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Technology Is Changing How Refugees Find Safety

While Americans are struck by the flood of images of men, women and children fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the urgent needs of refugees are never far from Christopher Mikkelsen.

When the Hancock Park techie and his then filmmaker brother David met a young Afghan refugee named Mansour in Denmark in 2005, it changed their lives – and that of tens of thousands of refugee families they have since helped to reunite.


Mansour fled war-torn Afghanistan five years earlier when he was 12. The boy had lost track of his parents and five siblings after a trafficker separated them the night before they left, said Christopher Mikkelsen.

When the brothers brought the teen’s plight to NGOs and refugee committees around the world, they found that there was “no central repository” to connect separate refugee family members. In a complex search that eventually led them to Moscow, the Mikkelsen brothers managed to reunite Mansour with a younger brother.

The Mikkelsen brothers also founded the San Francisco-based nonprofit Refugees United in 2008, which now bears the name Refunit, which started out as a SMS-driven portal to help African refugees who have lost touch with family members get back in touch. Today Refunite uses a communication network called Relay which uses Texts, WhatsApp and Call Centers to disseminate verified and trustworthy information from local African leaders on everything from COVID-19 cases to militia attacks to missing people.

“It’s a platform to reach out to as many people as possible to make sure they’re doing the right thing,” said Christopher Mikkelsen, Co-CEO of Refunite, of the network, which operates in 35 African countries and in African diaspora communities is in use in the USA. are sent by someone to whom they entrust their lives. In the environment we work with, the community makes the difference between life and death. “

Technology is changing the way refugees move, get along, and integrate into the world. Perhaps nowhere can this be better illustrated than in Afghanistan, where war and poverty have displaced residents for decades. From biometric scans to drones to smartphone games, technology is increasingly being used to help refugees and displaced people find their identities, learn a language and start their lives over. Numerous apps designed to help refugees have also gone online in recent years, but experts say money should be better spent on giving refugees access to technology.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles is a Hub for refugees and migrants, many of whom see access to technology as an essential need. LA is also a hub for tech geeks like Mikkelsen, tech startups, nonprofits, and other companies looking to use technology to help immigrants such as: Welcome technology and LATech4Good.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear how important it is for resettled refugees to have access to technology and technology education, said Martin Zogg, managing director of International Rescue Committee – Los Angeles.

“We were fortunate to be able to ensure that through technology, refugees receive services at the same high level as they were before the epidemic,” said Zogg.

The IRC has provided equipment, training and procedures to keep many refugee services online. For example, home visits required by resettlement agencies to ensure refugees are housed in a safe environment have continued through Facetime, Whatsapp and Zoom instead of in person.

“You name [the platform], we did it, “said Zogg.

While some refugees arriving in Los Angeles are already connected to other refugees’ networks via WhatsApp and are well versed in using social media before their arrival, many others are not and need training, he said. The IRC ensures its refugees have access to cell phones and teaches them how to use them to connect and empower them.

“Many refugees … are older. They need all of the support I mentioned and they need it in a personalized way, ”said Zogg. “We can’t just hand in an iPad and say ‘use this’. You need help with this. “

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) uses technology in “all aspects of its work” and relies on modern and relevant technologies that have “increased significantly” in recent years, said UN refugee agency spokesman Chris Boian.

The UNHCR’s Biometric Identity Management System, completed in 2015, uses unique physiological features such as fingerprints and iris and facial features to verify the identity of refugees.

“People tragically forced to flee war, conflict and persecution are literally running for their lives and taking whatever they can grab and this may not include standard documentation about their identity, citizenship, place of birth,” said Boian.

“We establish an identity, then in the further course of the process it is determined who is a refugee and who is entitled to international protection and who is not.”

The agency has also used drones to determine where in a refugee camp in Bangladesh it is safest, to build emergency shelters in unyielding terrain, or to avoid severe flooding during the monsoon season.

While there has been a lot of investment in new apps to help refugees in recent years, a lot has been wasted, said Shelly Culbertson, a senior refugee policy researcher at RAND Corporation. Many projects are not used or maintained, which can cause significant confusion for people if they are not up to date.

A few years ago, Culbertson and other researchers set out to make a list of apps that should be developed for refugees, but instead found that they didn’t really need them.

“They need access – and then they will use the technology like everyone else,” said Culberston. Their results were described in the RAND 2019 report.Bridging the Digital Divide: Applying Technology to the Global Refugee Crisis. “

Refugees consider access to the internet, WiFi and social media to be important in many ways, such as food and shelter, she said. Prioritizing connectivity could include the distribution of wireless network cards or smartphone minutes, or perhaps cell phone access in refugee shelters.

The need for better connectivity was also raised by Movement on the ground, a startup NGO founded six years ago by a group of independent business people and creatives who wanted to alleviate the suffering caused by the European refugee crisis. The organization works mainly in and around refugee camps in Greece and offers courses on digital literacy with the support of IBM.

Movement on the Ground is currently looking at ways to make it easier for the residents they work with and refugee camps in Greece to have more access to such training, a spokeswoman said via email on Friday.

“The difficulty with this is finding enough space and adequate access to resources and Wi-Fi connections to make this possible,” she said.

More important than an app to help refugees with translation or other needs is making sure every refugee has access to technology, knows how to use it, and uses it, said Zogg of the International Rescue Committee-Los Angeles.

“That can only be done with funding for this equipment, with funding for this capability, this education, because the human factor is so important,” he said.

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