Coding a Way Out of the Refugee Crisis

Apps for migrants to Europe are everywhere. But how much can they really help?

An Afghan immigrant, who arrived on a dingy from Turkey, uses his mobile phone on Kos Island, Greece. (Yannis Behrakis / Reuters)

Displaced by civil war? There’s an app for that. Scratch that: There are several dozen apps for that. Which one would you like?

Coding humanity’s way out of crisis has become popular in recent years, pioneered in response to natural disasters. Now the influx of refugees and migrants into Europe is conjuring new frontiers and taking advantage of one of the few upsides to this emergency—the connectivity of these refugees via smartphones, which function as their main lifeline to the wider world.

Earlier this week, for example, Alexander Spermann of the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany told the newspaper Die Welt that a quick way to offer German-language courses to incoming refugees would be through online courses on their smartphones, potentially with tutors connecting via Skype. The German education ministry is already developing two apps for language learning, according to the business weekly WirtschaftsWoche.

Volunteer and private efforts have been even quicker off the mark. InfoAid, an app conceived by a Hungarian couple that updates users in multiple languages on crucial travel details such as border crossings and transport departures, launched in September and has caught on in several southeastern European countries. “Bad government but wonderful people:)” reads one review in the Google Play store, referring to a response by Hungarian officials that has included stranding refugees by closing borders, characterizing refugees and migrants as a threat to Christian values, and allegedly tricking people into taking a train they thought was bound for Austria but that was actually bound for a Hungarian refugee camp. “Thank you Hungarian people for showing us the opposite of what your government is showing us,” continued the review.

Refugees themselves have in some cases led this innovation drive. Early in 2015, Mojahed Akil, a Syrian refugee who fled to Turkey, released an app featuring updates on important information for refugees, including residency regulations, registration requirements for students at universities, and job openings in host countries, particularly Turkey. As of May, according to NPR, over 10,000 people had used the app. More recently, the residents of Haus Leo, a communal accommodation for refugees in Berlin, launched their “Arriving in Berlin” map, which shows the location of counseling services, doctors speaking Arabic or Farsi, German-language classes, lawyers, police, government authorities, and public libraries.

“Hackathons” have only increased the offerings, both for refugees looking for information and would-be donors looking for ways to help. The German startup Memorando, as part of its #hackweek15 (the stated goal: “Make 4 apps in 4 teams in 4 days that help refugees in their daily life”), came out with the smartphone app Refugermany, with categories such as “Asylum procedure,” “Housing,” “Opening a bank account,” “Learning German,” “Working in Germany,” and “Culture.” Where2help, an Austrian platform for volunteers, was the winner of “Refugee Hack Vienna” in early October. Tech companies in Europe and Silicon Valley in the U.S. have chipped in, too. Google has launched an open-source project letting individuals update locations for registration, housing, and transportation in Greece. Kickstarter, Instacart, and Twitter have all developed donation devices.

Even if you’re temperamentally inclined to feel more irritated than inspired by the tech world’s faith that it can solve every problem known to man, it’s hard not to admire the initiative on display in this app wave. After all, the Syrian refugee saga in particular has been compounded at every step by the foot-dragging of powerful bystanders.

But the limits of app-ology are also evident here (and not just because Refugee Emojis, with its downloadable tent, soap, and toilet-paper icons, might rub people the wrong way). After all, while there’s little doubt that greasing the wheels of the larger aid effort—connecting refugees to resources more effectively, making language courses available—will help at the margins, there’s equally little doubt that the limiting factor in this crisis is not inefficiencies in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, but the willingness to expend, and availability of, resources to begin with.

Even fundraising is of limited use when confronted with such problems as closed borders in Hungary, arson at Swedish refugee centers, or widespread isolationism among the French in the face of humanitarian crises. Judging by the limited success of the choose-your-own-adventure “My life as a refugee” app launched in 2012 by UNHCR—admittedly, not the cutting edge of gaming—using apps to promote broad attitudinal shifts among politicians and the people they govern is hard. Three years later, the app has fewer reviews in the iOS App Store than Houzz Interior Design Ideas.

The terrifying reality of crises like the one playing out right now is that individual action is unlikely to make up for government failure. In a world where states are still the entities regulating the movement of people and controlling access to certain patches of soil, and still the main mechanisms through which large-scale collective action is organized, an app is no match for a roomful of politicians with a fundamental disagreement about how their union should be organized. The fate of thousands of refugees will rest with European states deciding what they want out of their statehood and membership in the European Union. And it will rest with millions of citizens deciding how they feel about sharing their governmental services—or their neighborhoods—with newcomers. Luddites, rejoice: This problem is entirely humanity’s to solve.