RESET Special: Refugee Aid 2.0 – Reconnecting the Disconnected

DFID - UK Department for International Development.

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.

Autor*in Louisa Wong -, 04.10.15

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: digital platforms that help refugees search for missing family members.

When sudden humanitarian or natural disasters occur, people can be separated from their families and friends in the blink of an eye. Regardless of whether a person becomes internally displaced or crosses an international border seeking asylum, searching for missing loved ones using traditional methods can be about as fruitful as sending a message in a bottle. Web and mobile technology are being used to help improve the system.

Every year, thousands of families are separated as a result of natural disasters, conflict and migration. When people arrive at refugee camps, their details are more often than not collected using pencil and paper with information filed and stored manually. Those that flee across international borders have to deal with language barriers in order to access information and assistive services while the mountain of red tape that needs to be cut through can make tracking family members a lengthy process. An organisation based in Denmark is using technology to help make it easier for refugees and displaced persons to find their loved ones.

The Story

In 2005, the Mikkelsen brothers from Copenhagen helped a young Afghan man reconnect with this brother after becoming separated from his family while fleeing Kabul and the Taliban. Frustrated by the rudimentary systems in place to trace refugees’ family members as well as the minimal information flow between agencies and across borders, the brothers reasoned that collaborative technology platforms could be very helpful in this area. In 2008, they launched Refugees United (Refunite), a technology-based nonprofit organisation that connects disconnected people to life-saving services and allows them to search for loved ones. Since the launch, Refunite has become the world’s largest database to help reconnect separated refugee families.

How It Works

Users can sign up for free via the website from all over the world. The platform allows people to search via a number of ways: people can send an SMS to a specific number to search the database on their mobile handset; call into one of their call centres which operate in various parts of the world and in languages such as Somali, French, Swahili, English, Amharic, Arabic and Sudanese Arabic; search using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD); or type a person’s details into their online platform and search online. The number one aim of the project is to provide an online and mobile-enabled platform for displaced people so that they can take the search for missing family members and loved ones into their own hands.

“Everyone has the right to know where their family is. Mobile technology has the potential to speed up the family tracing process globally.” Said Christopher Mikkelsen, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Refunite.

The video below demonstrates how the service has helped Estelle, a refugee who reconnected with her sister via Refunite:

More than 400,000 users are currently registered with the service. Refunite works closely with mobile technonology provider Ericsson to operate its platform as well as the UNHCR to help find missing people. Last month, the three organisations launched a pilot project (alongside the International Rescue Committee and Zain Group) in South Sudan to help the 1.4 million people displaced by conflict use mobile technology to find missing family members.

A similar mobile platform called RapidFTR was designed by intergovernmental agents like United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to collect, sort, and share information about unaccompanied children in emergency situations. When a child arrives at a refugee camp alone, workers use mobile phones to collect the child’s details and take their photo and then share this information with other aid workers in the network in the hope that others may know of the location of the child’s family.

This again shows that when applied using a targeted, tailored approach, telecommunications technologies offer the potential to improve, enrich and empower millions of lives in need.

Mobile Technology Driving Development

Africa is developing at an exceptional rate thanks, in part, to mobile technology, something that has been confirmed by a study by the World Bank (PDF).