A growing number of people are using computer software and other technology to support the needs of immigrants worldwide.
Many of these people already work in the technology industry. Some observers are calling this new movement digital humanitarianism.
Over the past two years, VOA and other media have been reporting on the immigration crisis in Europe. Many of these immigrants are coming from the Middle East and Africa. They are looking for safety and a better quality of life.
Some of the immigrants are migrants, but many others are refugees. Migrants go from one place to another for economic reasons. Refugees flee violence or political unrest in their home country and seek asylum.
The United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) reports that about 65 million people were displaced at the end of 2015.
Since last year, many software developers have been creating digital solutions to help countries deal with the growing number of immigrants.
Technology is changing every part of the journey of refugees and migrants. Before going overseas, for example, they need to plan their trip. During their travels, they might need to send signals for help. After finally arriving in their new country, there are a long list of needs, such as housing, health care, jobs, and legal help.
Last month, the Migration Policy Institute released a report on these digital tools and how governments can better support their development and use.
The report is called “Digital Humanitarianism: How Tech Entrepreneurs Are Supporting Refugee Integration.” It says the 2015-16 period was impressive for the expansion of these digital tools.
The report says that, although the movement has shown promise, it needs more financing, better organization, and inclusion in policy talks with governments.
Too Much Too Soon?
Since 2015, computer programmers have launched a number of digital tools designed to help refugees. For example, an app called InfoAid is for individuals and families traveling through southeast Europe. It provides information about national borders and transportation, and advice on security, among other things.
Another tool, Trace the Face, can help immigrants reunite with loved ones by posting images and searching for photographs online. The website is a service of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Yet the report also found that a number of good ideas from this flood of high-tech development have resulted in wasted energy. It said that too many teams were working separately and creating tools that perform similar tasks.
Meghan Benton, the lead writer of the report, is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. She talked about the mistakes tech humanitarians were making.
“One of the challenges I point to in my report is the fact that there have been hundreds of apps developed that try and be the default – the one app to help people access services when they get to a new city. And I think that we’re finding with some emerging evidence that refugees would prefer often to use existing platforms like Facebook or WhatsApp or just to have government websites that are easier to understand."
A number of these apps are no longer operational.
The report adds that the technology industry is learning from its mistakes. It is moving away from the “let’s create an app” model, Benton notes, and finding better ways to serve refugee communities.
Many programmers are now attempting to organize themselves through a non-profit group called Techfugees, the report says. The group coordinates conferences and projects among its 15,000 members in 14 countries, including the United States.
Techfugees supports user-centered design, which Benton believes is important. User-centered design is about listening directly to what refugees say their needs are and then designing high-tech tools based on these needs.
Techfugees also plans to use its expertise to help non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the UNHCR, with their tech needs.
Hurry Up and Wait
The report says government officials and lawmakers only recently have learned about some of these inventions. So, while the tech community might be going in the right direction, governments are not yet sure how to make use of their efforts.
The report calls on governments to identify the needs of refugees, invite the tech community to join policy talks, and help finance the best inventions.
For example, when governments need solutions, such as ways to make housing available to refugees, they sometimes offer prizes for good ideas. The European Commission and the Swedish government already offer challenge prizes. Benton says government agencies need to do more of this.
But, is technology a realistic solution for every refugee need? Jobs and the wages they provide are a continuing issue.
The report says governments and many NGOs have mostly overlooked new refugees’ need for credit. Refugees usually have problems opening bank accounts. The report suggests crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending as another way to help the new arrivals.
While jobs are the best way to earn money, most refugees cannot work legally in their new home until they are offered asylum. Meghan Benton notes that when the asylum offer finally arrives, the refugees are often housed in rural areas, far from the best positions.
For now, technology can help reduce costs for job training and education. More importantly, the training can take place on a computer – and sometimes a telephone - anywhere.
Some software tools connect highly skilled refugees with employers, such as Workeer in Germany. Other programs offer education at no cost.
There is also is a serious effort to offer free coding classes to refugees so they can start careers in computer programming. Two examples are RebootKamp, in Jordan’s Zataari refugee camp, and Refugees on Rails in Germany.
Benton admits that more attention must be paid to refugees with lower-level skills. She says they could get help from a website like Amazon Mechanical Turk, which advertises many kinds of small jobs. The site is a division of the American online business Amazon.com.
I’m Alice Bryant.
And I’m Jill Robbins.
Words in This Story
digital - adj. using or characterized by computer technology
journey - n. an act of traveling from one place to another
impressive - adj. deserving attention, admiration, or respect : making a good impression
app - n. a computer program that performs a special function
online - adv. connected to a computer, a computer network, or the Internet
task - n. a piece of work that has been given to someone : a job for someone to do
analyst - n. a person who studies or analyzes something
default - adj. to automatically use a particular setting or option, unless you choose a different one
coordinate - v. to make arrangements so that two or more people or groups of people can work together properly and well
peer - n. a person who belongs to the same age group or social group as someone else
crowdfunding - n. the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, usually on the Internet