The If and When of Technology for the Global Refugee Crisis


With more people on the move today than ever in our recorded history, the global refugee crisis is posing one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time.

According to the UNHCR, there are currently an estimated 65.3 million displaced persons around the world—this represents 1 in 113 people in the world, the greatest number displaced since World War II, and includes refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced people. The daily rate across the globe of forced displacement is a staggering 24 people per minute, with the crisis affecting Europe, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Of these, 21.3 million people have been formally acknowledged and labeled as refugees, more than 50 percent are persons coming from Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria, and more than 51 per cent are below the age of 18.

The reasons for displacement are various, and the types of people forced to leave their homes are many. But refugees are viewed as a monolithic block in the media, by policymakers, and unfortunately also by members of the tech community. Many people—often including policymakers—exhibit luddite tendencies, when they interpret technology usage by refugees as a demonstration of their self-sufficiency, as opposed to reliance on a tool of lifesaving necessity. On the other hand, while part of the civic tech community has been engaging in discussions of how to help, the current thrust of technology responses approaches refugees only as victims. Technologists too often take refugees out of the equation by having the solutions be “about them” as opposed to developed “with them.” But you can’t “hack a solution” if you don’t have all stakeholders at the proverbial table, with refugee interests and contributions at the center of your efforts.

Twelve months from now, millions more people around the world will likely be refugees. Some will have found refuge or returned home, and all will continue to develop their own innovations to secure safe passage and livelihood for their families. In the same time frame, will members of the tech and media communities still be exploring ways and remain committed to support refugees, or will we have moved on? And what impact will we have had?

These were core questions explored at last week’s Personal Democracy Forum. On the second day of the conference, the panel “At the End of Every Data Point is a Human Being: The If and When of Technology for the Global Refugee Crisis” explored the role of appropriate technology based in co-design and community storytelling by displaced persons, migrants, and refugees.

We gathered international panelists with experience in varied and multiple aspects of the global crisis, discussed it from different regional perspectives, and contemplated a number of technology tools and solutions, including apps, devices, data, storytelling platforms, social platforms, infrastructure, and privacy / security.

Abdi Nor Iftin, a former refugee from Somalia and member of the nonprofit writing center The Telling Room, presented his first-person story of escaping what he described as being in the middle of “militants on the land and pirates in the sea,” and using text messages and Facebook posts as both a lifeline for security and a connection to his friends. Abdi’s talk demonstrated that technology plays a key role in the ability for displaced persons, migrants, and refugees to share their experiences and stories. It is an agent for connection and communication. As Abdi explained, technology (cell phone, internet) allowed “me to speak on behalf for other Somalis.”

Antonella Napolitano, the communications manager for the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties (CILD) then presented OpenMigration.org, a platform for data analysis in service of legal protections, journalism, and policy advocacy in Southern Europe and the Balkans. Antonella described how data-driven advocacy and storytelling can help to dispel untrue and damaging misconceptions about displaced persons, and to shift narratives of mainstream media that frames the global refugee crisis in false contexts.

Sarnata Reynolds, an international human rights lawyer and member of consulting firm Strategy for Humanity, told the story of the stateless Rohingya population and how nearly 20,000 of them used cell phones during the 2015 crisis that found them fleeing persecution by sea. Sarnata’s talk presented two takeaways. First, text messaging and GPS technology permit refugees to contact trusted friends and advocates to help them out of dire situations/allowing advocates to locate refugees (though this is a tenuous form of communication because these communities have little ability to recharge their phones) Second, Sarnata asked the audience to aid in developing an online registry that would allow the Rohingya to preserve their cultural identity to combat ethnic cleansing.

Finally, as founder of CIEL, a cultural innovation lab for social good, I discussed our projects in Central America, Mexico, and the U.S. (Who Is Dayani Cristal?) and in Turkey with Syrian and Turkish kids together (My City Istanbul). I focused on the use of narrative technologies and interactive, immersive media to capture and present refugees’ own stories and lived experience as crucial factors in co-designing solutions and engaging in effective advocacy; and further discussed the power of turning production tools directly over to refugees themselves, to engage in the social process of collaborative design and to advocate for themselves.

The primary takeaway from all the panelists was that civic technology can empower displaced persons, migrants, and refugees by involving them in the design and deployment of these tools. For civic technology efforts to be successful, they must take displaced persons into account when designing technology, providing tools, using community stories and disseminating information, and engaging in advocacy, and should remain in contact with people on-the-ground, living these situations.

The panel discussion in its entirety can be found here.

Lina Srivastava is the founder of CIEL, a social innovation strategy group in New York City, and the co-founder of Regarding Humanity.