Tech innovation revolutionising the way refugees are perceived and how they are integrated

By: Vicki McKenna

Syrian refugees shop at the main market in the Zaatari refugee camp
Photo: World Economic Forum

After six years of conflict in Syria, 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country, including 6.3 million internally displaced (IDPs). Nearly 5 million people are also living in “hard to reach and or besieged areas,” according to UN Migration Agency, IOM.

On the occasion of International Migrants Day on 18 December, IOM further noted that irregular and unsafe migration often arises on account of lack of awareness about the risks involved in the process, ill-informed knowledge of travel regulations, visas, health risks as  well as the absence of a balanced and unified platform for reliable and updated migration information and services.

On the opposite side to this dark, tragic narrative of human suffering, technology has helped change the lives of refugees, challenge populist, reactionary attitudes and revolutionise the way they are perceived. Technological innovations have helped make refugees lives easier, specifically in promoting successful integration, aiding resettlement and providing relief in conflict areas.

For instance, on International Migrants’ Day IOM launched MigApp, an “institutional tool that leverages current technology and the widespread use of mobile telecommunications to bring a secure, objective and user-friendly downloadable app which serves as a one-stop-shop platform where migrants can access current, reliable and practical information and IOM services.”

This APP responds to the need to help migrants make informed decisions throughout their migration process by providing them relevant and up-to-date information. In its launch version, the MigApp incorporates related information such as travel requirements and regulations, and contacts of counter-trafficking hotlines located globally.

Moreover, community initiatives like “Techrefugees have helped bring tech engineers, designers, entrepreneurs and start-ups together with NGOs and other agencies with the aim of addressing the challenges of refugee migration and providing sustainable solutions to refugee integration. This non-profit initiative organised workshops and meetups throughout the work in an effort to generate tech solutions for refugees and further aims to “empower the displaced with technology.”

International organisation Jusoor also provides entrepreneurship programmes, specifically helping to connect entrepreneurs and Syrian start-ups with mentors. This organisation consists of a group of Syrian expatriates who support the country’s development and help Syrian youth “realize their potential through programs in the fields of education, global community engagement and career development.”

Ahmad Sufian Bayram, Jusoor’s Entrepreneurship Program Advisor and Techrefugees Adviser explains his decision to support start-ups and refugee entrepreneurship. Specifically, he notes that he was born and raised in Syria, adding that following the Arab Spring in 2011 there was a lot of unemployment in the country and that it was very difficult for a lot of people to find a job. Faced with a desire to support the youth in Syria, he notes how he helped set up the Jusoor entrepreneurship programme to build diversity among entrepreneurs, provide mentorship and help the young find more jobs.

Bayram stresses that Jusoor’s main focus is start-ups with 50% of entrepreneurs comprising of Syrian nationals. At the same time though, he notes that the organisation encourages and supports Syrian entrepreneurs to integrate with locals, adding that a lot of people who work within the programme have 50-50 participation.

Ahmad Sufian Bayram speaking at the Ignite Conference: Rebuilding Futures: Empowering youth and entrepreneurs in fragile states. Photo: Spark

Emphasising the challenges for entrepreneurial business in conflict areas, Ahmad says: “Working in an unstable situation or working in a start-up, where you’re living and who’s controlling your area, this will reflect your business decisions. For people in conflict zones there are not only scaling challenges, but also movement limitations, so for Syrian entrepreneurs they cannot travel, they cannot get a visa.”

Bayram further points to the role of women entrepreneurs in conflict areas. “In a conflict zone area, you tend to see a range of entrepreneur women. During conflicts and wars, a lot of men they join the fighting, so women become more responsible for their family surviving. They want to get some jobs, so they find entrepreneurship as a way of getting more money, so we see in Syria a lot of the time they’re doing handmade jobs, or selling items online, or trying to do some freelance work, or in some cases creating start-ups as well.”

The role of tech entrepreneurship in promoting sustainability in conflict areas was also stressed. Specifically, social start-ups and educational start-ups have been established with the aim of finding solutions to rebuild infrastructures, Ahmad notes. Entrepreneurs in conflict zones are trying to solve the real problems they’ve seen in their ecosystem and they are the best ones to know the problem that is facing a community and what’s the best solution for that, Ahmad adds. “So, what we’re trying to do is support them and speed up their progress to solving those problems, which can create a huge impact for their community.”

One can further point to the key difficulties of transferring money in order to support refugee entrepreneurship. However, blockchain technology emerged as a solution to this problem. Essentially, Blockchain is an open, or decentralized database containing records which are linked and secured through cryptography. Blockchains are also seen as a means of creating a digital form of identification and eliminating the need for a traditional financial institution to “mediate transactions.”

“What happened in the Jordan setup, they distributed Blockchain vouchers for the community of refugees in order to let those people buy groceries and they were able to track the groceries and limit it to exclude alcohol or cigarettes out of this, so Blockchain can help the refugees and offers government and businesses the opportunity to better understand the refugees, provide a solution that better fits everyone and start-ups can take this role to make sure this is happening,” Bayram says.

“Other than that, a lot of refugees they leave behind important documents, they leave behind their passports, IDs, certificates, those documents, it’s very important to them to continue their life.”  Blockchain on the other hand “can actually can help to build a new identification for those people,” he adds.

Moving on to discussion of his future projects, Bayram explains how he has helped create a refugee entrepreneurship community, called start-up Syria. This community is an unofficial meetup where Syrian entrepreneurs can gather, it help them to connect with the local ecosystem, and further helps to integrate them.

