Refugees checking their phones at the beach

Refugees and technology: on a journey of self-discovery

Image credit: John Stanmeyer/National Geographic

Not only does technology allow refugees to build better futures for themselves and their families, it may also inspire them to contribute to the technological world in return.

What Abdullah Al Jaber most wanted to do was to work and forget. Back in Syria, he’d just qualified as a music teacher before he fled in 2015. “I used to play five instruments.”

Two of his uncles and two cousins were butchered during the war in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. Al Jaber fled with the rest of his family to Turkey and he was smuggled to Greece in an overcrowded boat, to be rescued by the Greek coastguard in 2016. But the internal borders in Europe had closed the day he arrived in Athens, and his dreams of studying in Germany faded.

Today, he’s studying computer science in Dublin, where he began at university last year. Now he just wants to settle and make Ireland his home. “I can’t play or teach music anymore – my family have died. I’ve left music behind forever.”

He’s 26, sometimes lonely, but relieved to be moving on. For an excruciating year and two months, he waited in Greece, haunted by memories, trying to gain asylum and finally safe passage to Ireland in 2017. “It was... boring,” he says. “We had nothing to do but wait. I wanted to study online, but I didn’t speak English back then.”

During long days in Greece, he taught himself English with the help of friends over Skype and by YouTube – now he’s relatively fluent. Like many, he believed technology was an escape route – as a means to learn, a way of documenting his grim and violent journey, and as a future career. “Technology is everything here in Ireland,” he explains. “It seemed the best way to me.”

Like Al Jaber, refugees don’t want to feel trapped, helpless, unable to work. But it takes months to process claims and asylum seekers in Europe have little choice but to endure overcrowded and makeshift living.

Nearly 71 million people worldwide have been pushed from their homes according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – more than half within their own country. Every day, some 37,000 people flee because of conflict and persecution. Climate change will only add to the problem – by 2050 some 140 million people could be displaced, notes Josephine Goube, chief executive of non-profit Techfugees. “Technology has the potential to help people who are trapped in time and space,” she adds.

Based in London and Paris, Techfugees was created in 2015 in response to the public shock when the small body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian migrant, washed up near a Turkish resort.

In the immediate aftermath, some 2,000 people responded to a community callout by Mike Butcher of TechCrunch, and “here we still are”, says Goube. It’s a tiny organisation, just three full-time staff, and donations from the likes of Google for Startups, French fund FAIRE and others, and support from Cisco and volunteers.

With some 10 hackathons worldwide last year, Techfugees raised funds to bring refugees to a Nairobi meet. “If you come to a meeting, you learn what refugees need, and you learn about data security and online privacy before you build anything,” says Goube. “It’s so important refugees feel empowered.”

In 2018, Techfugees received more than 100 applications from 53 countries to attend a global challenge competition for start-ups, and most of these teams had refugees in them. Entrants with a winning idea receive mentorship, incubation space and the support of a non-profit organisation to work with. “We want to create a virtuous circle,” says Goube. “Our aim is to help refugees get hired work in the tech industry. When they do, people become more conscious that a person can be both skilled and a refugee. Once you fix employment, once you get that recognition by society, you regain your dignity. Employment really sorts out a lot.”

Meanwhile, the situation for children is still dire. In her work on the board of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Goube has met six-year-olds born in Jordanian camps near the Syrian border. “Their whole lives have been spent in a state of transience, waiting for the next phase which never came.” It’s not enough, she says, to teach them carpentry and sewing – they need 21st-century skills.

Initiative such as Libraries Without Borders can bring digital resources to refugee camps, says Goube – an ‘Ideas Box’ of interactive digital and dynamic learning tools for young people. “These initiatives are vital,” she says. “They ensure young people don’t find themselves becoming refugees both in this world and the digital world – effectively twice over.”

“When refugees arrive on Greek shores, they’re often emerging from one of the most terrifying journeys of their lives,” says Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the UNHCR in Greece. Numbers of refugees and migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece rose again in 2019, and UNHCR’s latest factsheet describes camps on Greek islands such as Lesbos and Samos as “dangerously overcrowded”, with 36,400 people sharing space and services intended for 5,400. There are 5,300 unaccompanied children.

Cheshirkov recalls the year when he volunteered on Lesbos to help people ashore. “They would come in after three or four hours, freezing and soaking, and the first thing they would ask is how can I connect to the Wi-Fi and tell my family I’m safe?” Phones are a lifeline, their most valuable possession, he says, as well as a reminder of what they have lost. “Other family members might be dispersed in so many areas, they are a means of keeping track.”

For Al Jaber, his phone was indeed his lifeline – a way of keeping in touch with the rest of his family in Turkey and for learning a new language.

Elsewhere, mobile technology has been a way of getting refugees to ‘university’ – via online learning from universities in the US and Europe. Princeton taught a history course to refugees in Jordan’s Azraq back in 2016 after successfully teaching in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, phones were used to teach the nuts and bolts of starting and running a business.

“Sometimes the simplest technology can be transformative,” says Gary Shaye, associate vice president at Save the Children.

Previously vulnerable Venezuelan refugees were given food handouts; now they receive debit cards with access to up to $275 (£214) a month to spend in the host country. “It helps the local community, but most importantly it gives people dignity. It’s such a simple change,” says Shaye.


Jobs for refugees

In 2019, a firm that makes visual data AI-ready teamed up with Techfugees to help improve employment for refugees and displaced people in the Middle East. TaQadam offers AI data labelling and image annotation for data-​driven companies.

