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The use of technology to support the rights of refugees: An overview


Introduction


In an era marked by unprecedented levels of forced displacement, the plight of refugees stands as a stark testament to the complex interplay of geopolitical, social, and humanitarian challenges facing the global community. Refugees, defined as individuals compelled to flee their homeland due to the imminent threats of persecution, war, or violence, find themselves in a precarious state of existence, often grappling with the loss of their homes, communities, and a sense of belonging (UN Refugees, 2023). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports a staggering figure of over 79.5 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide, including nearly 26 million refugees, half of whom are children under the age of 18 and numbers are rising over time (Figure. 1). This crisis not only underscores the urgent need for effective global governance and international cooperation but also highlights the critical role of technology in addressing the multifaceted needs of refugees.


The global refugee crisis, fueled by factors such as conflict, human rights violations, and natural disasters, calls for a comprehensive and coordinated approach that extends beyond immediate humanitarian aid. It necessitates addressing the root causes of displacement, ensuring the protection and assistance of refugees, and promoting equitable burden-sharing among nations. In this context, technology emerges as a pivotal tool, offering innovative solutions to enhance the efficiency and impact of humanitarian efforts. From facilitating access to essential services and information to fostering connectivity and community building among displaced populations, technology has the potential to transform the refugee experience significantly.



Fig 1. Increase in refugees over time


Moreover, the integration of technology in addressing the refugee crisis aligns with broader global objectives, such as promoting sustainable development, reducing inequalities, and mitigating environmental degradation. By leveraging technological advancements, the international community can not only provide immediate relief and support to refugees but also contribute to long-term, sustainable solutions that address the underlying drivers of forced displacement. This report aims to explore the dynamic intersection of the refugee crisis and technology, examining how digital innovations can be harnessed to meet the complex needs of displaced populations, facilitate global cooperation, and ultimately contribute to a more just and equitable world. 


Access to Education


As previously mentioned, a significant proportion of refugees are below the age of 18, and there are notable deficiencies in the education sector. For instance, according to Reliefweb (2023), approximately two-thirds of refugee youth may never have the opportunity to attend secondary school. Countries that host substantial numbers of displaced individuals require support in enhancing their capacity to provide access to education at all levels – primary, secondary, and higher education – and not just for children and adolescents, but also for adults. This is crucial to enable them to integrate as productive members of society. Investing in technology and improving connectivity are essential steps towards closing the digital divide. Below are some examples which could be instrumental in addressing and overcoming these educational challenges.


Mobile Learning: For refugees and displaced individuals who may lack access to computers or traditional educational settings, mobile learning emerges as a vital tool. By utilizing smartphones and tablets, educational content and resources become readily accessible, offering a flexible and convenient mode of learning.


Online Learning Platforms: Leveraging technology to facilitate education, online learning platforms offer a valuable resource for refugees. These platforms provide a range of educational materials, including interactive lessons, videos, and e-books, accessible from any location at any time, thereby breaking down geographical and temporal barriers to education.


Virtual Reality for Immersive Learning: Virtual reality technology stands out for its ability to create immersive and interactive learning experiences. This can be particularly beneficial for refugees and displaced persons, offering them practical skills training, such as language learning, and a simulated familiarity with new cultures and environments.


Digital Language Translation Tools: Overcoming language barriers is crucial in the educational journey of refugees and displaced persons. Digital language translation tools play a significant role in this regard, offering real-time translation of text and audio, thus making educational content more accessible and comprehensible.


Online Tutoring Services: Personalized educational support is critical for refugees who may face challenges with specific subjects or concepts. Online tutoring provides a platform for individualized learning, where tutors can offer tailored feedback, guidance, and assistance, helping learners to advance in their educational pursuits.


Through these technological interventions, the educational landscape for refugees and displaced persons is not only transformed but also aligned with the evolving digital world, offering new opportunities for learning and personal growth.


The Instant Network Schools programme, a collaborative initiative by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Vodafone Foundation, has been instrumental in enhancing educational opportunities for refugee students in Kakuma refugee camp. Launched in 2014, this innovative program aims to improve the quality of education in remote and underserved areas through the use of mobile technology. The program provides a comprehensive kit that includes tablets, laptops, projectors, speakers, and solar-powered batteries, ensuring that the technology is sustainable and functional even in areas with limited infrastructure. Additionally, the kit is equipped with either a satellite or mobile network connection, facilitating access to a wide range of online learning materials and content (UNHCR, Turn the Tide, 2023).


Fig 2. Refugee students in Kakuma refugee camp use a tablet from the Instant Network Schools programme.


