European response to the sharp increase in refugee flows has been extraordinary in many ways. On the more positive side, there is evidence of bourgeoning social innovation with old and new actors in the field being mobilised by dire situation of refugees and with new technologies playing an important role in developing better solutions to refugees’ needs.
Social Innovation for Refugee Inclusion
On 12 and 13 September 2016, European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) organised a seminar called Social Innovation for Refugee Inclusion. The event showcased that a lot of social innovation in refugee inclusion is coming from relative newcomers in the field such as the tech community. An interesting example of one active initiative is Techfugees – a global network of tech entrepreneurs and volunteers who gather at conferences, workshops and hackatlons. Established in 2015, initially as a simple Facebook group, they have now developed Basefugees, a web-based, open source platform that matches technology solutions to real-life NGO “challenges” and showcases the solutions to potential investors and even public authorities. However, as Josephine Goube, the Techfugees COO based in London, pointed out, the public authorities have, so far, shown little interest in stepping in. While telling the short history of Techfugees’, she described how its members quickly realised that in order to develop meaningful solutions to refugees’ problems, they needed to engage in some real fieldwork to better understand the situation of their users. Some of the initiatives already rolled out include mobile wifi carriers operating in the Balkans, 3D printing of limbs that actively involve refugees in Jordan, development of online IDs and exploration of the potential of Blockchain technology for new recognition systems. Techfugees members also run support for digital journalism in boot camps in Calais to give stronger voice to people from the Jungle camp.
Overall, technology was hailed as a life-saver both by different NGOs present at the seminar but also by refugee representatives of whom there were quite a few present. This time, they were there not only to “tell their stories” as is often the case at Brussels-based events, but also as tech entrepreneurs themselves. For example, check out the Bureaucrazy app that is currently being developed by two Syrians based in Berlin and aims to help immigrants (not only refugees) navigate the German bureaucratic system.
Co-creating technological solutions with refugees and local communities
One of the key principles that the participants of the seminar agreed upon was that co-creating technological or other innovative solutions together with refugees and local communities is the key to success. This was nicely documented by the story of initial failures of some of the tech community’s proposals. They were not built on proper understanding of refugees’ situation and needs. Linked to this is the importance of constructive interaction between digital and physical space. In other words, tech solutions are not likely to succeed unless being underpinned by cultivation of physical spaces and real-life encounters.
However, the tech community is also waking up to concerns about the use and potential misuse of personal data and contentious questions around privacy. Furthermore, they recognise the need to do more in addressing the digital divide in order to prevent the situation when their solutions perpetuate existing inequalities. For example by excluding illiterate groups women or elderly.
EU Action plan on the integration of third country nationals
European Commission officials were not represented among the speakers. This is a pity because the recently published EU Action plan on the integration of third country nationals emphasizes the power of the innovative use of technology, social media at all stages of the integration process. The Joint Research Center (JRC) also recognises the importance of new technologies in social inclusion of immigrants. Additionally, the JRC is uniquely placed to help promote these efforts because it has both the technical expertise in this field and the capacity to serve as a go-between innovative initiatives and public authorities at different levels.
Later this year, we plan to organise a follow-up meeting with Techfugees representatives and other relevant partners to discuss how we could support their activities and help them to bring some of their solutions to the EU level and strengthen their attractiveness for the public sector.
Feel free to get in touch with us if you want to know more about this project!