World House Student Fellows Policy Project: Leveraging Humanitarian Technology to Help Refugees

Caroline Wallace (SAS, 2017), Madiha Samadi (SAS, 2017), Andrew Parsons (SEAS, 2017), Jamie Seah (SAS, 2018), and Conner Evans (SAS, 2018)


By the end of 2015, conflict, persecution, generalized violence, or human rights violations forcibly displaced 65.3 million individuals around the world. Of those 65.3 million, 21.3 million persons were refugees. More than half (54%) of all refugees worldwide came from just three countries: The Syrian Arab Republic (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).   

Our project undertakes to provide recommendations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on how to leverage emerging technologies such as drones, smartphones, and health technologies to assist refugees and to mitigate the current crisis. The agency’s legal mandate is based upon the Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, adopted by the General Assembly in 1950, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Since UNHCR is our policy client, our proposed solutions will be limited to its scope of work.

According to the UNHCR, its “primary purpose . . . is to safeguard the rights and well-being of people who have been forced to flee.” This encompasses providing shelter, security, health services, and education to refugees, returnees, stateless persons, internally displaced people (IDPs), and asylum-seekers. Although UNHCR is well known for its administration of refugee camps, its activities also include advocacy, distributing monetary aid, protecting migrants in transit, developing technological solutions, facilitating asylum applications, and maintaining statistics. The agency currently operates in 126 countries and draws from a budget of $7 billion dollars. While UNHCR’s scope of work provides us with numerous opportunities to make recommendations, we plan to focus primarily on needs in refugee camps that can be addressed by technological innovation.

Overview of the Refugee Crisis

The countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees are in the Middle East and Africa. Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan host the largest refugee populations due to nearby conflicts such as those in in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. UNHCR collaborates with the host governments to administer camps that provide shelter and basic services to refugees.

Europe is also among the most important regions in terms of migratory flows: since 2015, Europe has received more than 1.2 million asylum applications. Increasing numbers of refugees took their chances aboard unsafe rubber dinghies and small wooden boats to reach safety in Europe. In 2015, 1,015,078 arrived by sea, of which 3,771 individuals were reported dead or missing. In 2016, a total of 332,492 arrived by sea and 3,930 have been reported dead ormissing.

Two common routes into Europe include the Central Mediterranean route and the Eastern Mediterranean route. The Central Mediterranean route is extremely dangerous and is the site of one of the deadliest shipwrecks to have occurred on the journey from North Africa to Italy. This shipwreck claimed the lives of 3,252 out of 153,632 refugees aboard. About 80% of refugees in Europe arrived via the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos, Chios, Leros or Samos and 440 out of 169,243 have been reported dead or missing.      

How Technology Can Help

Various forms of technology can play a pivotal role in addressing the needs of refugees. On the most fundamental level, they can bridge the information gap between refugees and the outside world, or between them and humanitarian aid workers. Solar battery packs, online map access, smartphones, and the like are all crucial to those on the move. For example, the application KoboToolBox enables individuals on the ground to amass and to synthesize information (e.g. what they need, where they are headed) to humanitarian workers. However, it is also important to recognize that technology can alleviate refugees’ problems to a limited extent. Technological literacy, fear of surveillance/safety considerations, and cost concerns are some of the issues that need to be resolved to achieve a high participation and overall success rate. Given the wide-ranging possibilities associated with technology, this project aims to identify key gaps within the refugee crisis that can be addressed with technology, including but not limited to the monitoring of refugee flows, as well as the effective assessment and fulfillment of refugee needs such as healthcare and nutrition.

Monitoring Refugee Flows Using Drone Technology

While drones typically evoke an association with military strategy, their application extends beyond defense. For instance, businesses such as Amazon are developing drones for delivery and marketing purposes.

Given their adaptability and broad use, drones present an area of opportunity for the UNHCR. One possible example is tracking refugee populations before they arrive in camps. Often local authorities struggle to predict and ultimately assemble required logistical resources for refugee settlements because they have little information beforehand. Tracking refugee groups with drones in the air might provide authorities with the information they need to make better logistical decisions. Other examples might include monitoring road and drainage construction within camps, assessing environmental impact, and monitoring physical changes in refugee settlements over time.

