The Refugee Crisis and the Role of Information Technology

When people are forced to flee their homes as a result of man made or environmentally created crises they become refugees, some unable to ever return to their homes and requiring permanent resettlement and others who may be able to return at some point in the short or long term. Some national governments have made efforts to help, as have the United Nations.

The Canadian government has been quick to act:

Non governmental organisations are putting more of their efforts in this area than they have before and many individual citizens globally have tried to help.

As information technology has become more pervasive and its functions and capabilities have developed. Its role in the current refugee crisis has received substantial attention. This post looks at this in a range of areas, including how the internet has made the refugee crisis more visible to global populations and become a forum for debate on the appropriate political understanding of it and response to it. It has provided tools to support refugees in their journey away from the dangers that they are fleeing and services and resources in their temporary or permanent destination – whether in refugee camps or a new home. The following video provides an overview of the current middle eastern refugee crisis:

While much of the work that is done with refugees is by governments and non governmental organisations, private organisations and private citizens have also become involved. We will look at the role that they are also playing, enabled by technology.


The Role of Information Technology in Humanitarian Development

The debate over the role of information technology in humanitarian development is outlined in other posts in this blog. There are two key issues. First, can technology play a positive role? The debate here is over whether technology will usually reinforce and/or widen the gulf between rich and poor in the world or whether technology can play a role in improving the lives of poorer people in developing countries and elsewhere. Supporters of both sides of this argument exist and the view taken will influence how information technology might be used. This video from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees argues that information technology can play a positive role. Facebook recently announced their intention to provide broadband connectivity to Africa:

This BBC Newsnight segment considered the impact that Facebook and also Google might have in their efforts to spread connectivity:

The second argument is about the scarce development resources that exist and the proportion of these that should be allocated to information technology based solutions. How much, for example, should be allocated to online nursing support and how much to building and running physical hospitals. Debate exists on the impact of information technology versus physical solutions and a range of views on the appropriate balance between them influences the decisions that are made by organisations and governments on resource allocation. This post may assist consideration of the appropriate balance for the current refugee situation. The following video suggests that broadband connectivity may not have the impact that many hope and that a carefully managed approach is important.


Making Refugees Visible

The internet has changed the way that the public access information. Traditional news outlets in TV and newspapers have now been joined by information from a wide variety of sources which are growing daily as new applications emerge and more people get connected. Images and video are more easily created and shared and this influences how people understand current events. The refugee crisis has been more visible than it might have been in the past and this may have contributed to widespread public concern about its impact in many countries. The story of Aylan Kurdi symbolised this:

Students at the University of Waterloo have created a blog to promote awareness about refugees.


The Political Debate

While awareness of the refugee crisis has been provided by the internet, it has also become a forum for sharing of views on the causes, impact and solutions to the crisis. Historically, views of refugee situations have ranged from sympathy and a desire to provide help, to fear of the negative impact that a large influx of a “different” culture might have on a domestic population. This range of views is reflected in the current refugee debate and influences the responses that governments are making. Recently this debate has been influenced by sexual assaults in Germany which are raising questions about the government’s policy on refugees. This first video describes the events that occurred while the second is a discussion of the implications:

Senior politicians have reflected the range of views that exist on the refugee crisis. In Europe, negative views have been expressed by right wing political parties and extremist groups. The following video reports events in Calais in northern France:

Barack Obama talks about migrants and his attitude to them:


Refugee Journeys and Information Technology

Information technology is used by refugees to support their journeys today in ways that were never before possible. Use of satellite based navigation technologies (GPS) has guided journeys, while social media based communications have allowed danger to be avoided and preferred routes to be selected. Contact with other family members and communities has been facilitated. Political arguments exist over whether this use of technology has made it easier for refugees to travel and so encourage more to do so or that it has allowed more people to be saved from life threatening situations.

Peace Geeks report on How Social Media and Technology are Changing Refugee Journeys – describing how mobile technology especially is helping refugees travel safely.

The Refugees Map is an example of the use of GIS technology to support refugee travel.

The following video reports on the use of mobile technology by refugees;


The Role of Technology in Refugee Camps

Many refugees flee to refugee camps where they will stay for varying periods of time, possibly for many years and the conditions that they live in are often difficult. Information technology is now being used in many areas to improve refugee camp conditions and the lives of people who live in them. Technology is used in administration of camp activities, registering residents and supporting the management and provision of basic services such as food, water and accommodation. Beyond the provision of very basic needs, technology is now used in education for children and adults, to achieve a good basic educational level and develop marketable skills that will enable refugees to get jobs and support themselves when they leave the refugee camps. Reach report on the use of GIS in Al-Za’atari Refugee Camp.

In the Spring of 2015 masters students at the University of Waterloo researched and developed proposals for the use of information technology for refugees, working with NetHope. Kevin MacRitchie, NetHope Senior Global Program Director spoke to the students about the role that technology can play:

Work has also been done by researchers at Penn State on technology use in Syrian refugee camps.

Various forms of healthcare support are provided online, from provision of basic public health information to support desirable camp behaviours to dealing with outbreaks of disease and individual medical conditions. Remote advice from specialists for local nurses and health practitioners improves healthcare provided to refugees. Computer Weekly reports on the range of areas that technology is being used in.

The internet also provides contact with communities and families that are not in the camp and allows social networks to be maintained – important in day to day support while in the camp and afterwards if situations improve and refugees are able to return home.

Concerns exist about the provision of internet access within refugee camps. Use of the internet to promote extreme views (for example by ISIS) is well known and there are fears that this may result in unrest in camp environments. Concerns also exist amongst some refugees about the exposure of their families to internet content that they feel is inappropriate and may have a negative cultural impact. Digitised record keeping and privacy and security issues related to that are also a concern.


Technology for Refugees Who Are Not in Camps

Many refugees are not in formal camps and are living elsewhere in developed or developing countries. Technology provides many functions for them, including connection to the community that they come from and to services that help them integrate into their new society. Access to language training, skill development and education. job postings and social services are often now provided online.


Private Organisations

Many private organisations are also now using the internet in efforts to assist refugees. Recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg announced that he was going to provide refugee services via Facebook:

Google have announced that they will also be participating with the creation of a hub to provide refugees with information. Google translate asked for helpers with their service:


Citizen Contributions

The internet has also allowed individual citizens to become involved in the support of refugees – in ways that were never before possible:

Facebook groups allow local citizens to connect with, and provide support to refugees.

ZDNet reports on efforts that the German technology community are making to assist refugees, including a hackathon focussed on refugee solutions.

An AirBnb type service for refugees to find accommodation has also been created Refugees Welcome.

Online language services such as Get Across offer translation facilities to improve communications, while NaTakallam pairs students who are learning Arabic with displaced Syrians in Lebanon, via the internet creating jobs.



This blog post has discussed the role of information technology in the current refugee crisis. It has considered the range of views on the crisis and the role that technology has in articulating these. It provides examples of the use of technology in refugee travels and in their lives in refugee camps and destination countries. Finally, the role that technology is playing in the work of private organisations and private citizens is outlined.

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