Refugee crisis in a digital age

Ed. Note.: This post, by Kaustub Bhati, is a part of the NALSAR Tech Law Forum Editorial Test 2016.

How many people worldwide are currently displaced or stateless? How many people are adrift in the Mediterranean Ocean in search of a new home? What helps them in this perilous journey and guides them to their destination? The answer to this is a staggering 51 million, constituting around 3% of the world’s total population, out of which 16.7 million people are refugees seeking asylum in various nations. This refugee crisis being the first of its kind in the digital age, where an 8-year old kid knows how to use his smartphone to navigate the world, is bringing about bountiful challenges in the field of application of technology.

A normal citizen, peacefully living in his home is forced to flee his home leaving behind everything to avoid violence and persecution, what is the only piece of technology he could carry with him? Probably his smartphone. Smartphones, and the access to social media and applications (apps) they offer, act as lifelines for many asylum seekers, who rely on them for information ranging from the use of Google Maps to plot safe routes to the real costs of goods and services along the journey, translate the language of an unknown land and find help in the time of need. This reliance on smartphones has created unique opportunities for the development of socially innovative technology to deliver assistance. The digital age proffers unique and novel ways for administrative authorities to engage with the masses using digital tools like apps, web portals to provide better access to public services. The most appropriate example would be of initiatives of New York City which, as of 2013, had 37% of its population as foreign born while 60% were either immigrants or children of immigrants. Their digital access crown the NYC 311 is an interactive, online self-serving system available in 170+ languages. [1]

Technology can also help refugee asylum seekers develop new skills or learn existing skills of the labour market. Busuu, an electronic language-learning platform, is offering free German and English language courses for Syrian refugees. A Berlin-based NGO, Refugees Welcome, created a website that quickly became known as an “Airbnb for refugees,” matching willing hosts with individuals needing shelter. Indeed, it was so popular that the site quickly crashed, and the NGO struggled to keep up with offers of help. In the German town of Dresden, local tech companies created the “Welcome to Dresden” app, providing information and advice for refugee newcomers in Arabic and other languages, similar suit followed in Belgium.[2]

While apps play a vital role, Facebook is not much behind in providing a novel way for refugees to interact with others and share and learn from common experience. Facebook pages like ‘The Syrian House in Germany’ with massive following with the aim to provide instructions to asylum applications and emotional security by allowing integration into a wholly new and different society by learning its culture, its heritage and its language.

Education, a strong point in quick social integration and the requirement of many jobs is another issue addressed through digital accessibility. Many Refugees who had to leave their education midway and have no requisite transcripts to take admission in the universities of their new countries are left desolate but innovations such as the Kiron University, a crowd-funding project, founded by Markus Kressler which provides world-class online education to refugees in fields such as business, engineering, computer science and architecture without the red tape and any tuition fees. Kiron uses online courses put out by universities, including the likes of Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and MIT.[3]

Apart from these astounding benefits, there are some disadvantages too of the digital era we live in. The use of digital devices results in a traceable digital footprint which can be easily tracked and with extremists and smugglers being so tech-savvy can very easily become disastrous. In an age where people are being persecuted because of their religion, anonymity can be a good thing. The concern to privacy also arises due to situations such as in Lebanon, where refugees who do not consent to iris scans do not qualify for UNHCR subsidies and also the use of biometric scans to issue prepaid cards which intensively track purchase history available to government authority anytime they want.[4]

But then these cannot be solely considered as a problem of the digital age but of the society itself. Violation of privacy through identification procedures while being a concern for many as a basic rights violation is sometimes a necessary step for the government to perform because it helps them organise their efforts as well as policies for the overall public welfare and also in addressing the safety concerns that arise due to such a massive influx of refugees.

The purpose of this article was to pave the way to discuss how an ever-upgrading world is keeping up with the sociological aspects vis-à-vis either helping them or dismantling them. In light of the examples discussed about, I would conclude that the striking benefits of the digital age in lieu of the refugee crisis completely overwhelm the few disadvantages they pose, which can also be associated to the measures taken by the asylum providing countries to prevent terrorist attacks and a financial meltdown.

[1] Divia Mattoo, Corinne Goldberg, Jillian Johnson, and Carolina Farias Riaño, “Immigrants in the Smart City: The Potential of City Digital Strategies to Facilitate Immigrant Integration”, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/immigrants-smart-city-potential-city-digital-strategies-facilitate-immigrant-integration

[2] Ibid

[3] https://kiron.ngo

[4] THE REFUGEE CRISIS: WHERE AID, FINTECH AND BIOMETRICS INTERSECT, http://blog.mondato.com/refugee-crisis-fintech

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