Tech solutions to help refugees, from Calais to the UK

Recapping Techfugees Live Session: Tech solutions to help refugees, from Calais to the UK

The Techfugees Live Sessions are a series of online talks which complement the work of the Techfugees Data Hub, a platform that maps the socio-economic challenges faced by displaced communities through a volunteer network of local contributors. You can find the full list of sessions on YouTube here

This post is a recap of Session 6, which focused on displaced persons in Calais and across the Channel. The session took place on 16 October, 2020. Watch the full recording here👇🏽




Tech solutions to help refugees, from Calais to the UK

Refugee communities around the world have been among the hardest hit by the global Covid-19 pandemic, and displaced persons in Calais are no exception. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve heard a lot about the dramatic situation in Calais, for example regarding sanitary conditions and access to healthcare. 

But as Techfugees’ Louise Brosset pointed out in her introduction to the 6th Techfugees Live Session, held on 16 October 2020, the indirect impacts of the pandemic are often the most striking. “We wanted to give the mic to local organisations working there [in Calais], to express what’s happening and give more insights about the impact of the pandemic,” Brosset told the audience. “But not only the pandemic: Because we saw that often in isolated regions and isolated camps, the direct impact of Covid is not what strikes most, but there are a lot of indirect impacts regarding employment, regarding access to information, or education.”

These indirect impacts are what the session’s speakers have sought to tackle in Calais and across the Channel – often through the use of technology. First up was Care4Calais’ Hermione Regan, who heads up the organisation’s access to legal aid project, helping asylum-seekers navigate the UK’s immigration system. Covid-19’s impact has exacerbated an already bad situation in the face of Brexit, Regan told the audience. In particular, the UK’s exit from the EU led to what she called a “mad scramble” by the UK government to remove as many refugees as possible before December 31, the end of the Brexit transition period.

Regan told the audience: “After the 31st of December, the UK will no longer be able to return refugees to European countries in which they can prove that they were in. So there’s currently a mad scramble by the government to remove as many people as possible to European countries as they can before that deadline. And there just isn’t the capacity of legal aid lawyers to deal with all of these cases.”

She added that the recent increase in arrivals over the last 6 months had been especially significant. “The recent increase in arrivals over the last 6 months has been so pronounced, and the hostile environment is only getting more hostile, and we’ve realised that we absolutely have to match refugees up to legal aid lawyers to have any chance of them actually realizing their asylum claims,” she said. “For us, currently Covid and Brexit have just been the perfect storm.”

Within this context, displaced persons have faced additional problems regarding access to information and resources, according to Regan.  For example, she spoke of people having their phones confiscated. “If refugees arrive via boats, they are considered illegal entrants into the UK and their phones are confiscated for up to a month, as they’re seen as accessories to crime,” she said. To get their phones back, refugees have to make written representations. Smartphones play a key role in helping displaced persons, Regan stressed. “If refugees do manage to get their phones back, or we manage to get a phone to them, that just makes all the difference,” she said. 

“Most of what we do is via WhatsApp; it means that they can have meetings with their lawyer via phone, it means that we can get in touch with them, it means that they can contact friends and family back home and reassure them. If they need to get somewhere, to a lawyer’s appointment, there’s Google Maps. So their phone really is everything.” Those who are taken to detention centres for removal are given a “dumb phone”, according to Regan, but this is an inadequate substitute. “They can call and text, but they might not have their contacts, they won’t be able to use Google Translate facilities,” she said.  “We’ve had cases before where refugees have had really vital documentation on them, but no way to take a picture to send to us. So although they are given a phone, smartphones are now the ultimate tool and what they need.”

Regan also touched on possible solutions the session’s audience could help with: For example, helping to create a centralised database of legal aid lawyers, as well as developing a central area to upload paperwork.  However, a key thing to keep in mind for any potential solution would be the need to safeguard data access and data protection.

Meanwhile, technology’s role in aiding displaced persons in Calais has been at the heart of the work of the next speaker, Chris Afuakwah from Refugee Info Bus. The work Refugee Info Bus does is encompassed by its name. It distributes and aids access to the Internet and access to information about the asylum process and asylum-seekers’ rights. The organisation provides services such as phone charging and repair, WiFi, basic mobile phones and batteries – underscoring how for displaced persons, a phone and Internet access are quite literally lifelines.

Specifically, they operate a van/bus with a wifi mask on top of it and a SIM card in a hub within, said Afuakwah. This provides stable internet connection for about 100 people at a time within a certain radius of the bus, and there is also phone charging provision. People can also sit inside the bus and socialise (although Covid has affected these in-person gatherings). During his speech, Afuakwah put out a call to action, asking for help in scaling up the service as well as developing potential remote solutions.

“One of the reasons we want to speak here is that we’re looking to expand our network … bringing new tech ideas on how to adapt to this crisis within a crisis that we’ve found ourselves in,” he said. He said Refugee Info Bus was looking to become a membership organisation over the next few months.

Said Afuakwah: “Within that, we’ll have some working groups which will include a tech working group, which we hope to bring together people’s expertise from this community, from others, to improve our tech solutions, and also just more the simple access to mobile phones for our service users which as we’ve already discussed is so important, improve our internet access, improve the service that we’re giving, both in Calais and our sort of wider scope.”

Last up was Vanessa Porter of Phone Credit for Refugees.

The organisation basically does what it says on the tin, namely facilitating a process for giving phone credits to refugees.  “What started out as a matchmaking service where individual donors were matched with people who needed credit, transitioned into a process where any refugee who is in insecure accommodation, making an unsafe journey or is being detained, and hasn’t had credit from us in the last 30 days, can receive a phone credit top-up,” said Porter.

And as Phone Credit for Refugees has grown, so has the need for more technological solutions to solve certain complexities.  The organisation is almost entirely powered by Facebook, with a Facebook group of about 61,000 people encompassing requesters, as well as active donors and inactive donors who joined through friends. 

They have seen a surge in demand, said Porter, particularly within the context of the pandemic, which heightened the need to help refugees access services in a socially distant way “which obviously relies on phone credit or wi-fi”. She laid out several concrete areas people could help with technological solutions.  For example, reducing reliance on Facebook as a platform and finding an alternative solution, in particular keeping in mind the need to secure sensitive personal information.  “The one real issue that we have is, it’s great that we’re reliant on Facebook, but also, who knows how Facebook works?” she said.  “We do a lot of work with chatbots, a lot of the initial application processing is done via chatbots, and occasionally Facebook will just throw a complete hissy fit and lock us out of everything. So you know, kind of reducing the reliance on the technology that Facebook can offer us would be a really helpful thing.” Any technical solution would have to ensure that data is stored safely and securely, she stressed.


“We’re storing a lot of extremely sensitive information about people’s asylum documentation, people’s location, where they might have been before, where they’re sleeping, you know, kind of really sensitive information,” she said. Language interpretation is another tricky area, Porter added. “The majority of the languages are Arabic and Persian, but we have people from all over the world … it’s difficult to make yourself understood via a message and Google Translate.” “Any kind of solutions that could help us with that would be great.”

Finally, Louise Brosset ended by highlighting Techfugees’ efforts in mapping the challenges faced by displaced persons, and its goal of giving discussion space to such people and those working with them.  “We started this decentralised research network through Covid and the mapping of Covid, but the goal is to go beyond and to use it as a database for real-time information about the challenge faced by displaced persons all over the world,” she said.


Interested in learning more? Read about the Basefugees initiative, Techfugees’ repertory of responsible digital innovations curated with and for displaced persons.


Article written by Nicole Chang, digital journalist volunteering with Techfugees. 


And you can find all the other sessions collected here


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