Techfugees Cambridge: The tech innovations helping refugees in Calais and beyond

Sue Keogh reports back from the first Techfugees Cambridge Conference, which focused on how we can use technology to find practical solutions to the problems faced by displaced people, in particular those in the refugee camp in Calais known as the Jungle.

We attended and sponsored the first Techfugees Cambridge Conference, which focused on how we can use technology to find practical solutions to the problems faced by displaced people, in particular those in the refugee camp in Calais known as the jungle.

For me, the thread that ran through the day was all the different touchpoints with tech. There are 65 million displaced people across the world; how are they using existing technology in such desperate situations and what tools are being developed by grassroots organisations in response to the crisis?

Take the first speaker, Hassan Akkad. A Syrian teacher fleeing the horrific situation back home, this time last year he was on a boat, trying to get to Europe and eventually the UK. 65 people on board a dinghy which should have carried 10.  As the boat began to sink he used Whatsapp to message a friend in the US, sent her his location and she was able to call the coastguard, and their lives were saved.

techfugeescambridge_hassanakkadFacebook is a huge source of information for people in Hassan’s situation, with groups for people to share information on where to find a people smuggler, offer tips on getting to Lesvos, and post maps with possible routes.

When he got to Europe, Hassan used offline maps from to track his route. Going from smuggler to smuggler, at one point with 26 of them in a van for 12 hours, he was able to continually check his phone to check his location, using a Power Bank to make sure it was fully charged.

Finally in Britain, after a distressing 87-day journey, including two months in the jungle, the brushes with tech continued. Bloods and fingerprints taken, along with a 360° photo of his head, legal process complete, and he was able to claim asylum.

He filmed the whole thing on his GoPro – shown in the BBC documentary Exodus.

So this is just one tale. Throughout the day we heard more about the way that technology meets practical need.

Basefugees is a web-based platform just launched by Techfugees which supports technology projects around the world that respond to current refugee needs and NGO challenges.

techfugeescambridge_sophieSophie Newman-Sanders explained how they’re trying to set up a system where they give out sim cards to Unicef so that when refugees arrive in Europe they can stay in contact with their families. They also need a way of proving their identity and doing so in a secure environment.

Phone credit for refugees and displaced people is a closed Facebook group where refugees can make a request for phone credit and people make donations to top them up. You can also donate via this MyDonate page.

Phone credit is particularly important for children who are travelling alone (just stop and think about that for a second. There are thousands of them). Not only does it enable them to keep in touch with family members, but we also heard how one boy was able to Google information relating to his maths book, and use Google Translate to help him read a copy of Robinson Crusoe.

Throughout the day we saw how – with major aid agencies like Oxfam and Unicef being legally barred from going into the camps – these grassroots communities are springing up and coming up with solutions to these sorts of problems. Staffed by volunteers, they’re battling issues of scale and funding that big charities just don’t face.

The Refugee Info Bus is a mobile tech hub which brings a free wifi hotspot into the jungle. It offers resources on board to help refugees understand the legal processes of their situation, to make calls and download useful apps. It also encourages citizen journalism; giving people a voice is incredibly empowering when you are in this situation.

Data security is incredibly important, explained Richard Dent, co-organiser of the event. When refugees return home to Syria, as they pass through checkpoints they have their phones taken off them and these are checked for allegiances to ISIL and Assad. Many of these well-intentioned apps to help refugees are collecting masses of data, which is vulnerable to nice people like the Syrian Electronic Army, who can hack into pretty much anything.

He spoke about the work Cambridge startup SimPrints is doing around data encryption and highlighted the UK government’s guidelines for collecting data, in their Data Science Ethical Framework.

The Calais Solidarity Group, run by ‘Calais Bin Lady’, Rachel Mantell, is a Facebook group which tries to coordinate all the aid (material and otherwise) which comes in. It went from a couple of people to 17k overnight, following the death of little Aylan Kurdi. It’s now nearing 40k members.

Rachel explained that one issue they face is that Islamic extremist, paedophile rings and people smugglers try to infiltrate the group, knowing that it some of its members are extremely vulnerable people. She said how they put a stop to ‘looking for’ posts and printed posters, as these are sometimes created by people smugglers looking for people who have escaped.

Getting wifi into the camp is tricky. Unless you fly it in with Raspberry Pi strapped to drones! Arjuna Sathiaseelan explained how these act as flying data centres, which brings much needed connectivity to the camps.

Techfugees Cambridge Upcoming Event

29 October 2016 – Techfugees Cambridge Conference: Access to English for refugees and asylum seekers

Techfugees, in collaboration with Cambridge English Language Assessment, present this conference to explore how technology can be used to support refugees with English language learning.

The conference on Saturday 29th October will bring together refugees, teachers, investors, researchers, developers and academics to work together on some key issues. The day will be split into two distinct halves. In the first half, there will be the opportunity to hear from the people who know the context and who have already done a lot of work in the field of refugee education. In the second half, we will be asking all delegates to take part in workshops to come up with solutions to a series of challenges around refugees and language learning.  We hope that the workshops result in solutions that can be implemented quickly and where they are most needed. The themes for the workshops are: language for Higher Education, teacher training and self-access content.

Access to English training and accreditation can open doors for refugees, making it easier for them to seek asylum, safety and information, to communicate with people they meet, and to integrate into communities. This conference is our attempt at opening doors and we look forward to collaborating with you on this.

To help or get involved

For more information – please contact Oscar Gillespie at or visit the following links:

About the author

Sue Keogh, Director at Sookio. Sookio is a digital marketing agency in Cambridge, specialising in content – from copywriting, social media, video and design to expert strategy and training.

Original text: Confident communication through digital content