Stuck in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios with poor internet and little credit, Abrar Hassan, like many others, was unaware that the tech world had been falling all over itself to help him.
More importantly, he was unaware of his rights and how best to prepare for the asylum interviews that would determine whether the 19-year-old, who fled a murderous family feud in Pakistan, had a future in Europe.
There has been an explosion of digital software applications, hackathons and websites since the refugee crisis filtered into Western public consciousness, with the tech world offering a range of solutions, whether to issues like Hassan’s, navigating the sea or job hunting.
Time has revealed the limits of such solutions when applied with little knowledge of the situation on the ground. Some tech tools, however, are bridging the gap.
No internet, no problem
Hundreds of micro SD memory cards that can be used in mobile phones have been given out in Chios. The memory cards are packed with information to help educate people about crucial details of the asylum process, such as the right to replace an inadequate translator during the asylum interview.
“When I came here I didn’t know anything about the Greek asylum system,” said Hassan, who passed his asylum interview and has remained on the island, helping to distribute SD cards to more refugees.
“This is the first time things have been clearly explained.”
The micro SD cards do not need an internet connection for people to access the text, audio and visual help offered in the Arabic, Farsi and Urdu languages.
They are the brainchild of Sharon Silvey, founder of RefuComm, a volunteer group working with refugees.
Silvey said that many tech products are often designed with little awareness of the audience they target.
“I’ve met thousands of refugees and I’ve not met one who said that they needed an app — it’s as simple as that. I’m not sure if refugees are involved at all [in development],” she said.
Steep learning curve
That criticism is partly acknowledged by some of those who have tracked the explosion of tech-focused assistance since fall 2015.
Ben Mason of Betterplace Lab, a Berlin-based nonprofit organization focused on what he calls “tech for good,” told VOA that the initial surge provided an “inspiring moment with people wanting to help and some good projects.”
“But there was quite a lot of misspent energy on ‘solutionism’ — the idea you can take a complex social problem and find a simple tech solution,” Mason added.
To avoid duplication of services, Techfugees — the most prominent tech network to emerge, with more than 15,000 members — called on users to consolidate their efforts and engage more with refugees themselves, many of whom rely on their own online social networks to get advice.
Tracking the success of this wave of tech support is difficult. Many projects have genuinely helped, such as Kiron Open Higher Education, which offers refugees access to higher education.
In the “fail fast, try again” ethos of the tech industry, meanwhile, other services proved useless or quickly disappeared, and some became notorious.
iSea, a highly hyped, award-winning app, was taken offline after it emerged that rather than live satellite images, it showed a single static image of the sea, rendering it useless for its purported role of helping crowdsource rescue operations.
Stuck in silos
Mason, who recently wrote a report on Germany’s tech response to the refugees crisis, argues that while it had “yet to deliver at scale,” the scene is “maturing,” with a small but emerging number of tech solutions created by refugees themselves.
Meghan Benton, a senior policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, said there have been successes, but for tech to truly impact efforts to help refugees, it will have to be about “a connection to mainstream services — rather than a parallel world, which serves small pockets, and might die from one week to the next.”
Not that such a solution is simple.
The ever-shifting nature of the refugee presence in Europe presents its own issues. For example, the U.N.’s refugee agency in Greece told VOA that as refugees moved from camps into urban settings, helping provide internet services would become even more difficult.
Meanwhile, the slow adaption of many European states to harnessing this tech talent and enthusiasm — for example, in its slow, bureaucratic funding methods — may, to varying extents, be influenced by the politics of the refugee crisis.
A distant prospect
Thousands still languish on the islands and face deportation until their asylum interviews are held.
When it comes to the asylum process, Greek authorities are perceived as more of an obstacle to the fair treatment of refugees than a partner to work with, RefuComm’s Silvey said.
For her, the idea of integrating her services remains a distant prospect.
Silvey said she would not be discouraged, though, and is now hunting for funds to roll out her idea further, and aims to launch it in Italy.
And with a team made up mostly of refugees as volunteers, RefuComm doesn’t lack the contact with beneficiaries that has plagued other tech solutions.
“Millennials are creating all these high-tech solutions, and then some old grandma comes up with a low-tech solution that works,” quips Silvey, 56.
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