Start Up Syria
Photo: Ahmad Sufian Bayram

“Everyone’s who opening accelerated programmes should consider refugees as a part of their programmes or anyone who’s looking for investment should also consider investing in refugees or investing in conflict zones, as something part of their aim,” says Bayram.

Emphasising the vital role refugees have in communities, Bayram underlines that people should appreciate their “economic power. “We need to break this wall and the barriers between both communities and see how we can benefit from each other collectively and I think that this is something as humans we can do and understand how we can achieve the greater good for everyone else and refugees are a huge resource to actually integrate them, to have two-way bridges so both communities should meet in the middle to actually create this perfect integration, Ahmad concludes.

Technological innovation has increasingly helped poor, disadvantaged environments to “leap-frog development.” At the same time though the question is what is applicable in settings which are not the traditional settings where tech fares well, said Kilian Kleinschmidt, founder of the Innovation and Planning Agency (IPA) and former senior field coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Kilian Kleinschmid
Photo: UNHCR

Kleinschmidt is an expert in emergency response, resource mobilization and international development with over 25 years of experience in a wide range of countries, emergencies and refugee camps. Kleinschmidt who formerly ran the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, explains that Blockchain technology was used in this camp as a “quick and fast verification of identity.” It further helped to move “away from hand outs and distributions to smart cards being used in super markets where people go shopping and spend money.”

Emphasising the need for more strategic long-term planning in terms of camp settlement, Kleinschmidt specifically called for adequate capacity going forward. In this light he underlined how he worked with City of Amsterdam urban planners during his time in Jordan. Special development zones should be the answer, he said, adding that the place could be developed by a number of stakeholders that would include “people who work on social sustainability, ecological sustainability, and would ensure that certain issues which are specific to foreigners in this case refugees are respected.”

Kleinschmidt recently left the UNHCR in 2014, to start his own aid consultancy, Switxboard in order to “get innovative ways of financing into fragile environments which are hit by displacement and people on the move and poverty.”

According to UNDP’s Human Development Report 2014, over 2.2 billion people, more than 15 per cent of the world’s population, “are either near or living in multidimensional poverty”.  Moreover, according to the Switxboard website 1 billion in 2014 live under “unsafe, unhealthy conditions in slums, informal settlements or camps”. The website further indicates that 3 billion by 2050 will live in informal Settlements – i.e. 1/3 of the world’s population

Given the extensive challenges facing the displaced more innovative solutions are required for addressing their needs. For instance, among key IPA projects, fabrication labs or “Fablabs” are designed to enable refugees, start-ups and local communities to “co-create innovative solutions.”  By doing this, FabLabs helps to create opportunities for refugees to develop skills and help promote social cohesion between local communities and displaced people.

As Kleinschmidt says: “We have lots of tech, lots of best practice, the problem is that over 80% of the world’s population don’t have access to that knowledge, that is what we need to get from, that is what I’m pushing for, having that intelligent tool which makes the disadvantaged parts of the world better connected to the rest, that is my dream.” In his opinion: “working on SME financing in fragile contexts and facilitating through that employment of poor people, including newcomers, refugees, migrants, should be part of the norm and not the exception.”

UNHCR has estimated that 65.6 million people around the world have been displaced. Among this number, there are almost 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Moreover, 28, 300 people a day are forced to flee their homes on account of persecution and conflict. On the one hand, the large majority of refugees fled to low- and middle-income countries. UNHCR underlines that Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon are the top hosting countries, with 2.9 million, 1.4 million and 1 million refugees each respectively.

At the same time, though, 1.2 million of those who took the long journey to Europe have arrived in Germany. This crisis has in many cases overwhelmed national leaders, volunteer citizens and NGOs. In this context, the IPA organised another project called Refugee Open Cities (ROC21). Refugees Open Cities is an open-source roadmap which activates the “vast human potential of refugees by transforming camps into inclusive cities, bunk bed-halls into makerspaces and emergency homes into self-sustaining living environments.”

Kleinschmidt notes that his company is doing consultant work. For example, he explains that he has been advisor to the Interior Ministry in Austria, and to the German Development Minister. Moreover, during the summer, his company started to help the outgoing Prime Minister of Austria to devise a strategy of how to deal with Africa and migration.

He adds that his company has been working on a network approach to set up sustainable access to resources. Specifically, the company is looking into innovative ways of blending different types of finance and getting that into different types of fragile environments, where Switxboard is a platform which has been developed for connectivity and increasing opportunity in disadvantaged populations.

“We’re coming increasingly to the conclusion that the way forward are special development zones with a special governance regime and dealing with the settlement and work of millions of people eventually. So, it’s an expansion of the work and the team that we’ve brought together in Refugee Cities, where we look to the real challenges in Africa from the European perspective. Rapidly growing cities, exploding urban centres, millions of people within Africa, so how to work in bringing the right expertise, the finance, together to deal with this, because bad urbanisation will be much more dangerous to ourselves, to our peace and stability worldwide than anything else.

Migrants have always been very energetic and very creative in setting up businesses. The biggest impediment is usually that for a number of professions you need a European diploma, this is an extremely cumbersome process to get the permission to set up businesses. People coming to Europe also have a high level of debt, because they had to pay to come here, so they simply cannot afford to wait until they have the diploma. That in the European context is a very big impediment. The question of qualification and when you’re allowed to do a certain business forces a lot of the people who come to go to commerce and trade, technical professions.”