Specific examples 


There are many platforms and initiatives that could prove instrumental in providing refugees of all ages with access to education. These include the following:


Coursera for Refugees: This program offers refugees around the world free access to Coursera's vast array of online courses. Coursera, a leading online learning platform, partners with non-profit organizations to provide courses from universities and companies, covering a wide range of subjects from academic topics to skill-based training. This initiative not only benefits young learners but also adult refugees who are looking to upskill, reskill, or complete higher education degrees. The flexibility of online courses allows learners to study at their own pace and according to their personal schedules, which is particularly beneficial for adults who may have work or family commitments.


Duolingo: Language barriers are a significant challenge for refugees, especially when integrating into new countries. Duolingo, a popular language learning app, offers free and accessible language courses in many languages. This platform is user-friendly and gamified, making language learning engaging and effective. For refugees, learning the language of their host country is crucial for both children and adults, as it facilitates better integration into the community, enhances employability, and aids in accessing other educational resources.


Khan Academy: Khan Academy provides free online courses, lessons, and practice in various subjects, making it a valuable resource for refugees of all ages. The platform covers a wide range of topics, from basic mathematics to science, history, and more advanced subjects like coding and finance. The content is available in multiple languages, which is beneficial for non-English speaking refugees. Khan Academy's approach to personalized learning allows users to learn at their own pace, making it suitable for both school-aged children and adults who may need to revisit or learn new academic concepts.


These platforms exemplify how technology can be leveraged to provide inclusive and accessible educational opportunities for refugees. By offering a range of learning materials and courses suitable for different age groups and needs, these initiatives can play a crucial role in helping refugees overcome educational barriers and build a foundation for a more stable and prosperous future.


Access to Healthcare


Using examples from around the world, the report by the World Health Organization (WHO,2022) reveals that refugees and migrants do not naturally have poorer health (including mental health) compared to the populations of their host countries. The main cause for this is the experience of migration and displacement that plays a crucial role in determining their health outcomes.

The WHO report further identifies the barriers particularly for migrants who are in irregular situations e.g., to be left out of national health programs, encounter cultural misunderstandings, amplified for individuals with disabilities, women, and child health issues. This situation necessitates a dire need to introduce more technological tools into healthcare to overcome these barriers. 


Telemedicine and mobile health apps


Telemedicine and mobile health apps significantly aid healthcare delivery to refugees in several ways:

  1. Telemedicine allows them to access medical consultations and advice remotely, bypassing the need for physical travel to healthcare centers.

  2. Telemedicine platforms can incorporate translation services and culturally sensitive care, making it easier for refugees to communicate with healthcare providers and receive care that respects their cultural backgrounds.

  3. Telemedicine can be a more affordable option compared to traditional healthcare, as it eliminates the costs associated with traveling to clinics or hospitals.

  4. This option can provide refugees with the flexibility to seek medical advice and monitor their health at any time, which is crucial for those who may have irregular schedules or face constraints in accessing traditional healthcare services.

  5. It offers much-needed mental health support, including counseling and therapy, in a more accessible and private manner.

  6. Mobile health apps can provide refugees with valuable information about health and wellness, disease prevention, and self-care practices, which is particularly important in environments where health education resources are scarce.

  7. For refugees with chronic conditions, continuous monitoring is crucial. Mobile health apps enable the tracking of symptoms, medication management helping in the effective management of chronic diseases.

  8. Telemedicine can facilitate community health initiatives, reaching out to larger groups of refugees for health education, vaccination campaigns, and public health announcements.

  9. In emergency situations, telemedicine can provide immediate medical advice and triage, guiding refugees on when and how to seek urgent care.


Specific Example


Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has been at the forefront of integrating telemedicine into healthcare delivery for refugees through various pilot programs and projects. Here are few examples how they are using technology to improve healthcare in a refugee setting:


Telemedicine in Conflict Zones and Remote Areas: MSF has implemented telemedicine projects in conflict zones and remote areas where refugees are located. 


Teledermatology Projects: Recognizing the prevalence of skin diseases among refugee populations, MSF has launched teledermatology initiatives. These projects involve capturing high-quality images of skin conditions and sending them to dermatologists for diagnosis and treatment recommendations. This approach has been particularly useful in areas with limited access to specialized medical care.


Mental Health and Psychological Support: MSF has explored the use of telemedicine for providing mental health and psychological support to refugees. This includes remote counseling and therapy sessions, which are crucial for addressing the mental health needs of refugees who have experienced trauma and stress.


Collaborative Platforms for Knowledge Sharing: MSF has developed platforms that allow healthcare professionals working in refugee settings to share insights, discuss cases, and collaborate on treatment plans through telemedicine networks. This collective approach enhances the quality of care provided to refugees.


These pilot programs and projects by Doctors Without Borders demonstrate the potential of telemedicine in improving healthcare delivery in challenging and resource-limited settings, particularly for refugee populations. 


