Apps for Refugees

How technology helps in a humanitarian crisis

Alvaro Dominguez

In September 2015, the body of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian migrant, washed up on a Turkish beach. The boy had fallen off a rubber raft provided by a smuggler who had promised the boy’s father a motorboat. As the startling images of the drowned boy spread, they prompted an outpouring of humanitarian aid—including from the tech sector, which wanted to help prevent the next Aylan from drowning. Knowing that many refugees have access to cellphones, volunteers around the world began developing apps and other tools to help guide refugees on their journeys, adding to the innovative work under way at humanitarian organizations.

The resulting technologies are already helping refugees gather crucial information, reconnect with lost relatives, and establish a legal identity in new countries. Technologies still being developed promise to take the place of translators and perhaps even nurses and doctors. Here are what some current and future tools look like.

ADOC / Corbis / Getty; Santi Palacios / AP; Better Shelter; Mint / Getty

1 | Instant Intel

Nina Kov, a choreographer who researches the intersection of dance and technology, was in Budapest in the summer of 2015 as migrants streamed into the city’s train stations. Kov and her husband saw a need for reliable and up-to-date information on everything from train schedules to the safety of tap water. They developed an app, which they called InfoAid, to give this kind of guidance, including warnings to avoid smugglers. The app used very little network data, meaning it was convenient for people on restricted data plans, and was available in several languages. InfoAid has been tested in the real world: During the peak of the crisis in Budapest, when the city faced an influx of thousands of migrants, it maintained an online translation chat room, staffed by volunteers. Translating refugees’ questions is time-consuming and relies on attracting qualified volunteers—“Arabic is very specific,” Kov says—and in the absence of funding, InfoAid has become inactive; Kov hopes to get it back up and running soon.

In Croatia, an engineer named Valent Turkovic is working to provide internet access in asylum centers, where it is often unavailable. In 2015, Turkovic built makeshift Wi-Fi routers and set them up in Croatian refugee camps; he’s now working on a prototype of a compact, durable router called MeshPoint, which will use open-source software to give hundreds of people internet access at once. The device’s hardware will be open-source as well, which means that anyone with a 3-D printer will be able to construct a router. MeshPoint is easier for aid workers to set up and configure than standard models. And because it runs on batteries, it works even when natural disasters—or terrorist groups—disrupt the power grid.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is already using drones to monitor on-the-ground conditions in refugee camps. In the future, drones could also provide temporary Wi-Fi and extend phone networks in areas without coverage.

2 | Doctor-Free Diagnoses

Refugees often need immediate medical attention and can’t get it. In Oslo, the creators of an app called HealthIntelligence hope to work with local governments and health organizations to build a chatbot that provides pregnant refugees with medical, legal, and other advice in their native language. “Just getting to the hospital can be very hard if you don’t speak the language and have limited legal rights,” says Vincent Olislagers, who oversaw the design of the app.

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The difficulties are magnified for refugees in remote camps. Basil Leaf Technologies has been at work on DxtER, an app that will come with a small tool kit and use AI to guide patients through a questionnaire, collect vital signs and bodily-fluid samples, and diagnose dozens of health conditions on the spot. Via remote programming, the app will be able to continuously incorporate new data on emerging outbreaks.

A company called Zipline has designed a “sky ambulance” to help treat conditions of the kind DxtER will be able to diagnose. This small, robotic airplane can deliver vaccines, medicine, and blood to remote areas. Health workers can place orders via text message; once the materials have been flown in, they float down in parachutes.

3 | Finding Family

Separation from relatives is a common trauma for refugees. Since 2008, more than 600,000 people have registered for a mobile platform made by a nonprofit called Refunite, which has reconnected more than 38,000 family members. Refunite’s platform operates in six languages and asks users to enter information about themselves and the people they’re looking for, then allows users with connections to send each other messages.

Red Cross and Red Crescent societies have their own reconnection initiative, called Trace the Face. It publishes pictures online of people looking for missing relatives and lets them search photos that others have posted of themselves, filtering by criteria like gender, age, and country of origin. Before long, facial-recognition software could transform this database and others like it into advanced people-finding machines.

Blockchain, the decentralized technology behind bitcoin, could offer privacy and safety to people who have reason to fear that registering with a government could put them in danger. In 2015, Bitnation, which offers users banking, education, notary, and other services without any formal state affiliation, created a Refugee Emergency Response program that participants can use to register for emergency IDs. These allow users to securely verify one another’s identity and connect with far-flung family members.

4 | Identity Protection

Refugees who want to establish a legal identity in a new country confront countless obstacles—they may have fled without their birth certificate, for instance, if they ever had one. So the UNHCR Biometric Identity Management System, active in 25 countries, collects fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs, and can link them to citizenship records and dates of birth.

Biometric identification tools could also help refugees receive financial assistance from nonprofit organizations, according to Rosa Akbari, a senior adviser in Mercy Corps’s Technology for Development division. Iris scanning and fingerprinting, for example, can already be used to verify whether someone is eligible for aid.

Official IDs could themselves be made smarter and more useful. The Welcome Card, a finalist in a 2016 UNHCR design challenge, would be distributed to all asylum-seekers in European Union countries as temporary identification. By scanning the cards, which use radio-frequency identification technology, at welcome centers and immigration offices, refugees would be able to check their legal status, learn about language courses, and search for transportation options as they travel across borders.

Programs like the Welcome Card will work best if government representatives, immigration-policy experts, and members of the tech community collaborate to ensure that migrants continue to gain access to sophisticated new tools. But of course, for migrants of uncertain status, there is a flip side to that sophistication. A biometric entry/exit tracking system of the sort called for in President Donald Trump’s March executive order is hardly novel; some aspects of it are already in use in the United States. It’s easy to imagine a government using biometric data to track down migrants—not to assist them but to deport them.