Technologies In the Refugee Crisis

New technologies help to change migration “problem” to a manageable process

Anna Wójcik
26 November 2015

It is easy to envision a new sign above the hearth emblazoned with the phrase “Home is where the WiFi is” if you will pardon a contemporary read on the old adage. It certainly holds true for refugees arriving in Europe as they use advanced technologies to navigate both the first part of their journey, the one across the Mediterranean or via the Balkan route, and the second, the bureaucratic one which begins after arrival. Many migration researchers agree that the new media sources have eased the burden of migration.

It is not difficult to imagine how social networks and communication apps can contribute to critical information sharing, providing instant updates about weather conditions, smugglers’ fees, police patrols, or even the whereabouts of loved ones. Switching to the perspective of people welcoming asylum-seekers in the reception centers and in their cities, it is visible that ICTs (information and communications technology) have become an indispensable part of the humanitarian toolkit. Expert aid providers and civilian volunteers alike apply new technologies to creatively solve the most pressing issues.

There are numerous attempts to improve crisis management in conflict zones and on the sites of environmental disasters by equipping peacekeeping and humanitarian aid forces with state of the art technology. Innovative solutions can result in better communication, less costly logistics management, more targeted and effective shelter, and essential supplies provision. Dedicated apps facilitate, for instance, the distribution of goods or cash assistance among the people in need, and biometrics can support and speed up standard registration procedures.

THE PITFALLS OF CYBER HUMANITARIANISM

Technology is not a universal panacea, and its application is often ambiguous. Cyber-humanitarianism brings both a promise and a threat. While the footage of Hungarian soldiers marking numbers on refugees’ wrists evoked the imagery of Europe’s darkest hours, the use of more advanced technologies for the similar purposes is also problematic.

For starters, the use of digital fingerprint technologies in registering refugees brings new forms and possible complications to the collection of sensitive personal data. In the optimistic scenario, gathering more accurate information about the incoming population allows for mapping refugees’ needs and providing dedicated assistance. At the same time, this data may be used and abused in various contexts, and examples that come to mind are political persecution or ill-founded terrorism accusations. Even more controversies arise around remote sensing and surveillance drones, which monitor the movements of people.

TECHNOLOGY FOR OPEN SOCIETY

As the advance of certain technologies may increase undesirable surveillance in some areas, it is undeniable that innovation can be also put to good use and contribute to more open societies; an apt example would be the technology-driven civic activism.

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While many European political leaders and citizens express great concerns about the developments of the global mass movement of people, there are numerous individuals and initiatives who are swimming against the current of misunderstanding and fear.

Some of those challengers use technology to alleviate the condition of people who seek refuge in Europe while others launch social campaigns to encourage their fellow EU citizens to respond with greater generosity to newcomers. It is especially promising to witness many of those initiatives springing up across Central Europe and the Balkans, the parts of the EU which are challenged not only by the influx of refugees, but also by the alarmingly fearful, and sadly popular, reaction to this phenomenon.

In Budapest, the Civil Society and Technology Project for the Center for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University builds bridges between academia and civic activism around migration issues. Their flagship initiative was Keleti Wifi and Mobile Charging Project, a dedicated place where refugees waiting at Keleti railway station could charge phones and access wireless internet. The project, initiated by Kate Coyer, was operated by dozens of volunteers from CEU Refugee Aid force and documented at keleti-connected.tumblr.com. The project is currently paused as there are no more refugees stationed at Keleti.

Authorities in Europe have been overwhelmed and generally underprepared for the influx of asylum-seekers, which in turn caused disinformation among the refugees. For this reason, a Hungarian volunteer initiative, Migration Aid, helped refugees to access reliable information through the InfoAid app, developed by Enys Mones. The app provides information about a variety of issues, from legal provisions of entry and stay in the EU, to access to shelter or medical care. Regular updates are sent in the language of choice including English, Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi.

Another remarkable venture is the response of the Otvorena mreža (Open Network) initiative to the wave of migrants entering Croatia. The organization, established in Zagreb by Valent Turković, has been promoting the ideas of independent internet infrastructure and the internet as a public good. In the autumn of 2015, Otvorena mreža activists set up human WiFi beacons, mobile hot spots carried in backpacks to small border towns where refugees lack internet access.

In Warsaw, Zofia Jaworowska leads a group of activists behind the Polish chapter of the Refugees Welcome initiative, facilitating the process of subletting rooms to refugees. Referred to as “The Airbnb for Refugees”, the platform aims at connecting local flat owners with persons who fled to their cities. The service operates in Germany, Austria, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, and Poland, with groups setting up similar schemes in several other countries.

It appears that in order to increase empathy and hospitality levels it is best to start working with kids and young adults. Frequently, the most effective learning is through play. A Polish game developer, Grzegorz Miechowski, could not have possibly foreseen the backlash to accepting refugees in his home country when he came up with the video game This War of Mine. The innovative game may be a powerful tool in raising awareness about the reality of conflict as the player experiences war through the eyes of civilians struggling for survival in a besieged city.

The concept of fighting indifference with play is no stranger to Romania-born Stefania Druga, the brains behind HacKIDemia, an international network promoting civic engagement among the youngest citizens. During these workshops, children are encouraged to kickstart their own projects answering the biggest political, social and environmental challenges, from access to water or food to digital literacy.

Educating people to do better in the future is crucial for achieving long-term change in the societal mindset. At the same time, it is equally important to network potential altruists with likeminded people with various skills. HashtagCharity, a startup created by a Hungarian József Czapovics, does precisely so by connecting social entrepreneurs and tech professionals to collaborate on high-impact projects.

There is a trait that makes the above initiatives stand out, and it is not solely a creative use of technology. It is their founders’ belief that it is high time to change the refugee “problem” to a manageable process. This will not be achieved by even the best international migration law regulations, or by the most compassionate and charismatic political leaders if there are no challengers to the closeted mindset of the majority. Mones, Turković, and Druga demonstrate how being less scared, and more hopeful, can bring about the most fruitful results. They show the strength of change and optimism, and that it is possible for more and more people in Central and Eastern Europe to approach the world with similar convictions.

The author is assistant editor at Visegrad Insight. Follow her on Twitter.

The article will appear in print in Visegrad Insight “Border Anxiety” issue 2 (8) 2015, out in December 2015.

Enys Mones, Valent Turković, Zofia Jaworowska, Grzegorz Miechowski, Stefania Druga, and József Czapovics are New Europe 100 challengers. Find out who else made the list in 2015.

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