Techfugees - using technology and innovation to better support displaced people

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett February 23, 2021 Audio mode
The aim of social enterprise Techfugees is to ensure digital technology is used effectively to support growing numbers of refugees and migrants around the world. Here are two case studies of organizations working in the field that have benefitted from their support.

Image of refugees on a boat
(Image by antriksh kumar from Pixabay )

A record 80 million - the equivalent of one in every 97 - people around the world are now either refugees or have been displaced from their homes due to conflict, persecution or public disorder, according to the United Nation's Refugee Agency, the UNHCR

Not only are the numbers of people in this position mounting year-on-year though, but the time it is taking for them to return home is increasing too. In the 1990s, an average of 1.5 million were able to do so each year, but over the last decade, the figure has dropped to 385,000, which means that in many instances displacement is no longer a temporary phenomenon.

Unfortunately, the situation is only likely to get worse. In fact, the growing climate crisis could lead to as many as 1.2 billion people being displaced by 2050, estimates a report from the Institute for Economics and Peace, a thinktank that produces annual global terrorism and peace indexes.

But this is where organizations such as Techfugees come in. Set up in 2015 in the wake of the shocking death of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the Turkish coast while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos, its aim is to "harness the power of technology and innovation" in order to support displaced people more effectively, says CEO Raj Burman, who joined the social enterprise in November last year.

Consisting of a core team of 12 people based in the UK and France, the organization has 40 local chapters and 54,000 volunteers around the world. These chapters partner with local bodies ranging from humanitarian and non-governmental organizations to tech companies and academic institutions, with the aim of focusing on five key areas: access to information, health, education, work and inclusion.

To illustrate the point, Burman describes an initiative in a refugee camp in Kenya involving the Red Cross, Google, Oracle and local innovation centre, iHub:

In Kenya, the focus was on improving health in the Kakuma refugee camp, so we worked with our partners to scope and develop a solution with the displaced for the displaced. We built a minimum viable product, tested it in the field and plan to launch it this year. We'll also work with our Data Hub to see what further development may be required to help diffusion in other markets.

This Data Hub was created last year out of aggregated, open source and grass roots data to graphically show how the pandemic is affecting displaced people and where the Covid-19 hotspots are. The aim is to make the information available to research institutions and policy makers to enable them to make more informed choices in relation to such populations.

A third plank of activity is the ‘Techfugees 4 Women Fellowship' programme. Set up by the organization's charitable arm in France, the sponsored, six-month-long initiative, which is free-of-charge for all participants, is intended to help professional women refugees both to network and enhance their digital skills by means of online and offline training and mentoring.

The first round of the programme, which closed last year, resulted in 80% of the 42 women involved finding a job. As a result, there are plans to roll the scheme out in Italy and Greece this year too.

Doctor X - A multi-lingual medical passport

Another of Techfugee's success stories, meanwhile, is the Doctor X app, which is the brainchild of electrical engineer, Ahmad Bassam. The Android-based app, which he describes as a "multi-lingual medical passport", provides displaced people in Jordan with a digital means of storing and providing healthcare professionals with access to their medical records in order to improve the quality of support offered to them.

With a total population of 10.2 million, the country has officially granted asylum status to a huge three million refugees, but Bassam puts the overall number of displaced people, consisting of 56 nationalities, at more like 5.5 million following waves of migration since the 1990s.

After seeing how vulnerable such displaced people are and speaking to doctors who reported problems in accessing their medical histories, he started working on Doctor X in the middle of 2017 while still continuing to do his day job. User testing began in early 2018 and, with the help of thousands of volunteers around the world, the app was released last year.

As to how it works, users simply download it for free from the Google Play store, sign up for an account, fill in their details in a choice of Arabic, English or French, and then have the physician they are seeing write up their notes on it following a consultation. The encrypted data is stored at the backend on the Google Cloud Platform but can also be accessed offline too.

One of the most testing parts of the initiative, however, has simply been raising awareness of the service among displaced people and getting them to sign up. For example, while many do not trust social media, advertising healthcare apps violates Jordanian legislation anyway. As a result, Bassam and various volunteers have had to visit refugee camps and hospitals in person in order to encourage uptake, a situation that has proved impossible during the pandemic, making it necessary to rely on word of mouth.

As for where Techfugees comes into the picture, after receiving an application form to attend the organization's Global Summit from a contact, Bassam found the networking opportunities provided via the event to be invaluable. For example, the organization's partner Google provided him with free user access to the Google Cloud platform and a six-month scholarship to study how Google Cloud apps-based could help to further the project. Bassam says:

Techfugees has been more than a great support to me - this project wouldn't have been possible without them. They've been a great enabler and very encouraging both personally and on the technology side too.

Reducing information poverty with Integreat

A second social enterprise that has benefited from the organization's support with its growth plans following success in the annual Global Challenges competition in 2018 is Augsburg, Germany-based Integreat.

The Integreat app is an updated, digitised version of a paper-based brochure that one of the social enterprise's investors, Tuer an Tuer (Door to Door) which helps refugees and migrants enter the labour market, had first written in 1999. The aim was to provide displaced people living in the city with details of the services available to them. But when in the summer of 2015, the number of asylum seekers moving there hit 100 per week, it was decided that an upgrade was required.

Fritjof Knier, now one of Integreat's two joint managing directors, was at the time a student volunteer for Tuer an Tuer and became involved in writing the app, which is based on Android "as most refugees have Android".

Subject specialists, including lawyers and counsellors, were also brought in to provide content and the app was released in November 2015. Supporting the German, French, English and Arabic languages, it is now available in 65 cities across the country, each of which pay an annual fee for its use. Knier explains the app's value:

Germany is very bureaucratic and has regulations at both the national and local level. So the challenge was to provide refugees with an everyday guide to help them negotiate it all. The app provides details on things like counselling services but also advises people on how to get to a doctor in order to be referred to a specialist. There are lots of services and support programmes available across the country, but it's not always easy to find your way around the system. So the aim was to build a digital bridge to help people help themselves.

Once migrants arrive at their destination and are informed about the app by an official, they can simply download it onto their smartphone, choose their city of residence and language of choice, and search for the support they require in a range of different areas, ranging from health to education.

Integreat is also in the process of developing a second translation app though to provide apprentices from migrant families attending vocational schools with access to the specialist vocabulary they require. The first prototype is due to launch in July. Knier explains the rationale:

Due to Germany's ageing demographic, we won't have enough skilled workers in a few years time. So the government hopes to fill the gap with people from other countries, which is where migrants come in.

But the organization is also branching out overseas too. It is just about to start a pilot project of its information app in Fairfield, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, to test the model outside of Germany. As Knier says:

The circumstances are different in each country, but really it's about reducing information poverty and helping people adapt to different circumstances, no matter where they are.

My take

Organizations like Techfugees provide an invaluable service in a politically difficult and typically under-resourced area, whose needs and requirements are only likely to grow as the climate crisis continues to worsen and more and more people become displaced as a result.