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 number 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: how open wireless networks could open doors to newly-arrived migrants.
Democratising communications media by offering free, open web access: this is the vision behind free wireless networks. The practical implementation of this idea is already being rolled out in communities across the world and the idea is part of a movement towards open infrastructure and wireless frequencies.
For refugees in foreign countries, many of whom have have a mobile handset but no connection plan, the concept is particularly useful: via the Freifunk (translated: free wireless) network they can stay in contact with loved ones; find information about their new home; and keep up to date with news from back home, all for free.
How Does it Work?
More and more people are single-handedly building free, open networks. Each user within the Freifunk network makes their WiFi router available to other participants for data transfer. In return, users can tranfer data – such as music, text and movies – over the internal free wireless network or chat using tailor-made services, make phone calls and play games online together, using so-called mesh networks.
Many users provide access to their internet connection and allow others a gateway to the worldwide web. According to Freifunk "We use our own wireless firmware, a special Linux distribution, on our WLAN routers. Local communities provide software adapted to their own needs and then on their websites. There are more and more free wireless groups that meet regularly in villages and cities."
Free WiFi for Refugees and Asylum Seekers
There are many ways that free wireless can have a positive societal impact and help others. Numerous free wireless networks are already connecting refugees to the web throughout Germany. The trouble those who have been forced to flee their homes have with getting access to vital information is not lost on free wireless network members and the will to help here is strong. There is also a need for it: in the past, access to the digital world was offered to refugees who arrived in German cities this way: ''The accommodation of refugees in the Waldschulallee shelter happened on quite short notice, but through many hardware donations and quick support from free wireless operators, we were able to set up Internet access in the gym before the Christmas holidays.'' - Loofmann (AFRA).
Generally, the goal is to improve digital infrastructure in refugee shelters which is why Freifunk Berlin and the Refugee Emancipation Project are planning a collaboration. You can help! If you see eye-to-eye with the goals of free wireless networks, there are many ways to contribute within your local community. Free wireless network participants are open to new ideas, support one another, learn from each other and work together so that open networks develop socially and technically. Get started!