Read, Debate: Engage.

On tech, crypto and refugees

February 11, 2022
topics: Refugees and Asylum
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Uganda, USA
tags: Cryptocurrency, migrants, refugees, technology

An international NGO has been using technology to help reunite refugees with their loved ones across the world and empower them to rebuild their lives amid the most challenging of conditions.

An estimated 82.4 million people globally (one in every 95 people on earth) have had to flee their homes due to conflict or persecution as of the end of 2020.

REFUNITE, a non-for-profit organisation, has embraced technology to reunite displaced people with their loved ones. The organisation, founded by Danish brothers David and Christopher Mikkelsen, is currently assisting over 62 million people across more than 50 countries, guided by the philosophy that everyone has the right to know where their family is.

Christopher Mikkelsen, REFUNITE's CEO, spoke to FairPlanet about the organisation's journey, the lessons he and his colleagues had learned thus far, the role of technology in addressing the plight of refugees and the future plans of the NGO.

Empowering refugees 

FairPlanet: Where did the idea of REFUNITE come from?

Christopher Mikkelsen: REFUNITE was founded after David and I met a young Afghan refugee named Mansour, who had lost track of his entire family. We successfully helped him find his one younger brother in Stavropol, Russia.

How wide is your reach at the moment?

REFUNITE, and our secondary project Relay, is currently assisting more than 62 million people across over 50 countries. 

At Relay we believe in empowerment, be that through helping families reconnect, providing access to critical information to make educated decisions on behalf of your family or connecting leaders to one another to help solve conflicts before they spiral out of control.

Our driving force has, from day one, been to place the displaced in the driver’s seat. This is, in our view, the only way to build true resilience and to truly influence under-developed areas: by providing access to tools, by helping people to become educated and by giving people human agency to be in control of solving the most pressing issues they face.

Otherwise, as seen through decades of humanitarian assistance, we end up creating systems that become dangerously codependent, where industries thrive via NGOs needing refugees to survive and refugees needing NGOs to live.

Over the past 3 months, and following years of research and pilots, Relay has equipped 3 communities in Uvira, Democratic Republic of Congo, with a wallet staking crypto and earning a yield of the app. $500 a month. None of the principal capital has been spent, only the yields from staking. 

One of the endowments of $166 had built 4 latrines and permanent shelter for a family of 8, while an installment of $166 equipped 125 children for a full year with school books and materials.

The newest proposed project, proposed by a community leader in Uvira, DRC, is focused on digging a well that will supply 450 people with clean drinking water, alleviating all the dangers that come from waterborne disease and the dangers to women of walking 3km to and from a well to fetch water. All for $166, with a lasting impact on the lives of many people as they try and climb the socioeconomic ladder. 

"Our driving force has, from day one, been to place the displaced in the driver’s seat."

How serious, in your view, is the issue of refugees getting separated from their families?

While dwindling over the years and despite the evolution of smartphone penetration, separation remains a deep and endemic problem, especially for the high percentage of our populations being illiterate.

Having always lacked any form of proper and broad systemic data collection on the issue of separation across conflicts and countries, an exact number is hard to come by. However, anecdotally through helping the immense numbers we are [assisting], we can say the issue is dwindling, while still helping many reconnect.

How many families have you reconnected so far?

Exact numbers are difficult to determine as our platforms are decentralised and autonomous, but we have so far reconnected more than 65,000 family members over the course of the last years!

Tech to the rescue

You have embraced technology to connect refugees with their families. How has the experience been so far and what would you say is the role of tech innovations in addressing the plight of refugees?

We keep little track of what other companies and NGOs build of technology for refugees, instead preferring to engage with the technologies having a natural uptake amongst refugees themselves.

That said, plenty of useful technologies are being used at an increasing rate of adoption, with especially access to new financial services, chatbots for info and title deeds and other important documents being registered, being the most useful in our view.

What would you consider the greatest milestone of your work?

There are many, but, vis a vis family reconnections, every single one of our reconnections makes every second of every day worthwhile, fighting to help people find missing children, siblings, parents, and so on.

Every story is special; from the siblings having been separated for 10 years, to the parents finding a child after perhaps two decades.

What unique issues or emerging refugee trends have you noticed in the recent past and how have they shaped your work?

We focus on the usage of technology among our populations and watch for trends and insights there that we can use to our advantage. These can be digital assets and currencies for cross-border payments and remittances; mobile phone usage for creating groups and organising around ideas and themes; mobile phone signals to monitor refugee flows, etc.

What has been the biggest hurdle in your work thus far?

Too many to count, but one of the largest hurdles was working to convince traditional NGOs to work with us to coalesce around a common data standard back when we started, to enable seamless sharing of information on missing families across jurisdictions, NGOs, camps, country borders and, crucially, with refugees themselves.

Ultimately, we built REFUNITE on our own, setting our own standards in conjunction with refugees themselves, and build our ecosystems out to tens of millions of people. 

Looking ahead

What are the ultimate plans for REFUNITE?

REFUNITE has already begun its chrysalis into its ultimate destiny, as a network truly being "Refugees Unite."

Originating with REFUNITE’s work to reconnect separated refugee families through distributed and universally accessible information ledgers, millions of people have been helped and more than 65,000 family members have been reconnected. Relay, as an information-sharing network, is the logical next evolution.  

Relay has, over the past decade, built what we refer to as a "trust layer," which is a digital, mobile network connecting over 50,000 African community leaders with their more than 62 million constituents.

Using simple technologies and methodologies based on text messages, call centers and p2p activity, we have successfully scaled inter-community communications to efficiently reach tens of millions of otherwise unreachable people. 

Image by Oxfam East Africa

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Democratic Republic of the Congo Denmark Uganda USA
Refugees at Kakuma Refugee camp interact with a representative from REFUNITE.
Refugees at Kakuma Refugee camp interact with a representative from REFUNITE.
© Martin Gregers
REFUNITE staff holds a session with refugees in Kayole Kenya.
REFUNITE staff holds a session with refugees in Kayole Kenya.
© REFUNITE
.
.