Bridging the Information Gap through Smartphone Technology

Smartphones already play an incredibly important role in the refugee experience. With the proliferation of smartphones and associated technologies (e.g. apps) over the past few years, they have become incredibly effective tools for those fleeing war-torn countries. As stated by Bassam Sebti of the World Bank, the current refugee crisis is the “first of its kind in a fully digital age.” Not only are smartphones being practically used for communication and navigation, but they also enable refugees to tell their stories to the world through avenues such social media.

Smartphones and apps have been providing solutions to the numerous obstacles that refugees face. These include navigation and GPS, translation, communication, finding shelter, and managing money. Apps like Google Maps, Facebook, WhatsApp, Bitcoin, and others serve to provide refugees with the tools necessary to find a better life outside of their home countries. Techfugees, a social enterprise helping to coordinate the tech community’s response to the refugee crisis, identifies five areas where smartphones can help refugees: infrastructure, education, identity, health, and inclusion. Although smartphones and apps continue to provide new tools for refugees, problems still exist in terms of access to smart technology. Even though prices have substantially decreased, they are still prohibitively expensive for many refugees. Additionally, smartphones require an internet connection, which is often absent in camps and throughout the refugee’s voyage. While the tech sector continues to find innovative solutions for the refugee crisis, the UNHCR could advance this effort by finding ways to increase access to smartphones and the internet.

Developing Healthcare Technology to Ensure Refugee Wellbeing

Healthcare is a cornerstone of state responses to refugee influx. Medical providers must address an array of unique challenges ranging from the spread of communicable diseases to sexual assault. Moreover, language barriers between provider and patient can complicate diagnosis, treatment, and preventative care.

We identify four preliminary target areas for policy – infectious disease, mental health, reproductive health, and language barriers. With their high population densities and atypical living conditions, refugee camps can be settings conducive to the spread of communicable diseases – especially infectious diseases, like tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and cholera. Some illnesses spread through contaminated water or food supplies, while others spread through mosquitos, blood, or respiratory droplets. In both cases, lack of preventative measures – like mosquito nets or protection during sexual intercourse – can expedite the spread of illness. Likewise, a lack of comprehensive pharmacy services and prescription standards can promote development of MDR disease strains.

Mental and reproductive health are also important considerations in refugee health. Given the number of refugees fleeing violence-stricken countries, ensuring psychosocial support for victims of PTSD, trauma, or other conditions is essential. Equally essential is ensuring women access to obstetric care and family planning services consistent with their ethical and cultural values. Finally, language barriers between refugees and their providers are worthy of consideration. In high-resource settings, healthcare institutions often staff their facilities with trained translators or integrated phone-based interpretation systems. Bellevue, one of New York City’s flagship hospitals, recorded nearly 11 million minutes of interpretation phone services in 2015. Given the high linguistic diversity of many refugee camps, camp administrators often lack the resources the mimic this approach.

New health technologies and approaches show promise in meeting these challenges. Of particular interest to our project are telemedicine, smartphone apps, and “big data.” Increasingly, social entrepreneurs and large technology firms are looking to apply new software solutions to healthcare problems. Apps especially germane to refugee health might support patients diagnosed with PTSD, establish “big data”-enabled medical and pharmacy record systems, and facilitate prenatal monitoring during pregnancy. New advances in “smart” translation technology and telemedicine services that enable long-distance service also merit policy attention.


UNHCR’s mandate and the scope of the refugee crisis present myriad avenues for technological forms of humanitarian aid. Moving forward, the policy project will focus on opportunities to use drones, smartphones, and health technology to assist problems faced by UNHCR in refugee camps. As we explore these opportunities, we also plan to research their limitations. These include legal challenges from host countries on the use of particular technologies, as well as the social and cultural sensitivities of both host governments and refugees.