Access to Legal Documentation and Assistance


Legal documentation, including identity papers and asylum applications, is fundamentally crucial for refugees, serving as a cornerstone for their safety, rights, and integration into new communities. For refugees seeking international protection, asylum applications are vital as they initiate the legal process for recognition and protection under international law. Furthermore, these legal papers are often the key to accessing essential services like healthcare, education, and social support, family reunification processes. With the advancement of technology, new ways have been found to provide refugees with tis basic right. 


Blockchain and digital identity technologies are increasingly being recognized as powerful tools in refugee care, offering secure and accessible record-keeping solutions (UNHCR, 2018). These technologies address some of the critical challenges faced by refugees, particularly in terms of legal documentation and identity verification. Blockchains operate as decentralized network systems, utilizing the infrastructure of the internet to record and distribute transactions. They are emerging as innovative tools for establishing a universally applicable system for digital proofs of identity according to UNHCR. Digital identities can be employed to facilitate 'transactions' among all participants connected to the system.


Blockchain's primary feature is its ability to create immutable records, crucial for refugees who often lack permanent records. Blockchain can securely store their personal and legal documents, ensuring that these records are not lost, tampered with, or destroyed. Blockchain's decentralized nature means that refugee data is not stored in a single location but distributed across a network, enhancing security and portability.

Digital identity solutions are also often used as a technological tool to record biometrics to create unique identifiers for refugees (UNHCR, 2018). These identities can be accessed through simple technologies like smartphones or smart cards, making it easier for refugees to prove their identity and access services.


Specific Example


ID2020 is an initiative that focuses on providing digital identities to the underserved, including refugees. This project aims to leverage blockchain and other technologies to create secure, portable, and universally recognized digital identities. These digital IDs can be a game-changer for refugees, who often lack official documentation, by enabling them to access essential services, including healthcare, education, and banking, and to exercise their rights more effectively in host countries. ID2020 exemplifies how innovative technology can be used to address some of the critical challenges faced by refugees globally. UNHCR is working more closely with ID2020 and other stakeholders to do more in providing legal identities to refugees. 


Conclusion


Leveraging technology to enhance refugee lives demands a collaborative approach among governments, NGOs, and tech companies. Governments can offer policy support and funding, while NGOs contribute their on-the-ground experience and understanding of refugees' needs. Tech companies bring technological expertise and innovation. This synergy can lead to more effective, sustainable solutions.


Governments are crucial in forming policies that promote technology use for refugee aid, and collaboration with NGOs and tech companies ensures these policies are practical and meet refugees' real needs. Such partnerships can also scale successful pilot projects, with tech companies extending the reach of local initiatives globally, and NGOs and governments ensuring solutions are tailored to diverse refugee populations.

Tech companies can develop customized solutions for specific challenges faced by refugees, like language barriers and access to essential services. NGOs, with their direct experience, can offer insights to guide technology development. Navigating legal and ethical complexities, such as data privacy and security, is also vital in this collaborative effort.


In summary, enhancing the lives of refugees with technology necessitates continuous, joint efforts from governments, NGOs, and tech companies. The integration of technological tools into aid strategies is crucial. The advent of artificial intelligence has further expanded opportunities to develop innovative solutions, aiding refugees in improving their lives significantly.



References


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). What is a refugee? Retrieved November 27, 2023, from https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/what-is-a-refugee/



World Health Organization. (2022). World report on the health of refugees and migrants. Retrieved November 27, 2023, from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240054462


Doctors Without Borders. (2017). Telemedicine on the front lines. Retrieved November 27, 2023, from https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/latest/telemedicine-front-lines


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2018). The Promise of Blockchain and Safe Identity Storage for Refugees. Retrieved November 27, 2023, from https://www.unhcr.org/blogs/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2018/04/fs.pdf


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2017.). ID2020 and UNHCR host a joint workshop on digital identity. Retrieved November 27, 2023, from https://www.unhcr.org/blogs/id2020-and-unhcr-host-joint-workshop-on-digital-identity/


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). Turn the tide: Refugee education in crisis. Retrieved November 27, 2023, from https://www.unhcr.org/media/turn-tide-refugee-education-crisis




FATIMA AAMIRA


Fatima is a climate researcher, hydrologist, and sustainability advocate who is passionate about addressing environmental challenges through scientific research and sustainable practices. With expertise in hydrology and water resource management, Fatima is dedicated to promoting sustainable practices to mitigate the effects of climate change. Her research focuses on innovative ways to adapt to these changes, including water management, drought monitoring, and water scarcity. Fatima also has a degree in sustainability, which provides a comprehensive understanding of environmental, social, and economic systems, enabling her to identify complex sustainability issues and develop effective solutions. 



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