Techfugees meets crisis with innovation

There can’t be many more urgent or worthwhile uses for digital innovation than tackling the humanitarian refugee crisis now engulfing Europe. As the community-led Techfugees initiative launches a crowdfunding campaign at Lisbon’s Web Summit, Francesca Woodhouse looks at how better connectivity and tech-enabled education offer real and practical support.

techfugees2Mike Butcher never set out to be a humanitarian crusader. But, moved by the plight of refugees and migrants risking their lives fleeing from war and humanitarian disasters, this is just what he has become. As editor-at-large at TechCrunch, and one of the UK’s leading technology journalists, he’s been able to use his position to spread a message about scalable technology to help address practical problems faced by the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and beyond.

Techfugees began just over a year ago in London. It was meant to be a meeting of ‘refugees and tech’ (hence the name), to discover how technology could be used to its best effect to help the growing crisis. The organisation, now a social enterprise, has grown to be a global entity. It has big ambition and some impressive numbers to back it up.

To date, Techfugees has mobilised over 15,000 people from what is now clearly a global community. There are 27 local chapters from the US to Lebanon and beyond. It has run a number of hackathons and events to develop practical tech solutions that can improve and enhance the lives of those who find themselves living as refugees either in camps or in cities.

A number of its solutions have been co-created with 350 refugees who have participated in events and continue to work with the organisation.

Refugee technology – meaning web platforms, mobile apps and hardware to either assist refugees directly or NGOs that work with refugees – is now a well-known, core part of the technology space. It is becoming further embedded in tech industry identity, as tech for good becomes a more standard concept.

In its first phase, Techfugees approached the crisis in a systematic way. It focused on potential solutions in five key areas:

* Infrastructure: providing connectivity and access to the internet, because it has been well researched and documented that #CommsIsAid and people need and want to communicate with each other more than ever before.

* Education: the refugee population is young and it is estimated that over 50% of refugees are under the age of 18.  This pillar focuses on providing on- and offline education.

* Identity: it is an age-old problem of immigration more broadly that skills and qualifications may not be recognised across borders. This pillar aims to help with that, and also upskilling and providing new skills such as coding, to promote economic and social integration.

* Health: being a refugee takes its toll both physically and mentally. This pillar helps to provide innovation for essential care and specialised care for trauma, mental health conditions and other health matters, including maternal health.

* Inclusion: through scalable tech solutions, this aims to help with a whole range of things from basics such as opening bank accounts to sharing stories across social media.

Initiatives across Europe include:

Funzi – Finnish learning package
Meshpoint – wifi hotspots for disaster areas
The Refugee Phrasebook
Refugees on Rails – coding
Refugees Welcome – German Airbnb for refugees
Startup Refugees – workshops and mentoring.

The Techfugees organisation has worked to bring over 100 tech-related projects to life that are beginning to make a difference on the ground in Lebanon, Jordan, Greece and Northern France, with plans for more. The organisation now has a chief exec in Joséphine Goube, who gained attention at immigration network Migreat, while Butcher serves as chair.

But the one-year anniversary of Techfugees represents an important marker in the sand. The birthday is, of course, no cause for celebration.

For all the organisations working tirelessly to help mitigate the refugee crisis, very little has changed. Global displacement is at a record high. The war in Syria, from which 11 million have fled since 2011, is getting worse. There is a distinct lack of global political leadership to help tackle the flows of people across the world.  Technology, as the driver of our economic productivity, is seen as key by the organisation to improving the lives of refugees who find themselves in often life-threatening and extremely traumatic situations.

techfugees3As Butcher noted, “I could not passively watch the suffering of refugees in a world of 21st century technology at our fingertips that might be able to help”.

The movement has mushroomed but it’s only the beginning as it launches its first-ever crowdfunding campaign at this week’s Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. The summit, Europe’s largest tech gathering, is an ideal location to launch the next phase of the Techfugees journey, with its vast, captive, tech-savvy audience. Techfugees has achieved good things so far, but needs a small injection of cash to do more.

Looking to raise £100,000 through this first campaign, the funds will focus on full deployment of tech solutions in connectivity and education for refugees and partner NGOs in Northern France, Greece and Jordan. The money will go a long way as it can be used directly.

Given that the overall global aid budget (the UK’s is £12.2bn) is enormous, it’s is a very modest amount.  It will be used during the first quarter of 2017, and it is hoped that results will be swiftly visible.

As Josephine Goube notes, solving and improving the lot of people who find themselves as refugees, is only just beginning.

“We are only just starting to disrupt the humanitarian response by supporting more than 100 innovative projects on the ground, and looking at phase two to deploy and scale more,” she says. “We are taking the opportunity to be on stage, for the tech industry to hear that the refugee challenge is not going away and that it will need significant donations from the sector and tech people to get involved, because tech scales.”

Techfugees offers a great opportunity to those with tech skills to use them to help, or to donate more formally.

Donate to the Techfugees crowdfund at

Photos by Techfugees.