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Technology for displaced: A bridge of hope amid crisis

Debayan Roy |
Update: 2015-10-28 10:50:00
Technology for displaced: A bridge of hope amid crisis

DHAKA: Abu Zeid, a Syrian refugee, a few weeks ago spoke to The Guardian. He said, “I’ve reached a point where I know I could die at sea and I’m prepared to go even on a piece of wood because life is so hard. The circumstances we’ve been living in for four years until now, we’re out of the phase of fear, there’s no more fear in our hearts”.

But perhaps Abu can now be hopeful knowing that technology is attempting to ensure that the ‘piece of wood’ reach the shores safely, thanks to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) — a humanitarian project based in Malta — which uses two drones, to scour the sea and locate refugees in distress.

The Schiebel S-100 Camcopters, which can fly for up to six hours and provide a live video stream, reportedly cost $300,000 per month to rent but has played a pivotal role in enabling MOAS to save 11,680 lives so far.

Most of the refugees sadly cannot undertake this journey together, either some boats are delayed or captured by the traffickers only to be released later on the payment of exorbitant sums of money.

A few years ago, Two Danish brothers David and Christopher Mikkelsen had founded a family tracing platform “Refugees United”, and by 2010 this system became available through a free mobile service which helped people with even the most basic cell phone register their details and look for their loved ones.

The rise of technology has led to the inevitable rise in awareness. The acute pain of not being able to reconnect with families is now felt not only by the refugees but also people across the globe.

The Red Cross has set up a new web site “Trace the Face” where refugees or their families could upload pictures in order to be found by longing relatives.

But the rapid digitalization of our world is not only limited to helping the distressed souls find one another but also bargain this labyrinth of suffering.

In a teeming camp for displaced Rohingya Muslims in Western Myanmar, small bamboo huts with thatched roofs are often flooded with anxious Rohingyas either finalizing a deal with a trafficker or sharing an emotional dialogue with their kith and kin separated elsewhere, and this is only possible through the dusty internet enabled laptop computers.

These huts are often known as the ‘internet huts’, where often traffickers demand money and the illegal immigrants negotiate. The managers at such huts often double as the middlemen between the traffickers and the Rohingyas for monetary transactions.

But apart from putting a price label on freedom here, these stateless people get to shed a tear of joy looking at their sons or families in Malaysia or Thailand, quietly waiting for their own departure.

We must understand that for the refugees having access to the internet and other technological development is not only a means to reconnect with remote family but is also a tool to facilitate their social integration in the unknown country.

German EDRI member Chaos Computer Club is currently running a fundraising campaign to support the Non-Government Organization “Refugees Emancipation”.

This mainly attempts to prevent the isolation and enhance the connectivity of refugees through Internet.

Moreover, the internet offers great help with translation services in a foreign land, and offers information on asylum application procedures which is often marred by bureaucratic complexity.

For the refugee, the internet is not a luxury but a tool for survival. Often the refugees who travel in large numbers have little knowledge of an alien terrain or the safest and short route to their destination.

Till a few years ago, the traffickers and middlemen used to do a brisk in return for promises of safe passage, but with the advent of Google maps and the internet, refugees are becoming increasingly self sufficient.

They can now travel without relying on smugglers, which in turn not only saves them money but also spares them brutal extortion.

Not long ago, around 30,000 refugees entered Croatia in extreme dehydrated condition in the hope of finding their way to Germany.

But with the shifting border crossing policies in Slovenia and Hungary, information regarding this was vital for them, but without internet access, they were paralyzed.

Osijek, a group based in Croatia, launched a project called “Open Net” which developed mobile Wi-Fi hot spots. Open Net volunteers carried the hotspots on their backs to the affected areas so that the people could access the maps and travel safely.

Credit also goes to the pro-innovation stalwarts who time and again produced technological solutions for the crisis.

Recently, after the US President Barack Obama urged Silicon Valley to do more to solve the refugee crisis, a few state of the art technology companies are working to introduce innovations in order to help the refugee crisis.

Twitter, has announced an early roll out of its new donation product feature which would allow NGO’s to raise money on its social media platform, Whereas Airbnb is set to offer free housing credits for workers in areas most affected by the refugee crisis.

Even, Mark Zuckerberg has suggested the idea of ‘’ to help give internet access in all the remote and affected locations of the world at a fraction of a cost.

Google, a few days ago, developed a lightweight mobile friendly site ‘Crisis Info Hub’ to help the refugees reaching Europe. It includes locations for registration, lodging and medical help centers, and also lists emergency contacts and currency exchange outlets.

Considering majority of the people arriving speak Arabic, Google has also kept an easy translation service feature which would help in translating local signboards, etc.

With the recent news of domestic population of Europe is protesting the influx of refugees, nothing could have been better timed than the launch of the application “My Refuge” financed by crowdfunding designed to connect refugees with people willing to share their homes.

This highlights an important aspect of how social acceptability is eventually more important than government aid. Unless these refugees feel welcome in a foreign environment, their ability to adapt shall always remain skewed, and bridging this gap, would hopefully make their integration a little easier.

Refugees can perhaps now survive without a blanket, but not without a handset. This device has proven to be a lifeline for many.

Applications such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype are all used extensively to avoid prohibitively high costs of making traditional calls across the border. But the most adversely affected from this technological evolution are the human traffickers.

Previously refugees had to bleed money in order to pay for travel directions or pay abnormal taxi fares, but now when these people log on to the free Wi-Fi networks provided by aid workers, they can access pages which would give them the correct cost of a cab to the proper location of a toilet.

One of the major factors, which bogs down the young refugee is illiteracy. According to the latest reports from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), there are approximately five million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and almost 700,000 are under the age of 18.

With such a young thriving population of refugees, internet and technology has also managed to introduce education amongst the youth in these refugee camps.

The Jesuit Refugee Service’s initiative Jesuit Common Higher Education at the Margins (JC-HEM) has been at the helm of an initiative to provide tertiary education in refugee settings by connecting university teachers in the US with students in refugee camps in Kakuma in Kenya and Dzaleka in Malawi, and all of this has been possible through the advent of modern technological innovation such as Computers and Skype.

Required books and video stock of lectures are often downloaded during low traffic times, mostly at night, so that the refugee students can access them later in the day and study.

Faced with growing opposition to her refugee policy, Angela Merkel’s government at the moment is busy announcing a new policy to ‘bring’ the refugee crisis under control, by making deportation quick for asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected.

As supporters of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) spearheading the anti-immigration march in Riesa, Germany, rejoice, a question looms over us, where would the deported asylum seekers travel to next?

How long would the mothers who can hardly cradle two babies at once, the children who see nothing but a vast expanse of uncertain sea reflecting through their young eyes, will be travelling to uncertain shores or be devoured by the predatory traffickers?

Perhaps, the emergence of various technological innovations have, if not solved the crisis, have at least aided in easing the pain of humiliation or emptiness of staring at nothing.

In the backdrop of such immense pain and suffering, if the use of digital innovations and technology could give them a ray of hope, a reason to smile, then we as a society must welcome this change.

About author: A lawyer based in New Delhi, and currently a Trainee Journalist in Chennai.

BDST: 2051 HRS, OCT 28, 2015

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