In the face of a massive refugee crisis across Europe, one of the most heartening developments has been the emergence of Techfugees. The nonprofit pulls together entrepreneurs and refugees to develop products and services that help migrants who have fled their homelands.
After two years of catalyzing the tech community’s response to the refugee crisis, Techfugees held its first Global Summit this week in Paris. Over the course of two days, the event gathered 450 attendees representing 35 countries. The event also featured 42 Techfugees-inspired startups that demonstrated the innovative approaches they’re taking to the crisis.
At a moment when tech is associated with a host of social ills, Techfugees offers some hope that tech and innovation can still be pressed into service for a greater good. The intensity of the event and the number of people who have responded to the idea has Techfugees founder and chair Mike Butcher feeling optimistic and somewhat amazed that something that started as a simple Facebook post now has the ability to make an even bigger impact.
“It was a spontaneous project two years ago,” said Butcher, a London-based editor at TechCrunch. “I pushed open a door and gave it a name. And it’s become a viral hit. It started with a fast burn, and then a slower burn, and now it’s a sustainable burn.”
Techfugees got its start in September 2015 as Europe was struggling to respond to thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa suddenly pouring across its borders. The images of migrant camps compelled Butcher to ask on Facebook what the tech community could do in response. A Facebook group that formed to discuss the question quickly attracted more than a 1,000 members, and that led to a hackathon attended by about 150 people.
Joséphine Goube was one of those who responded to the call. She had already been working on refugee-related issues and had been trying to develop a service that would speed visa processing for refugees. Even before the migrant crisis started, she believed there was an inherent disparity in the way Western countries treated rich versus poor immigrants.
“The rules are written in a way that facilitates the entry of certain people,” she said. “If you’re rich, you have access. If not, it can be a long wait and very complicated.”
Following the hackathon, the decision was made to formally create an organization around the idea of tech for refugees, and Techfugees was born. Goube was appointed CEO.
One of her biggest challenges from the start has been managing the overwhelming response to Techfugees’ call for involvement. Techfugees, officially based in London, now has 20,000 members who have organized more than 300 meetups and hackathons.
There was also a need to make sure participants understood the lives of the refugees, their needs, their situations, and their resources. That included visits to refugee camps and gathering information about things like smartphone use.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm, and there were a lot of skills that could help,” Goube said. “But there was a lot of naïveté.”
As the work continued to expand, Techfugees decided to bring together folks from around the globe to share what they’ve learned and figure out how to take it further. Gathering for two days at Station F, the massive startup campus in Paris, the Global Summit attendees included more than 50 engineers and entrepreneurs who come from the refugee community.
“A lot of people talk about refugees but don’t include them,” Goube said. “We’re a community of entrepreneurs, and refugees need to be involved.”
The talks included concepts such as “Blockchain for refugees,” the role mobile tech plays in the lives of refugees, what datasets exist about these communities, and education. Participants included politicians and NGOs, and 42 startups pitched their refugee products or services from one of the stages. This included such startups as Taqanu, which focuses on financial inclusion via a blockchain bank; Kiron, which helps refugees access higher education systems; and Security First, an app that helps people determine various security risks as they move across borders.
Rania Mustafa Ali, 20, was one of the participants at the summit. She had lived in the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Kobane before being forced to flee in the face of ISIS attacks. Just as she was preparing to leave, she met a Norwegian filmmaker who gave her a camera and a tutorial in how to use it. Over the coming months, she filmed her journey as she dodged bullets while running across the border into Turkey, crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an overstuffed inflatable boat, and being tear-gassed and beaten before finally arriving at a refugee camp in Vienna.
She has released her documentary, a version of which was published by The Guardian:
Ali was at the summit to talk about how tech can help refugees tell their stories and to draw attention to the underreporting of issues that relate to women and children refugees. She was heartened by what she saw this week, particularly by the inclusion of refugees in product development. Ali said people don’t seem to realize that many refugees are still quite tech savvy, despite having had to leave behind most of their possessions. And many are also eager to show that they can make positive contributions to their new homelands.
“They are trying to show refugees as people who can do so much for the communities they are living in now,” Ali said. “And the right tool can make very big changes. It’s not just good intentions where nothing is going to happen. It’s good intentions, and there is a big potential for change.”
Butcher said that after the conference, the organization will sit down to plan its agenda. The challenges will continue to involve fundraising, finding partners, and connecting more with policymakers to see how some of the ideas coming out of Techfugees can be scaled.
“The issue of refugees isn’t going away, even if it’s not in the media as much anymore,” Butcher said. “If anything, it’s going to get worse thanks to things like climate change. Technology is still going to have to find a way to be a part of the solution.”