Can Cell Phones Reunite Refugee Families?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

One of the many challenges of handling large refugee populations is the struggle to reunite families, thousands or millions of which can be scattered across nations as they flee from warfare, natural disasters, or ethnic conflict. Refugees are often afraid to share information, wary it will be used against them for political or ethnic persecution. And NGO workers, who tend to focus their limited energy and resources on problems like staving off disease and starvation, struggle to effectively manage the vast network of data required to reunite families.

Samhir Vasdev, a blogger for a liberal DC think tank called The New Democrat Network, reports that a recent program from Denmark-based NGO Refugees United might have an answer to this problem. The program was tested in Uganda with support from the UN High Commission for Refugees. Its elegance is its simplicity: cell phones.

The process is free, secure, and anonymous. According to MTN, registering for the service is as simple as texting "REG" to a shortcode, which prompts refugees to choose a username and password. They are then able to fill out their profile or search for missing family from their mobile phones. As GenevaLaunch reports, "Users decide just how much information they wish to share. Typically, traces are made based on nicknames, birthmarks, or other distinguishing features that only a family member would recognize." Family and friends are then able to search the database of users, and find their lost loved ones.

Within four days of its September 3 launch, the project registered 500 users -- a number which has grown eightfold in the past twelve days.

Although the regions of the world most afflicted with refugee crises are notorious for their lack of infrastructure, cell phones are often very common. Vasdev says that 78 percent of East Africans possess a cell phone, meaning that any East African refugee community would have wide access to this cell phone-based reunification plan. It's not going to end refugee crises and its not going to address the problems that create refugees, but this plan, if it works, could make a small difference for the families who most need the world's help.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.