GDS ‘could help integrate’ refugees

The Government Digital Service could help speed up the resettlement and integration of refugees in the UK, campaigners and tech professionals heard at a World Refugee Day discussion in London last week, hosted by community-driven non-profit Techfugees. Francesca Woodhouse was the moderator.

techfugeesThe World Refugee Day debate, at Impact Hub King’s Cross, was opened by Techfuguees founder and Techcrunch European editor-at-large Mike Butcher, and featured a panel discussion offering some real insights into the lives of refugees coming to the UK.

Techfugees communications head Lewis Jones said refugees and migrants, in spite of being comparatively out of the public eye right now, are still making ever-more treacherous journeys to reach what they consider will offer them greater safety in Europe.

The closure of the Balkan route last year has meant that many refugees now make the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in larger-capacity boats. That means more profits for the smugglers but much greater risk to life if something goes wrong.

In addition, global migration flows are increasing – the latest UNHCR Global Trends report documents that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced ­– with that total increasing by 300,000 in the past year.

The UK government has been notoriously slow to respond to the crisis. Not only has it reneged on its commitment to resettle a number of child refugees – something that Help Refugees is now challenging in the High Court – but its process of granting refugee status is so long-winded that people may not only find themselves in limbo for years while they wait.

Once received they have just 28 days to find housing – a situation that has led to refugees finding themselves homeless.

Panel members on the night were Refuaid co-founder Anna Jones, Transitions London co-founder Sheila Heard, Nesta head of European research and Techfugees and AID:Tech board member Marco Zappalorto, Refugee Rights Data Project founder Marta Welander, and Hopetowns founder and former Calais Jungle resident Samer Mustafa – who shared his experiences first-hand about the realities of life as a refugee making significant transitions into UK society.

Samer explained how difficult it remains for refugees to get any help in the UK – particularly with translating documents, understanding the process of applying for refugee status, and the difficulty of living on £35 per week.

The discussion and subsequent questions focused on the number of organisations doing excellent work that don’t know about each other, the provision of a digital identity to refugees who have fled their homes often with nothing to identify them, and the lengthy process refugees have to endure when reaching the UK to become resettled.

Technology could make an impact on all these areas, the audience heard.

Jones said that the Government Digital Service could and should offer more help. Given that the GDS has done some excellent work in speeding up applications for various things like passports, driving licences and VAT returns because they can now all be done digitally, he said there was clear potential also to help speed up the process of seeking refugee status and making the information available less confusing.

There is a lot of other excellent activity helping people to identify themselves, including from Aid:Tech using blockchain technology to issue digital identities that are verifiable and fraud-risk free.

The creation of a one-stop shop or marketplace for information about services to help refugees in the UK and a directory that can put organisations in touch with each other to ensure the greatest collaboration, makes a lot of sense. Campaigners and refugees alike are waiting for this – and it is almost madness that it doesn’t exist.

Adding to the communication deficit, there is a real challenge in terms of information exchange between government departments and also, their interface with local authorities, who are often stretched, underfunded and often not in receipt of the right information.

Basic access to finance is another burning issue facing refugees. Refuaid has just begun to offer interest-free loans access loans of up to £10,000 to refugees to convert their qualifications or to train, ensuring that they can seek appropriate employment in the UK.

“The unemployment rate for refugees is 17 times the national average;” said Sheila Heard from Transitions London, whose social enterprise places highly skilled refugees in senior (mostly STEM-roles) with large corporates.

The focus on getting people back into the workplace, particularly where they are highly qualified with excellent skills should be more prevalent, she said, pointing out that resettlement and integration just won’t happen with persistently high levels of unemployment.

There is much work to do. But with a platform to work with via the Government Digital Service to speed up processes through various means – including the potential of artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and a willing, committed and collaborative community – surely we should be able to improve the parlous situation for refugees coming to the UK.

Francesca Woodhouse is director at Slanted Door Communications.