Apps for refugees: merging technology and humanitarianism

These days, there’s an app for just about everything—even for being a refugee. According to the United Nations High Command on Refugees [UNHCR], apps and websites have become a common tool for refugee assistance.

It all started several years ago, when aid workers realized that the vast majority of displaced Syrians were using smartphones. That’s when aid organizations began partnering with developers to create free apps aimed at helping refugees navigate the complexities of starting a new life in unfamiliar territory. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the most successful of the resulting technologies are helping refugees gather crucial information, reconnect with lost relatives, and establish a legal identity in new countries.

Here’s an incomplete rundown on what’s out there, which ones are working best, and some examples of failures:

What’s out there

The most useful apps and websites are the result of collaborations among well-established aid agencies, says UNHCR: is an online platform providing useful information to refugees making their way through Europe, including services provided by local NGOs and details regarding asylum processes. The website, which is the result of a partnership between Mercy Corps, Google and The International Rescue Committee among others, currently receives up to 3,000 visitors per day.

Refugee Aid app collects and shows information on the location of services provided by humanitarian agencies in several European countries, thus helping aid providers coordinate their efforts, and refugees locate points of assistance. The app has been built in collaboration with several organizations including the British and Italian Red Cross, Save the Children and Médecins du Monde.

Many other apps exist as well—created by well-meaning developers and organizations—but it can be hard to gauge their effectiveness. At Apps For Refugees, you’ll find a variety of options, including:, a website that “provides refugees with essential information during their journey. It covers data and information about NGOs and situation reports about all countries in Asia andd Europe, refugees might pass through.Countries covered: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Greece. Available in Arabic, English and Pashto.

InfoAid  an app with “up to date information for refugees on their way through south-east Europe. It covers all countries on the Balkan route, including updates about the situation at the borders, weather reports for the Turkish Sea, ferry strikes, transportation information, security advisories, information for children traveling alone and many more topics.”

Scanbot, an app that allows refugees to “scan all their important documents with a smartphone and store them as PDF local or in the cloud. Free App and free storage.”

Refunite,  “a web-based platform whose mission is to reconnect refugee families across the globe with missing loved ones.” The organization has projects in 9 countries: Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Philippines.

But some of the sites on Apps for Refugees—as well as others not listed on the site—have proven to be failures, says UNHCR:

Take Refoodgee, an app launched by Berlin-based startup Memorado to connect newly arrived refugees with locals through food. It’s been praised by the media, but the app hasn’t been updated for months and only counts a few hundreds users. Refugees Welcome has been dubbed the “AirBnB for refugees” because it pairs refugees looking for a temporary place to stay with hosts in European cities. But one of the app’s employees told the Huffington Post the service couldn’t find enough hosts to keep up with the demand. The number of rooms listed on the app decreased significantly after an initial spike, she explained.

Then there are more blatant cases of failures. The “I Sea” app claimed to allow its users to scour the Mediterranean to spot migrant ships in distress by showing real-time satellite images. But the live feed turned out to be nothing more than a static image of the ocean, and the app was shut down after much uproar.

Why well-intentioned apps fail

“In many cases, well-intended developers find themselves confronted with the realities of operating in an unfamiliar and challenging context,” says UNHCR. Most developers are not prepared for the logistics of working in emergencies. Many agencies have to be involved. And refugees have virtually no internet access.

Another problem is that developers may assume that convenience will make an app successful. What they don’t understand, says UNHCR, is how refugees actually function day-today.

One clear example of this is the multiplication of information-sharing apps aimed at listing useful data such as access points for food, healthcare, or border crossings. We’ve noticed that refugees still prefer to speak with UNHCR staff and partners face-to-face, even when this information is made available online. That’s because rumors, changing rules and regulations, and fluctuating asylum policies have led refugees to seek accurate and up-to-date information from trusted sources. An app built by an outside developer may do little to fill that trust gap.

The future of refugee apps

Looking ahead, many emerging technologies could have applications that would help refugees. For example,

Red Cross and Red Crescent societies have their own reconnection initiative, called Trace the Face. It publishes pictures online of people looking for missing relatives and lets them search photos that others have posted of themselves, filtering by criteria like gender, age, and country of origin. Before long, facial-recognition software could transform this database and others like it into advanced people-finding machines.

Biometric identification tools hold promise, too:

Refugees who want to establish a legal identity in a new country confront countless obstacles—they may have fled without their birth certificate, for instance, if they ever had one. So the UNHCR Biometric Identity Management System, active in 25 countries, collects fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs, and can link them to citizenship records and dates of birth.

Undoubtedly, technology can be useful in humanitarian crises like the ongoing refugee debacle. But the best hope for helping refugees is, of course, to stop creating more of them.