The world is experiencing a growing refugee crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 11 million Syrian refugees have fled their homes since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011. This enormous number doesn’t even take into account refugees from other parts of the world who have been forced to flee their home countries. The United Nations places this overall number at 65 million, which is the highest level ever recorded.
These figures are more than numbers though. They are people who have been forced to leave their homes – and sometimes loved ones – in an attempt to find safety. However, after leaving the conflict and strife of their homelands, refugees face new problems in their travels and in refugee camps.
The situation might seem bleak, but it is far from hopeless. Individuals and organizations are leveraging technology and innovation to improve the lives of refugees around the world, creating a safer and brighter future in what can sometimes seem to be a hopeless situation.
1. Smartphone Apps for Mental Health
Most refugees are forced to flee their homes abruptly, leaving them with only the clothes on their back – and sometimes a cell phone. Creative and caring minds around the world are using these phones, specifically smartphones, to improve the lives of refugees.
Using a smartphone, refugees can connect with Karim, an AI program that provides psychological support. Since Karim can understand a person’s mental state and emotional needs, it can have text message conversations with users in Arabic. Karim can respond to users with appropriate comments, questions, and suggestions. This type of service is invaluable in refugee camps, a place where mental health services are lacking, but every resident has experienced some type of trauma.
It might seem obvious, but another invaluable feature of cell phones is communication. Facebook offers its free messaging service to all users, which is vitally important for refugees. This simple service allows refugees to reach their loved ones, even if they don’t have access to a cellular network, which is the case for most refugees. Also available on smartphones is Crisis Info Hub, a GPS-enabled database that provides location-specific information to help refugees have a safer journey by land.
2. Lifesaving Rescue Drones
A different form of technology is helping refugees with sea journeys. Specifically, a drone called Emily (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard).
Emily is a four foot long, remote-controlled buoy that can rescue refugees at sea. Reaching top speeds of 22 mph, Emily can swim through rip-currents and turbulent waters to reach swimmers in distress. Emily is already being put to use in Greece, where thousands of refugees have lost their lives trying to enter Europe by sea.
3. Lights for Safety, Education and renewable Energy
Many people don’t realize how dark it can be in a refugee camp, not only figuratively but also literally. Many refugee camps plunge into total darkness at night, creating a dangerous environment, especially for women and girls. However, sexual assault against females is not the only risk in a dark refugee camp. Theft and wild animal attacks are also serious issues.
After learning about this problem, The IKEA Foundation partnered with the UNHRC to brighten the lives of refugees. The Foundation is providing more than just lighting though. It is also donating sales of its lighting products to help improve access to primary education and renewable energy “in refugee camps across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.”
To date, the Foundation has provided more than 56,000 solar lanterns and 720 solar street lights to refugee host communities in Ethiopia and Jordan. It has also helped more than 37,000 refugee children enroll in primary school in Bangladesh, Chad, and Ethiopia. Additionally, it has built 22 plants in Bangladesh to turn 15% of human waste into green fuel for cooking and baking.
4. Location Database for Web and Mobile
Since refugees have to leave their homes under chaotic conditions, it is common for family members to lose track of each other. In fact, sometimes family members end up in entirely different countries, on opposite ends of the globe. This leaves refugees feeling afraid and alone. It’s a tragic problem in an already desperate situation. However, technology is also helping loved ones find each other and reconnect.
REFUNITE is a nonprofit organization that focuses on using technology to reconnect refugee families around the world. The organization believes that “everyone has the right to know where their family is.” This belief guides the organization as they strive to empower refugees to search for – and find – their missing loved ones via mobile phone, computer, or a free helpline.
By partnering with Ericsson, a variety of mobile networks, and the United Nations, REFUNITE has changed the process of family reunification. With a user-friendly, online database that contains more than 600,000 profiles from people all around the world, it has never been easier for refugees to find their missing loved ones.
REFUNITE operates independently in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Turkey. It has also partnered with Facebook to provide its services for free in a total of 14 countries. For refugees, finding missing family members is an important step towards normalcy.
In a world that’s facing a growing refugee crisis, many people feel too overwhelmed to help. The need – 65 million refugees – simply seems too great, but innovators and humanitarians are stepping up, showing the world that technology and a caring touch can make a difference.