Following a seminar on innovations to tackle refugee inclusion held by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), the EU Policy Lab wants to support Techfugees’ activities and help generate interest from the public sector.

The response of European citizens to the sharp increase in refugee flows has been extraordinary in many ways: from a #RefugeesWelcome campaign spreading over cities, volunteers flocking to Greece to help rescue boats and city mayors taking initiatives to host refugees.

Along these punctual events, there has been a silent revolution and active surge of innovative solutions applying tech tools to help refugees in Europe and beyond.

Technology can be a lifesaver

On 12th and 13th September 2016, European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) organised a seminar called Social Innovation for Refugee Inclusion. The event showed that a great number of social innovation to help refugees’ social inclusion has come from relatively new actors in the field such as volunteer software engineers, designers and data scientists – back by big tech companies like Google or Cisco.

Techfugees – representing the global community of volunteer tech entrepreneurs, engineers and designers responding to the refugee situation – was invited to speak and report on the innovation created on the ground.

Established in 2015, initially as a simple Facebook group, Techfugees has now grown local chapters in 25 countries, counts 15,000+ supporters around the world and is gathering data on a platform: Basefugees, a web-based, open source platform that matches technology solutions to real-life NGO “challenges” and showcases the solutions to potential investors and even public authorities (still in beta today as per a lack of funding).

Basefugees paltform came out as a way to deal with the duplication and fragmentation of the market of tech solutions to refugees and to provide clarity to potential investors and funders.

Indeed, Techfugees’ members quickly realised that in order to develop meaningful solutions to refugees’ problems, they needed to engage in some real fieldwork to better understand the situation of their users. And by doing so, they are being cut out of perspective over what’s happening overall in different places at the same time.

Some of the initiatives already rolled out  include:

  • mobile wifi routers operating in the Balkans – Meshpoint.
  • development of online IDs and vouchers using the blockchain – Aid:Tech
  • Digital journalism trainings in Calais to give stronger voice to people from the Jungle camp – RefugeeInfoBus
  • Coding classes in host countries: Redi School in Berlin, RebootKamp in Amman, HackYourFuture in Amsterdam and London.

Although Techfugees’ community has proven to be having a real positive impact on the ground, as Techfugees’ COO, Josephine Goube, pointed out, the public authorities have, so far, shown little interest in stepping in.

Yet, technology was hailed as a life-saver both by different NGOs present at the seminar but also by refugee representatives, whom this time were present not only to “tell their stories” as is often the case at Brussels-based events, but also as to present their own innovative solutions as tech entrepreneurs themselves.

For example, check out the Bureaucrazy app that is currently being developed by two Syrians based in Berlin and aims to help immigrants (not only refugees) navigate the German bureaucratic system.

Solutions can only be found if we understand refugees’ needs

One of the key principles that the participants of the seminar agreed upon was that co-creating technological or other innovative solutions together with refugees and local communities is the key to success.

This was nicely documented by the story of initial failures of some of the tech community’s proposals. They were not built on a proper understanding of refugees’ situation and needs. Linked to this is the importance of constructive interaction between digital and physical space. In other words, tech solutions are not likely to succeed unless being underpinned by the cultivation of physical spaces and real-life encounters.

However, the tech community is also waking up to concerns about the use and potential misuse of personal data and contentious questions around privacy.

Furthermore, they recognise the need to do more in addressing the digital divide in order to prevent the situation when their solutions perpetuate existing inequalities. For example, by excluding illiterate groups women or elderly.

How we can support Techfugees activities

European Commission officials were not represented among the speakers. This is a pity because the recently published EU Action plan on the integration of third country nationals emphasizes the power of the innovative use of technology, social media at all stages of the integration process.

After the event, ECRE and its EU Policy Lab announced in an article that it will organise a follow-up meeting with Techfugees representatives and other relevant partners to discuss how we can support activities happening on the ground and help them to bring some of their solutions to the EU level and strengthen their attractiveness to the public sector.

We are very much looking forward to collaborate.

More information

The EU Policy Lab is a collaborative and experimental space for innovative policy-making. It is both a physical space and a way of working that aims to explore, connect and find solutions for better policies. Find out more on the EU Policy Lab website.

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