Connecting Refugees with Mobile Phones

Earlier this month, Denmark-based NGO Refugees United launched a pilot program in Uganda to help refugees locate lost relatives using their mobile phones. Supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees, phone manufacturer Ericsson, and Africa's largest mobile operator MTN, the project allows refugees to post and access a digital database in order to track loved ones. 

The process is free, secure, and anonymous. According to MTN, registering for the service is as simple as texting "REG" to a shortcode, which prompts refugees to choose a username and password. They are then able to fill out their profile or search for missing family from their mobile phones. As GenevaLaunch reports, "Users decide just how much information they wish to share. Typically, traces are made based on nicknames, birthmarks, or other distinguishing features that only a family member would recognize." Family and friends are then able to search the database of users, and find their lost loved ones.

Within four days of its September 3 launch, the project registered 500 users -- a number which has grown eightfold in the past twelve days. Refugees United founder Christopher Mikkelsen explains why mobile phones hold the key to this project's success:

Mobile phones are extremely interesting in terms of refugee family tracing because the vast majority of refugees have access to one... While it can be tremendously difficult to reach refugees via the web, it is much simpler and much more efficient to go via mobile phones that furthermore is a process they are familiar with.

Mikkelsen estimates that that up to 78 percent of refugees in East Africa have mobile phones, meaning that this project holds tremendous potential for the six million internally displaced persons on the continent. And although the program already connects 80 different nationalities within Uganda alone, Mikkelsen intends on scaling the project into Sudan and Kenya once the pilot concludes in December, with a goal of expanding across the continent to reach three million refugees.

Refugees United isn't the first attempt to harness modern technology to re-connect refugees. The Red Cross' Central Tracing Agency, arguably the most established contact restoration organization, posted over 83,000 names of lost loved ones on its website in 2009, enabling displaced persons all over the world to find their relatives. Unlike the CTA, however, Refugees United harnesses the power of an increasingly ubiquitous medium to ensure that more Africans can access the service. While Internet access remains scarce across the continent, mobile phone penetration is skyrocketing above 100% in some African countries -- meaning millions of refugees will have easy (or at least easier) access to this service.

Another program based in the Middle East also uses mobile technology to improve the lives of refugees. Sponsored by the World Food Programme, the project allows Iraqi refugees in Syria to receive food vouchers via their mobile phones. Instead of traveling long distances to food distribution sites, users can redeem their vouchers in local government-run shops. Like Refugees United, the pilot program was met with huge success, due once again to the high level of mobile phone accessibility among members of the program.

Refugees United's formula for success is simple: It provides an essential service using an easily accessible platform. Its reliance on the mobile phone reveals the growing power of 21st-century technology, and it suggests that, as long as mobile penetration continues to grow, similar innovative programs like Refugees United will emerge to improve lives around the world in new ways.