How Technology Has Strayed too far from the Most Basic Needs of Refugees

On July 18th, the United Nations Headquarters held an informal meeting to discuss the alarming rise in refugees and migrants worldwide. One out of every 113 persons in the world is a refugee, and according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), approximately 65.3 million people are forcibly displaced; of this incredibly large population, 51% are children. The informal hearing served as preparation for the September 19th High-level meeting that will discuss innovative technological solutions for the largest refugee crisis to date.

One such solution is the nonprofit Techfugees, a technology community where various tech companies provide the resources for global connectivity, protection from identity theft, and access to essential healthcare and language education for refugees and migrants.

In a Digital Media Zone interview at the United Nations, Head of Techfugees USA Andlib Shah states that for today’s refugee crisis, “Technology is like the nervous system.” Technology is the only way to alleviate the stresses of being forced to leave one’s home, and Techfugees has already gathered incredible innovations like 3-D printed prosthetic limbs that injured refugees are able to use and simple echolocation devices that allow the visually impaired to get back home.

But according to Shah, technology doesn’t have to be as complex as prosthetic limb manufacturing. Shah states that “2G phones are often the lifelines of refugees at camps” where internet and data plans are increasingly difficult to come by.

Migrants from Syria charge their phones outside a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Recognizing that smartphones have become essential lifelines for many asylum-seekers, the UN has handed out 33,000 SIM cards and tens of thousands of solar-powered chargers at refugee camps. (Achilleas Zavallis/AFP/Getty. Source: CBC News)

In one example of how a 2G phone has saved lives, a 7-year-old Afghan boy named Ahmed, who was locked in a human trafficking container with 15 other oxygen-starved migrants, frantically sent an SMS text message to a volunteer who gave him and many others phones in a Calais migrant camp. The volunteer immediately alerted the police who were then able to intercept the truck that carried Ahmed by tracking his phone’s GPS location. (Source: NY Post)

Basic communication has rescued millions from unimaginable perils, and cell phones are providing another form of rescue, one that is less tangible but equally important: psychological support. In refugee camps where mental health services are extremely limited, an artificial intelligence program installed in phones called “Karim” personally converses with refugees and assesses the person’s mental state and emotional needs, appropriately responding via text message with comments, questions, and recommendations. (Source: Medium)

But the different regions where refugees reside are incredibly nuanced, and sometimes 2G phones are still too complex to use. According to HRH Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, some cultures often engender cell phones where women need the permission of a man to use it or to even have one; and, most notably, many women are still illiterate. Hence, women and children are often left behind in the focus for more technological innovations.

“[Women] are the last ones we are going to hear from. We can go back to the radio for these sorts of things. We mustn't [always] get carried away with technology and keep leaving people behind. And that I think is what we often do," stated the Princess at the Digital Media Zone in April of this year.

In partnership with the UNHCR, The Ikea Foundation realized how the most basic technology, like light, is often forgotten and donated tens of thousands of solar lanterns and solar street-lights in Ethiopia and Jordan. Similar initiatives have erupted in Bangladesh, Chad, Ethiopia, and in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp where solar farms have provided energy to thousands of refugees and where school children enrolled in refugee-specific primary schools are able to do homework after dark.

These initiatives have been incredibly useful in helping refugees get back on their feet.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has repeatedly emphasized, the refugee crisis is a crisis of solidarity, not numbers. We must not forget that statistics often allows us to remove ourselves from those deprived of basic human rights. We must remember that the uniquely tragic circumstance of being a refugee is not a choice.

“Why is it that people run? Why is it that women put themselves at risk? We do what we do for our families, and this isn't something that you can hide behind numbers or that we should be forgetting,” says Jordan’s Royal Highness.

With every region having a different nuance in its technological needs, we as a community must keep in mind the cultural and regional-specific ways of helping so we are not “charlatans waving a white flag,” as Shah says in her interview.

Though we have much more work to do, technology, from the most basic to the most modern, has played a vital role in the largest refugee crisis to date. The September 19th High-level meeting at the United Nations hopes to elevate the basis of common humanity in coming up with innovative solutions for each unique region that refugees and migrants currently reside.

Watch Andlib Shah, Head of Techfugees USA, in the Digital Media Zone powered by PVBLIC:

Read the full “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015” Report here.

Are you a tech wanting to help? Join the Techfugee Facebook group.

Join the Refugee Response Team monthly giving program today and change refugees' lives forever at


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