According to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 51 million people are currently seeking asylum, have refugee status or are internally displaced. As a result of natural and humanitarian disasters, this nuber is growing. Over the next week, we pose the question 'how does refugee aid look in the digital age' and, via our RESET Special 'Refugee Aid 2.0', we will introduce projects that use digital tools to support and assist refugees. Today: could apps and multimedia platforms help bridge cultural divides and give people access to critical information?
Arrival in a new country as a refugee or asylum seeker brings with it immense challenges that can include having to find a place to live, accessing information and communicating in foreign languages and getting regular access to proper food, water and healthcare. Yet, even when immediate shelter, food and medical needs are secured, the lives of displaced people remain on hold for a very long time - 17 years is the average time people spend in displacement before they are able to return home or start life in a new country.
Some projects are bringing 21st century solutions to the fore to help refugees and asylum seekers access support and assistive services. It may sound like the most oversimplified solution but when it comes to helping asylum seekers settle into new lives, there is, believe it or not, an app for that. But do apps and multimedia platforms really help? Let's take a look at some of what's out there.
One of the main causes behind the record high number of displacements in recent years is the outbreak of conflict in Syria, which led to two million people fleeing the country in 2013 alone according to the UNHCR. Many of these people cross the border into Turkey seeking asylum and must overcome language and cultural barriers and adjust to a new place while possibly having to deal with symptoms of trauma.
In 2014, Syrian refugee Mojahed Akil created the app Gherbtna (meaning exile or loneliness in Arabic) to provide Syrian refugees in Turkey access to vital information to assist them in resettling in the country. The app and accompanying website offer information on gaining employment, how to apply for university, how to open a bank account and how to find a place to live as well as news about which settlement areas are safe and which border crossings might be open at any given time.
The app (currently available for Android phones) has proven very popular and Akil eventually wants to broaden its reach to refugees across the world.
Support to Life
Support to Life is an organisation that also supports Syrian refugees in Turkey. Members of the team go to door-to-door, meeting with refugee families in person and recording their details and requirements using a tablet. The team uses a programme which determines what kind of aid refugees are entitled to and even evaluates how helpful the received aid has been. Electronic cash cards are distributed to displaced families who can use them to buy basic food and necessities and the team communicates critical information in rapid time via SMS (mobile phone penetration is high in these communities).
Kommen und Bleiben
In 2014, Germany received the highest number of asylum applications worldwide (a fifth of whom came from Syria). As such, there has been much local discussion about how to manage the influx of migrants and crucially, how to assist them with integration into German society. In 2014, the Kunsthochschule in the Berlin burrough of Weißensee launched 'Kommen und bleiben' (come and stay) as a means of promoting cultural exchange between asylum seekers and Berlin residents and opening up a dialogue about multiculturalism in the German capital. Via the dedicated web portal, the project aims to bring together local residents and asylum seekers via artisanal and craft workshops that are led by refugees.
The team behind the Kommen und bleiben is also engaged offline in setting up initiatives that facilitate integration on a local level.
Witten Cityguide App
Another project in Germany that was built to help newly-arrived refugees and asylum seekers adjust to life in a foreign country is the Witten Cityguide App. When local authorities in the German city of Witten discovered that around half of all new migrants arrive more frequently with a smartphone in their pockets than with a passport, they decided to build a portal whereby refugees and asylum seekers could search for and find necessary information when and as they need. The resulting database can be downloaded as an app (or accessed online using free WiFi when in the inner city) and provides details (in a number of languages) on everything from where to access healthcare, how to find a job, where to get furniture and how to navigate local bureaucracy. The app is available for Android and iPhone platforms.
By no means are apps, websites and multimedia platforms a cure-all for assisting refugees and asylum seekers but when brought to life in a tailored way that considers local perspectives and delivers a service that displaced persons need, they can serve a purpose, particularly in providing access to vital news and information.