Meet the company co-ordinating tech’s response to refugees

Among the myriad social consequences brought on by the mass movement of refugees and migrants, the changing role of technology is perhaps not the first that comes to mind.

Meet the company co-ordinating tech’s response to refugees

Arguably, technology has, in one form or another, always been a factor in humanitarian responses to crises, but the scope of the internet has transformed what would have been a luxury afterthought into an essential part of the operation.  

From the journey across Europe, to life in a camp, to waiting for refugee status, to integration into a new society, internet access is a crucial resource, sitting just below water, food and shelter. The tech community now finds itself in a position it hasn’t been before: one where the things it makes can have a real, direct impact on the lives of displaced people. Suddenly, their involvement is a matter of life and death.

I spoke to Joséphine Goube, chief operating officer for Techfugees, a social enterprise set up by TechCrunch editor-at-large Mike Butcher. It describes itself as a tech-community response to the needs of refugees. Goube explains that Techfugees was set up following the publication in September 2015 of images of a dead Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach. Those involved started with the question: what can the EU tech scene do to get involved?techfugees5

(Above: A Techfugees conference. Credit: Ed Telling)

“From the first hackathon, I learned that there was a lot of momentum. People wanted to get involved, but they needed more knowledge of the crisis. There was a lot of ignorance over what was really on the ground – ideas of what a refugee is, ideas of what they need. The illusion – the myth – is that refugees don’t have access to technology. They do.”

Before working at Techfugees, Goube worked with a visa and migration assistance organisation called Migreat. It gave her a perspective on the political realities of migration that many in the tech community were lacking. “At the first hackathon, someone came up to me and said they had created Airbnb for refugees. I looked at him and… he didn’t get it. They don’t need Airbnb.”

The work organised by Techfugees falls into one of five categories: infrastructure, education, identity, health and inclusion. The projects under these umbrellas range from creating Wi-Fi hotspots in refugee camps and building language apps to hosting online version of qualifications and providing care for trauma. The scope is large, but the focus is on practical solutions. One example Goube gives is MedShr, an app that allows doctors to share clinical cases across a secure private network – extremely useful for aid workers who need a quick medical diagnosis in the field.

Co-ordination, not creation

Technology centred on refugee needs is the focus across Techfugees’ various global chapters, yet Goube is keen to impress that her organisation doesn’t create products, but rather co-ordinates them.

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(A refugee camp. Credit: James Fisher)

“I insist on that definition. We are not creating the technology. We are co-ordinating all the people that are creating technologies. We’re also not political. Obviously, what we do is a bit political, because we’re helping refugees. But we’re not political in the sense of [having] a particular political agenda. We’re looking at what tech can do to respond to refugee needs. When I say refugee needs, I don’t say refugee crisis – refugee crisis is a political interpretation of what’s happening.”

Indeed, the apolitical aspirations of the organisation reflect a broader understanding of what the future holds for migrants and refugees. While the projects currently under Techfugees’ wing are aimed at mass migration across Europe, Goube reinforces the fact that refugees have always existed, that Europeans themselves have been refugees, and that climate change has the potential to bring unprecedented levels of migration to our world very soon. Refugee needs aren’t going away any time soon.

And neither is technology’s role in helping relief efforts and addressing social inclusion. The coalescing of the tech community around the most recent influx of migrants may be a watershed in terms of how the sector is able to impact the lives of refugees – one with the potential to lay the groundwork for struggles to come.

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