Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reuniting Refugee Families with SMS Technology

I began receiving the Asylum Access e-newsletter while a friend was volunteering for the San Francisco-based nonprofit in Thailand and Tanzania. Asylum Access' Volunteer Legal Advocates provide legal counsel, advice and advocacy on behalf of refugees seeking asylum, resettlement or the assertion of other legal rights.

When I opened the winter issue of Asylum Access' e-newsletter I saw that not only did it include this great photo of Eric in Tanzania ...

... but also this intriguing note: Asylum Access Tanzania will be partnering with Refugees United to reconnect refugees with their families.

I looked into it and discovered that Refugees United is a nonpolitical, nonprofit organization - often referred to as simply Refunite. It was born in 2006 in Copenhagen, Denmark after the founders, David and Christopher Mikkelsen met Mansour, a young Afghan refugee in 2005. Mansour was desperately seeking his siblings and parents, who he had been separated from at the age of 12. With the Mikkelsen brothers' help, Mansour was reunited with his brother. (Here's the story - make sure you have a box of tissues handy.)

photo: David Mikkelsen, Christopher Mikkelsen, and Mansou

The Mikkelsens created a free user-driven tracing system that allows family members who have been separated from each other due to conflict or natural disasters to find each other. Refugees create anonymous profiles on the Refunite website, identifying themselves using nicknames, scars, birthplace, home village/town, location of last meeting, number of siblings, and other markers only recognizable by family and close friends. These profiles are searchable, allowing people to find each other via the service. There is no third party involved - this is people to people aid.

The profiles can be created and searched via personal computers connected to the internet. Or, thanks to a partnership between the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, mobile phone manufacturer Ericsson, service provider MTN, and Refunite, people can make use of the service with basic cell phones.

Why cell phones? Refunite and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya surveyed 879 refugees and found that 48% had access to the internet, but 78% had access to a mobile phone.

This BBC article has the details on how the platform works with cell phones:

Tomas Krag, Refunite's technical director, explained how by using a simple question and answer format, users can be quickly registered from an "old school" mobile handset.

"There's a series of keywords, so if you send 'REG' to the number, it assumes you're registering and it sends you back a request that starts off by asking your name. Then it asks your age and your gender and so forth.

"By the end of it the refugee will have registered. Then there's a simple menu system that allows you to choose different options afterwards so you can search for people on the system, and if you find someone you think might be family you can send a message as well."

The challenge is to register and service as many refugees as possible. To do this, Refunite and Ericsson are providing UNHCR and other organizations with cell phones. The org is also sending Refunite reps, equipped with cell phones to remote locations so that refugees can take turns using the phones to register themselves. This field effort piloted in Uganda but will be expanded to Sudan and Kenya, and then globally.

Since people from 80+ nationalities/speaking 19+ languages are in the database, the org wants to make their system available on every SMS and WAP-enabled cell phone in use by people living in Refunite's countries of operation, to avoid exorbitant international SMS rates for their users. Even better - from the website's FAQ's: The use of the Refugees United search tools is free of charge both for NGOs and refugees alike. In selected countries, refugees and organizations can even utilize the mobile tools of Refugees United, SMS and WAP, free of charge, through our partnerships with mobile network operators (field trials of our mobile tools are in progress).

The pilot has received financial support from Omidyar Network, which made a grant of up to $2.6M over three years to Refunite. The grant will be used to augment the org's technology platforms, recruit developers, and develop new partnerships with international refugee agencies.

You can help. Of course you can donate money, but you can also help by spreading the word about the org, so that more people can utilize it. If you represent an org that wants to help, then go here. If you are a refugee ... the platform can be accessed via Facebook now, too.

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