How technology empowers refugees

12 Jun 2017 09:00h - 10:45h

Event report

[Read more session reports from WSIS Forum 2017]

The session focused on the societal potential of innovation and technology. In her opening remarks, the session moderator, Ms Amal El Alami (Communications officer at Project Integration) said technological changes in the last two decades have improved human activity and human lives.

Ms Priya Burci (Co-Founder of Project Integration), said the project empowers refugees/migrants in Geneva by giving them coding lessons. She noted that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crises of all time – the refugee crisis. Her project helps ‘newcomers’ who may not have opportunities by teaching them coding (HTML, CSS, JavaScript). ‘Entrepreneurs need these skills to bring ideas to life,’ she added. After graduation, participants are placed in internships, in preparation for the job market. Another pilot course focuses on CV writing and answering interview questions while the next will focus on women to address the gender gap in the Information Technology (IT) sector. On funding, she said teachers are volunteers, but institutions such as the Red Cross provide support. Two beneficiaries of the programme then explained that the project had given them skills to build their own websites and help them to integrate. One of the beneficiaries was planning to build a mobile application for Android users to help other refugees.

In a video, Mr Rowan Farrell (Co-Founder of Refugee Info Bus) showcased the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Innovation service. In one project, a van equipped with a Wi-Fi hotspot was sent to refugee camps which allowed refugees to access the Internet on their devices. Another similar idea is ‘Same Mode’, where people create data hotspots for over 80 refugees. Mr Farrell, who described himself as ‘not-a-techie’, informed participants that the project started as a registered charity made up mostly of volunteers. From their experience, the project team hopes to write a manual that others can use to implement and operate similar projects.

Ms Gisella Loma (Social Media Manager at the UNHCR Refugee Agency) gave insights about how the UNHCR is using social media to reach out to and help refugees. Ms Lomax encouraged people to use social media to share stories that make refugees feel welcome. She cited some examples such as a grandmother in Europe who welcomes refugees to her house for a hot shower and a meal, and Yusra Mardini who swam to save her life and escaped from Syria but later participated in the 2016 Olympics. Ms Lomax invited media partnerships and celebrity supporters to support such a cause and sensitise populations that refugees are not bad people.

Mr Chris Earney (Deputy, Innovation at the UNHCR Refugee Agency), explained that his unit supports colleagues in the field of innovation. He added that their work is a great opportunity for the UNHCR to interact with other organisations. Mr  Earney’s team has been using technology to understand the needs of refugees and that social media is a huge opportunity for communication. He added that such initiatives provide opportunity for refugees to connect with their families, but most importantly provide power and skills to connect when one has been displaced from their home. He ended by saying that ‘as we plan to leave no one behind, we should also not leave anyone exposed’. In response to a question from a participant about the role of civil society in social innovation, he said that they should empower, encourage and influence to change mindsets.

All the panellists agreed that technology skills are a must if such initiatives are to work.


by Sarah Kiden