Social & Politics

For Migrants, Smart Phones Are the Connection to Establishing a New Life

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Along the treacherous journey from Africa and the Middle East, migrants have used their Internet-connected phones to communicate with each other and share real-time information. GPS and mapping applications have guided them to safety. Messaging apps have helped them find each other after arriving. And now those devices may also be the key to aiding them in setting up their new lives and getting them back on their feet.

Unlike population movements of the past, a large number of these migrants can be reached because they are carrying phones. The phones also allow them instant access to information. All of which means that local authorities can provide information to new arrivals, communities can be maintained across location, and the authorities have some way to keep tabs on where people are. For regional governments, dealing with a large influx of people at once has been an enormous challenge. Just as their phones served as lifelines on the journey to Europe, technology can assist migrants in establishing themselves in their new lives once there.

One of the largest problems in processing the up to 1.5 million people that could arrive into Europe is the bureaucratic formalities and paperwork. Smartphones can be used to speed up this process and allow for more orderly registration. At a recent hackathon in Berlin focused on the migration crisis, contestants created an app notification system to let asylum seekers know when their number has been called at the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, the main contact point for migrants when they arrive in Germany. Another app was developed to share basic information that might otherwise be difficult to find, such as “What's the address of the local authority responsible for immigration matters?" and “How does one submit in the necessary paperwork?" European nations can embrace e-governance solutions and simple two-way notification systems to ease the burden for their institutions.

Connectivity offers the opportunity to tailor services to these communities for finding employment, learning language, accessing resources, and reaching out for help and assistance. Red Cross has used its website to reunite displaced families coming from different corners of the globe. Technology giant SAP is providing 100 internships and 20 apprenticeships for promising migrants. They are also working to create an app that will help to connect migrants with authorities and volunteers. Another group has set out to create an online university specifically for migrants to further their education and train for jobs.

The ability to reach communities on an individual level also offers NGOs, charities, and volunteers an unprecedented chance at intervention. Individual people can use technology to rally around causes. One German couple has created an AirBnb-like accommodation location platform called Refugees Welcome that has helped many people in transit and in need.

The German government has spent over $11 billion dollars on relief efforts. While top-down relief efforts are vitally important, smartphones now allow for person-to-person and community-to-community efforts too. This creates mutual understanding, accountability, and a link that endures beyond just service delivery.