Refuge in Technology [MSc guest blog]

Published 23 September 2016 / By Aliyyah Ahad

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This blog is part of our MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc

Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and subsequent protocols (the Refugee Convention), individual states are the principal actors that receive and resettle refugees and asylum seekers. However, as over one million asylum seekers arrived in Europe in 2015, many states were unprepared, overwhelmed and occasionally paralyzed by oscillating public opinion. The state-centric refugee regime appeared insufficient for modern demands.

As the international community floundered in its response, civil society actors and private institutions stepped in to provide much needed humanitarian assistance. Refugees also turned to one another for support. One of the most unmistakable trends of this so-called refugee ‘crisis’ was the increasingly important role played by technology for both destination country actors and refugees themselves. In destination countries, independent civil society actors and private institutions created Google Docs, Facebook Groups, Amazon wish lists and smartphone apps to coordinate human and material resources. Refugees turned to Facebook groups and messaging apps to share travel tips and undermine the reliance on unscrupulous smugglers.

Is Tech Enthusiasm App-ropriate?

In addition to facilitating coordination, many civil society actors are using technology to deliver information and services to refugees directly. Digital tools have the potential to reach users wherever they are and to provide useful information in accessible language in multiple languages. Thousands of smartphone apps and websites have been created in an attempt to improve communication and service delivery to refugees at every stage of the journey., a mobile friendly website by the International Rescue Committee, displays information on available accommodations, transportation, medical facilities and more. Available in several languages, it uses a black background with white writing to be accessible at low-bandwidths and low battery. Refugees Welcome, termed the ‘Airbnb for refugees’, matches newcomers with spare rooms. Other initiatives, like Refugees on Rails and aim to facilitate labour market entry.[i]

However, amidst the craze for new and innovative tech solutions for refugees, little attention is paid to monitoring and evaluating the success of these efforts. There are several possible metrics through which to measure success, depending on the nature of the initiative. For example, a language app creator may consider how many times the app was downloaded, its customer rating in the Google Play or iStore, the number of active users, the average progress of users from one level of fluency to the next, and the number of complaints or bugs.

One attempt to evaluate language learning apps in Germany comes from Stiftung Warentest.[ii] The apps were reviewed by a linguist, a media educator and a German as a foreign language teacher. Only two of the 12 reviewed apps were recommended without restrictions.  The assessment was based on the size and selection of language materials and the correctness and design of the exercises. They were also marked on the bases of their data transmission behaviour. Given that some refugees and their families may be vulnerable and have concerns about their security and privacy, apps that collected more user data than was necessary for the functioning of the app were marked critically. When language poses one of the most serious barriers to integrating in a new country, it is important that refugees do not waste precious time on apps with ineffective pedagogy or impractical vocabulary, particularly at the expense of their personally identifying data. However, that is assuming that refugees find these apps in the first place.

Even if every app is accurate and helpful, it is unclear whether it will reach its target audience. Apps with Latin script names can be difficult to search for on phones set to the Arabic language. It appears the old maxim, ‘if you build it they will come’, does not apply to apps for refugees. In an attempt to correct this issue, TechFugees, a key coordinating body within the social innovation movement, advises tech enthusiasts to consider how it will be advertised and whether real users can test it before building new projects.[iii]

Digital Diasporas

It would also be incorrect to assume that assistance is only coming to and not coming from refugees themselves. With limited relevant Arabic language content available, refugees use social media to share tips and advice.[iv] In destination countries, new Facebook Groups have emerged, like Syrian Home in Germany, where almost 150,000 users can seek and offer advice or simply share information.[v] Unlike new apps, these social media groups provide relevant and accessible information and meet refugees, virtually, where they already are.

Instead of operating in silos, the most effective ways to deliver accurate and accessible information to refugees could be through collaboration. The Facebook Group ‘I am a Syrian in Lebanon’ was launched by a Syrian refugee in 2014 to provide information for refugees on a range of issues.[vi] The founder, Oum Nidal, was volunteering with the non-profit organization Caritas when she decided to broaden its outreach through Facebook. The group receives over 200 questions daily from over 31,000 members. However, the group’s membership only ballooned after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publicised the initiative via its Communication and Communities programme, which uses various channels (including Facebook and WhatsApp) to update refugees about support and services. The Communication and Communities programme now uses data from the Facebook page for its own programming. This is a prime example of how institutions can collaborate with digital diasporas in order to deliver accurate information in a credible and personalized way.

These groups are, on one hand, simple forums for disseminating and discovering information.

On the other hand, they are fascinating displays of national solidarity. Breathing fresh life into Benedict Anderson’s idea of ‘imagined communities’[vii], these virtual diasporic communities interplay with memberships in the physical world.

Yet, this public solidarity partially masks the great heterogeneity among refugees. Instead of a refugee community, refugees are diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, language, level of education, digital literacy and media preferences. While Syrians have been generally adept at harnessing their digital diaspora, digital literacy and internet access are unevenly distributed within and between refugee groups.

Whether it is refugees helping themselves or public and humanitarian actors providing information and services, it is imperative to better understand the communication preferences and behaviours of the audience in question and to develop outreach strategies that reflect this heterogeneity. Digital tools may not be the panacea for refugee communication. Nevertheless, as access to and use of smartphones and the internet become more widespread, they may offer one of the most compelling untapped opportunities to relieve current and future crises.

Aliyyah Ahad is a graduate of the MSc in Migration Studies and the Blavatnik School of Government’s Master of Public Policy. She is currently managing a research project on how to improve communications between public authorities and refugees with WPP Government and Public Sector Practice.


[i] For more information see,,, and

[ii] Stiftung Warentest, Apps zum Deutsch­lernen: Nur zwei von zwölf empfehlens­wert, 5 February 2016

[iii] TechFugees, Tech Projects for Refugees, Accessed 15 September 2016

[iv] Zach Dubinsky, For Syrian Refugees, Smartphones Are A Lifeline – Not A Toy, CBC News, September 12, 2015

[v] Jan Bruck, The Facebook page ‘Syrain home in Germany’ is made by Syrians – for Syrians, DW, 8 September 2015

[vi] Matthew Saltmarsh, Facebook group helps Syrian refugees navigate life in Lebanon, UNHCR, 13 July 2016

[vii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities revisited, 1991