Technology’s unexpected involvement in the refugee crisis

Technology’s unexpected involvement in the refugee crisis

Though the technology community has stood for many causes over its evolution, its involvement in the refugee crisis is quite unexpected.

Mike Butcher, founder of Techfugees, leads a team of volunteers from the tech industry— engineers, entrepreneurs and startups— conducting a series of non-profit conferences and hackathons, working together to harness the power of technology as a form of assistance to refugees.

The Verge’s Ananya Bhattacharya highlights the Techfugees founder’s ingenuity: “Amidst chronic food, shelter, and medication shortages, technology was the last concern on everyone’s minds — except Butcher’s.”

The goal is to foster interest in the crisis among tech workers and provide opportunities to brainstorm creative crowdsourced solutions to problems faced by the refugees and the humanitarian organizations aiding them. The collaborators identified three main hack challenges:

  1. Refugees are being separated from friends and family as they flee Syria. Build a way for them to locate and reunite with each other.
  2. There are currently countless incidents of war crimes and crimes against people that are going unrecorded and reported. Build a way to record and report the time and location of crime against refugees.
  3. The displaced people of Syria are not represented by anyone and have no democratic collective voice. Build a way for them, and any they choose to represent them, to be heard so that their actual needs are met, and not those we suppose they have.

Solutions generated by the community are as technically focused as access to WiFi and communication through mobile phone connectivity, and as extensive as cultural integration into host countries. One example of fusing the two: Techfugees came up with the idea to build a location-based app that helps refugees find their nearest aid center. The group is set up to make such proposals come to fruition as it provides access to talent, investment and advice.

In addition to developing new ideas, Techfugees helps connect volunteers to existing startups involved in the cause, like Migreat, which provides asylum immigration advice, Kizcode, which trains young Kurdish and Turkish women to program, and Refugees on Rails, which also teaches coding.

Techfugees COO, Joséphine Goube, says that “in some ways, you can see Techfugees events are opening the doors of tech support to NGOs and charities, and in the long term, we want these events to result in incubations of those projects at NGOs and deployment of technology on the ground, not just cool meetups.”

Though Techfugees is itself non-profit, its explosive growth and the emergence of many other examples of innovation signal a growing enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship and impact investing.

Blurring the traditional barriers between humanitarianism, government and business presents opportunity and risk.

With increased connectivity comes increased risk for security breaches in the cyberspace, especially with the refugee crisis being such a politicized and polarized issue both on the international and local levels. This can be quite serious: the Techfugees leadership reminds the community that “many of these challenges represent significant risk to life, and therefore rely on anonymity. Your solutions to this challenge should bear that in mind.”

On a larger scale, one of the risks involved is that the culture and value systems from which these refugees are fleeing may associate Techfugees and related efforts with Western attempts to impose influence. Specifically, empowering refugees through technology (and so, by default, education plus access to varying perspectives via the internet) might be rhetorically painted as Western progressive values corrupting the youth, contradicting the suppression they (especially women) traditionally face. This sort of culture war may lead to increased tension that may even materialize into retaliation.

On the opportunity side, in addition to paving the way for further efforts, Techfugees and the services branching out of it are making people more dependent on technologies and in some cases introducing technologies into people’s lives. As Bhattacharya explains, “while Syrians might come armed with smartphones and working knowledge of English, some asylum seekers may arrive not knowing how to operate a cell phone or speak any language other than their native tongues.”

At this point, technology represents a means of survival for many refugees, but they might even be viewed as potential consumers when they are more secure. This alters the dynamic and gives refugees a voice and a role beyond that of victims and recipients of immediate aid, instilling hope that a tragic situation will have a brighter future in the long term.

Tags: Syria

About Author

Eileen Filmus

Eileen has worked in the US Congress, conducted research on terrorism and human rights, worked in the private sector and at NGOs. She specialises in the relationship between technology and geopolitical threat management. She has a Masters degree from University of Chicago, where she focused on security, politics, and diplomacy.