How can technology empower refugees?

How can technology empower refugees?

iStock/Silvia Jansen

Millions of people are being displaced by war, famine, climate change and more. IDC’s Louisa Barker discusses how humanitarian technology can help governments proactively improve the lives of refugees and migrants

Guest contributor |

For the first time on record, the number of forcibly displaced people has surpassed 100 million. This means that one in every 78 people has been forced to flee their homes, largely due to conflict, hunger, unemployment and climate change. The situation in Ukraine is, of course, front of mind for many, with more than 7.7 million Ukrainian refugees recorded across Europe in 2022.  

Managing and supporting displaced populations will increasingly be a critical part of governments’ realities and responsibilities in the coming years. However, too often they take an ad hoc approach in the face of crises. Instead, they need to take a proactive approach to help manage this perennial challenge and improve the lives of refugees. In the words of Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Poland’s capital Warsaw: “It is time we phased out improvisation and instead created a strategy for coping and appropriate systems for helping refugees.”  

In the short term, refugees need access to food, medical assistance, shelter, a means of communicating with loved ones and information on critical next steps. These short-term needs then morph into a longer-term reality where refugees need access to housing, social welfare, schools and employment opportunities. Across the European Union, Ukrainian refugees have been granted temporary residency and access to essential public services. This is a crucial safety net, but it is also placing significant pressure on services, particularly at the local level. The city of Warsaw, for example, saw its population increase by 17 per cent in just one month.  

Technology is more important than ever for refugees and became increasingly so during the pandemic. Most refugees find information about the services available to them online, access funds digitally, and stay in contact with loved ones via social media. In fact, a study by UNHCR found that refugees living in Tanzania and Malawi sacrificed significant portions of food rations in order to buy data.  

Our research highlights that humanitarian technology, known as HumTech, alongside the right leadership, policies and governance, can be used to support a refugee at each step of their journey. It can help them gain a digital identity, access to electronic cash assistance, remote and digital education or online information platforms and communities. It is by no means the panacea, but technology can support governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and their partners to address refugees’ needs effectively and empathetically.  

Data-driven insights can provide host governments and multilateral organisations with a more accurate understanding of the situation on the ground. For example, from the outset of the Ukranian conflict, CrisisReady, based at Harvard University and Direct Relief, published map analyses showing the evolving changes of population densities along the western border of Ukraine. The organisation leveraged mobility data from anonymised social media posts, as well as border checkpoint and refugee reception data. Some host governments have also been piloting advanced algorithms to predict migration patterns to inform their resource allocation and strategic planning. It is important to note that ensuring data ethics and privacy is particularly important with interventions linked to vulnerable populations. 

Digital technology can also be used to improve and expand service delivery. For example, in Ireland, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth adapted its emergency accommodation platform, which was initially designed to support the country’s homeless population. The platform has since been used to help multiple agencies, local governments and NGOs to coordinate the placement of Ukrainian refugees. Meanwhile, on the Greek island of Lesbos, a coalition of organisations worked together to establish specialist telehealth services for refugees when the local health system was at capacity with long waiting times.  

These digital services should be seen as complementary to face-to-face services rather than as a replacement. Digital identity and data sharing are both critical to ensure these services are joined up and streamlined. Poland recognised this when it extended its national e-identification data base, the PESEL system, to include refugees. Over 1.3 million refugees have been given a PESEL identity card since the start of the war in February 2022.  

There are several more examples of similar HumTech initiatives that I could point to. But there is also a lot of room for organisations to be innovative, provide new solutions in this nascent area of development, and rethink the art of the possible.  

In addition, there is a clear opportunity for governments, NGOs and technology companies to work together here too. However, to date, technology firms are often brought in to provide quick fixes as a corporate social responsibility activity rather than to develop sustainable solutions to address a persistent challenge. We are starting to see this change with both governments, intergovernmental organisations and technology firms strategically investing in the systems and technologies we know will be needed to help current and future displaced populations.   

Louisa Barker is research manager for IDC Government Insights in Europe 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription

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