“We trained displaced people on client delivery, on image annotation and broader English skills,” says co-founder Karina Grosheva. “In truth, we mastered the support circle so that they train themselves and support each other. That’s possible with mobile tech.”

Individuals are then able to provide human insights into the images – and this creates remote jobs in the growing business of AI implementation. “We envision working on creating geo-tagged datasets using our analysts to validate objects of interest from air, using satellite and drone imagery,” says Grosheva.

Other jobs come through Chatterbox, a language tutoring platform that employs refugees as teachers and trains them to teach their mother tongue. The company was developed by Kabul-​born Mursal Hedayat, who recalls the struggles that her mother, a civil engineer, faced to find work.

In Jordan, more than 100,000 refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp have received cash for food via blockchain in a pilot by the World Food Programme (WFP). Under this ‘Building Blocks’ pilot, which began in 2017, direct cash transfers are made to individual refugees via blockchain. They’re able to buy food from grocery stores via an iris scan.

In 2018, the WFP delivered $1.76bn (£1.36bn) this way in partnership with financial institutions. This came about from a need to save money – giving refugees cash to buy groceries is costly, due to banks’ hefty transaction fees.

Early results of the blockchain trial showed a 98 per cent reduction in fees, as allowing direct and secure transactions between individuals and the WFP effectively bypassed banks. And that, as WFP points out, is money that can be spent on aid instead. The organisation now wants to experiment further with the platform to see how it could allow for wider cash distributions within the camps.

However, there are growing concerns about the proliferation of technology among people in transit – and not without cause. In the past there have been security breaches of sensitive refugee data. The development of digital databases on Rohingya populations in Bangladesh were linked to persecution and discrimination. If data falls into the wrong hands, individuals are exposed.

“The use of biometrics is controversial, but it has taken off very quickly – faster than we’ve developed formative frameworks to cope; there’s a governance gap,” says Nathaniel Raymond, human rights expert and lecturer at the US Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. “And use of mobile phone services has occurred extremely quickly too. We are seeing refugees reliant on their devices for making decisions where to go, how to seek assistance, even using smugglers. Refugees are digital actors, but it’s relatively sudden.”

Dependence on phones for services can be problematic for women, he says, as they tend to have less access. “In camps, we see more men controlling phones than women – a male is editing female access to a device. When that’s a way of connecting with the diaspora, we risk making a population digitally invisible.”

Tech can harm refugees in transit in various ways, he says. “It can target them at various stages of their journey. People are using technology that was designed for sharing pictures of cats to make life decisions. It can lead to exploitation. And it can lead to exclusion.” And when platforms are negligent with security and data sharing, people are vulnerable. “The government of Bangladesh just handed over Rohingya biometric cards to the government of Myanmar,” he says.

As the UNHCR continues to roll out a programme of biometric registration – fingerprints, photograph and an iris scan – aid agencies defend holding refugee data. It allows them to document and verify individuals; once on the system, a refugee’s journey is logged and updated. Without a doubt, this helps agencies manage the unwieldy task of helping millions who are on the move and who’ve left without identification. “Much of UNHCR’s work on delivering aid and support depends on establishing a person’s identity,” says a spokesperson.

Biometric data also helps stop fraud. More than eight out of ten of UNHCR-registered refugees aged five and above have a UNHCR biometric record – that’s 8.2 million across 64 country operations, with a target of 75 countries by the end of 2020. This, aid agencies argue, offers a more human-centred aid system that confers more dignity. Biometric data is not linked to asylum claims, says Cheshirkov.

Raymond at the Jackson Institute says data – or its security – keeps him up at night. “Suddenly humanitarian organisations are providing demographic data at a level of granularity, with a refresh rate that is more than the government they are fleeing can provide,” he points out. “We are accelerating the detail, the speed, the legibility of data.” At each country transition, he says, “we can assume that refugee data will be shared with intelligence services to identify potential terrorists. It’s the humanitarian agency that has provided the means for that to happen.”

Raymond would like to see the political will to address the risks. And he’d like to see commonly agreed standards or guidelines for how humanitarians should look after digital data of refugees, rather than bilateral agreements. “Imagine if Stalin had what we have today.”

Goube agrees that technology innovation has a potential downside. “It has to be built for the needs of refugees, to respond to their needs, not the needs of government or the administration. I’ve never seen a refugee say, ‘I want a digital ID’ – though many wish they hadn’t lost their papers.”

Are individual refugees in a position to refuse to give their data, she asks, when aid depends upon it? “Ultimately, technology is a formula for someone to get somewhere, but it doesn’t fix the refugee problem.”

As for Al Jaber, he wouldn’t have been without his phone. He had no concern about registering his data with the authorities, and so onto a European database. “I didn’t care. I have left Syria for good.”


How AI helps refugees find a new home

Every year, thousands of refugees are resettled all over the world. Where they go and how well they settle has a life-long impact. To help these individuals find their path, artificial intelligence (AI) is being used by the US State Department to find the best place for a refugee to make a home and find a job.

The AI-powered software also factors in medical facilities, nearby schools, support for parents and whether there are any fellow migrants in the area who speak the same language. Pioneered by researchers from Oxford University and Sweden’s Lund University, the system – called ‘Annie’ after Annie Moore, the first immigrant to be processed through New York’s Ellis Island in 1892 – has outperformed humans in early trials. The main measure of successful settlement is an individual finding a job.

Staff say automation saves them time on the more straightforward placements so they can focus on more complicated cases – and they still have the option to override the system if necessary.

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