Saturday 24 February 2018

How tech firms are helping to solve the refugee crisis

A couple carries their children as migrants and refugees cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the town of Gevgelija, Macedonia
A couple carries their children as migrants and refugees cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the town of Gevgelija, Macedonia

Therese Raphael

What if tech-savvy millennials could help solve the world's refugee crisis? How would they approach it?

In modest offices on the 29th floor of a lower Manhattan high-rise, Daniel Lizio-Katzen recently showed me a migration wizard. It's a software programme that his company, Migreat, developed to help economic migrants, and is now adapting to help refugees. The wizard detects the IP address of the user and then communicates in one of 12 different languages. The interface couldn't be more user-friendly: based on answers to a list of questions, it produces a personalised migration checklist and advice, stripped of jargon, about national laws.

This goes far beyond what governments or non-governmental organisations offer, and not just because of the multilingual platform. If you want to reach Iranian immigrants, it helps to know that they prefer to use the Viber app for mobile messaging, while Syrians tend to use WhatsApp, and Russians use the St Petersburg-based social network VK. Migreat can tailor content accordingly. Vetted service providers, such as immigration lawyers, pay for access to those who want to pay for advice, and their services are reviewed by users.

It takes a particularly intrepid kind of entrepreneur to be bullish on this market after the terrorist attacks in Paris, but techies see the refugee crisis as more of a logistics problem than an existential one.

The market for the service Migreat is building is potentially enormous. In its autumn economic forecast, the European Commission predicted an influx of three million migrants by the end of 2017. Globally it is of course bigger still. Some 232 million people around the world are currently living in a country other than where they were born, an increase of 65pc since 1990.

Migreat's business - which goes live in the US next year - has been growing, with 1.7m unique users in September, up from 400,000 in January; about 10pc of those go on to use one of the paid services offered by providers, who pay a subscription fee to be on the platform.

Migreat joined a hackathon in London organised by technology journalist and media entrepreneur Mike Butcher, who created the non-profit group Techfugees to encourage tech entrepreneurs to get working on the migration crisis. In the first 48 hours of launching, Techfugees' Facebook group and Twitter account were barraged with interest. Since then, Migreat's tech staff of 20-somethings has been adapting its algorithms to take into account laws on refugees and asylum-seekers and will launch its refugee advisory product next month.

Speaking last Wednesday at a London conference of tech teams working on refugee software, Hassan, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, recounted his arduous journey to England, through 10 countries over three months. "People are sceptical about refugees, especially after Paris," the former English teacher acknowledges in impeccable English.

Technology, he said, saved his life when the nine-metre dinghy he took from Turkey to Lesbos sank. Holding his phone above the water, he texted a friend in the US to alert the Turkish coast guard. The group was rescued.

Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other apps feature in his story and those of many other refugees who escaped danger, reunited with family or friends and have tried to build new lives in their host countries.

The United Nations estimates that 80pc of the world's adult population will have a mobile phone with internet access by 2020. A UNHCR official addressing the techies last week told the group that the first two questions refugees ask when arriving at a new destination are: "Where can I charge my mobile phone?" and "Is there wifi?"

Initiatives like Techfugees haven't yet incubated a coherent, scaled-up solution to the migration crisis and probably won't. But they reflect the gulf between the analog thinking of European politicians - with their focus on border-controls, quotas and visas - and the digital mindset of the Easyjet generation who, even after Paris, view migrants more as a source of opportunity than a threat. They are worth listening to.

Sunday Indo Business

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