Inward migration has been a defining phenomenon of our time. Matt Stokes explains how digital innovations are helping those in the wave of human movement. Despite many projects being short lived, technology offers significant new opportunities.
Mass migration of people fleeing war and persecution has been one of the defining social and political phenomena of the last five years in Europe.
While the number of refugees arriving into the European Union has fallen since the peak of the crisis in 2015-16, we are still struggling as societies to integrate newcomers properly and provide them with the rights they are entitled to, and to the opportunities they need to thrive in their new homes.
Through our DSI4EU project, Nesta has been working with the betterplace lab in Germany to explore how digital technologies are being used to support refugees all the way from life in camps to job hunting in new countries. From Lesbos to Leipzig, we’ve found inspiring examples of open and bottom-up tools making life easier for millions of people.
Some of the earliest innovation in this field arose in response to dire conditions and logistical challenges in refugee camps holding thousands, or even millions, of refugees.
MeshPoint, for example, was developed by volunteers as an open-source tool for starting “mesh networks” providing internet connections to people living in transit camps in Croatia. In Jordan, the UN world food programme has been experimenting with blockchain technology to make cash transfers more transparent, secure and efficient.
At the other end of the journey, we saw a flurry of activity in 2014-16, as civil society organisations, the tech sector and self-taught volunteers started to experiment with digital solutions to the challenges arising from unprecedented numbers of new arrivals. Projects ranged from job-searching and job-matching platforms, spare room rental for refugees, volunteer coordination, coding schools, navigation and orientation apps and online learning courses.
Many of these were hugely successful: accommodation-sharing platform Refugees Welcome, for example, has grown from one to 16 countries, while online learning platform Kiron has supported thousands of refugees to access higher education courses.
Not all of these projects fared so well: the highly reactive nature of the movement meant many projects were trying to do the same thing as each other, while others failed to take into account their users’ needs, motivations and situations.
Some ran out of money, and others lost engagement from volunteers. betterplace lab’s research shows that a majority of the 150+ projects started in Germany at the peak of the crisis are now inactive.
Nevertheless, digital technologies continue to deliver new opportunities to refugees – and significant potential remains untapped. As the flow of people has reduced, attention has turned to newcomers’ longer-term needs, such as access to good-quality work and education.
UK-based Chatterbox, for example, links refugees with businesses and students looking to learn new languages through an online platform. Berlin-based HiMate provides newcomers with free vouchers for cultural events and leisure activities to help them become part of their new communities.
There is now a growing network of digital coding schools for refugees, including ReDI, Hack your Future, Code your Future,Refugees on Rails, PowerCoders, Simplon, Devugees and RBK. Our partners at betterplace lab are working at the moment to help these coding schools share lessons, become more diverse, explore funding and sustainability models and create a shared policy agenda.
The refugee crisis of 2015-16 laid bare stark political divides within Europe. On the one hand, we saw an outpouring of generosity, with thousands of people volunteering, donating and campaigning on the streets.
On the other, the arrival of vast numbers of refugees was seen as a threat within some communities, and the crisis – or, rather, its portrayal in the media and by politicians – is one of the many factors involved in the growth of right-wing populism across Europe.
Projects using digital technologies to help improve refugees’ lives are intimately linked with the changing political context. Many of them help to challenge the stereotype of refugees as a burden on society, showing how they can contribute positively – for example by accessing skilled jobs, or becoming language teachers.
However, these projects often rely on government funding, corporate partnerships, donations, volunteers and positive media coverage, which means that even the smallest turn in the tide of public opinion can pose big challenges in funding and delivery.
We must remember the work left to do, helping refugees to make their new countries a home where they can learn, work and live happily. We know digital technologies can aid this process – but only if we as citizens see beyond refugees as ‘others’, and welcome them warmly into our communities.
Matt Stokes is a senior researcher in government innovation at Nesta