenly consider smartphones to be only luxury.

Utilizing Social Media for Refugees

Like people everywhere, refugees use WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, and Viber to communicate with each other and with relatives at home. Through these tools, refugees can access crowd-sourced information to help them plan their routes or settle into their new homes.

An article in The New Yorker profiles the Facebook group called Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers, explaining that it functions like TripAdvisor with its many Syrian refugee members sharing candid information about hostels, smugglers, and weather and sea conditions.

Wired reports that Arabic-language Facebook groups — such as one called Smuggling Into the E.U. — provide platforms for smugglers to advertise their services and for refugees to see who has the cheapest rates. Social media is providing peer-review for refugees and the ability to hold smugglers accountable.

Refugees also use GoogleMap and WhatsApp to communicate their locations both to relatives and to authorities like the Coast Guard, especially during sea passages. Similarly, Apple’s Find My Friends app and the Companion app let your friends know you got home safely.

Action From the Tech Sector

Since refugees from Syria are tech-equipped, the tech sector has recognized the significance of its role and stepped up to provide solutions. Wired features Crisis Info Hub, an effort to open source tools for refugees and optimize information to run lightly on a phone. Though the platform currently serves only the popular port Lesbos, Greece, Google is seeking assistance in updating the service for other locations.

One uniquely tech-related solution trend is the emergence of “hackathons” focused on tech solutions to refugee problems. The Atlantic covers German startup Memorando’s #hackweek15, which resulted in the app Refugermany with categories such as “asylum procedure” and “opening a bank account.” Another event, entitled “Refugee Hack Vienna,” resulted in Where2help, a platform for volunteers. Techfugees is a group of tech industry veterans who host ongoing efforts to assist refugees.

App Input From Refugees and NGOs

Those most adept at creating apps to assist refugees may be those closest to the problem — refugees themselves, or non-governmental organizations that assist in resettlement. For instance, Wired features the International Rescue Committee, which has developed a hyper-local site that provides newcomers in Europe up-to-date, location-specific logistical information such as where and how to register with local authorities and how to access social services.

NPR covers the story of a Syrian refugee in Turkey who, after navigating frustrating government processes and life in his new home, created an app and website called Gherbtna, which translates to mean “exile” or “loneliness” in Arabic. Gherbtna shares information about residency regulations, registration requirements for students at universities, and job openings in host countries.

Government-Sponsored Apps

Although a bit late to the game, governments are seeing the value in creating tech solutions for their new residents. In January 2016, Germany launched a new app to help asylum-seekers known as Ankommen, which is German for “arrive.” The Verge explains that several organizations jointly developed the Ankommen app: the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the Federal Employment Agency, the Goethe Institute, and media broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk. Ankommen includes a basic German course and information about seeking asylum, job training, and social customs.

Austria, which saw nearly 300,000 refugees enter the country in 2015, has introduced a language-teaching app for children. Austrian news site The Local reports that “hallo App Deutsch,” which launched in October 2015, contains 1,000 everyday words as well as pictures and sounds to help children learn the new language.

Are Apps Enough?

In her article detailing the rise of apps for refugees, Heather Horn of The Atlantic asserts that despite the ingenuity of tech solutions, they are stopgap measures. Only policy reform from the European Union and other wealthy countries will ensure that Syrian refugees have safe journeys and welcoming places to land.

Still, the rise of tech solutions in the Syrian refugee crisis shows the potential of smartphone apps and social media beyond mere entertainment or convenience. In many ways, smartphones allow refugees autonomy and more control over their situations. Smartphones bring accountability and accuracy to many of the age-old problems that fleeing war presents; smugglers and unseaworthy vessels have always been around, but with social media groups and location services, those in the most desperate situations are able to crowd-source their decisions.

Policy Implications

Tech solutions for refugees have the potential to influence the way immigration systems function across the globe. In the U.S., a group of immigrant advocacy groups launched the app Pocket DACA to help immigrants who arrived in the country as children understand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Apps are the most accessible ways to disseminate information to populations without access to traditional sources of information — smartphones are often the only access to the Internet that refugees have. Connections to immigration lawyers or submissions of certain applications via smartphones may not be far off, with the hope that governments will eventually integrate technology to streamline what is often a complex, expensive, and emotionally draining process for refugees.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…