Apps and digital platforms have been increasingly heralded as solutions to the problems that new migrants (particularly refugees and asylum seekers) face in arriving in Europe. Yet if these apps are to be really useful, argues Olivia Iannelli, they need to be part of a collaborative and sustainably funded effort that centres on the varying needs and access of migrant populations themselves.
by OLIVIA IANNELLI
As the use of social media has increased in every aspect of our lives, Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) have attempted to use digital platforms to spread their messages and reach a wider audience. Many have attempted to do this through the formulation of various new apps developed in partnership with software companies or non-profit tech organisations such as Techfugees and Trellyz.
Examples abound. Ghrebtna, for instance, was developed by a Syrian refugee to help Syrians in Turkey with the asylum process, employment, health insurance and learning Turkish, amon other things. Refugermany helps refugees find a house and become accustomed to bank accounts in Germany. Ankommen, which means “arrive”, is another app launched by the German government. It includes a basic German language course, as well as information on the asylum process, German values and social customs, vocational training and getting a job. The Love Europe App, launched in the Netherlands, indicates the location of refugee camps, public transport, free WiFi locations and hospitals. It also aims to provide refugees and asylum seekers with information on upcoming events, as well as language and culture.
The multiplication of apps is part of a larger trend of using ICTs to address migration issues, an area very much on the EU’s radar: one of the European Commission’s most recent call for its Horizon2020 programme focused on addressing the challenges of integration through ICT-based solutions.
There is much good to be said about these apps. They provide opportunities for ordinary people to take matters into their own hands. Many of them have also helped humanitarian aid agencies in the field, by enabling better response coordination and organisation. However, this sudden rush of enthusiasm to combine human rights and technology risks overselling these apps’ actual contribution.
For one, these apps have not created any long-term solutions to the problems of resettlement, integration and distributing aid. Nor have they helped to change the hostile and discriminatory public attitudes toward new migrant arrivals. Additionally, many of these apps are overlapping, which is to say trying to solve the same problem. Yet paradoxically, they are also hindered by their lack of transferability. One app may have a data-set containing the whereabouts of emergency services, and another will have information on accommodation for different refugees. Combined, they would provide a holistic response to the needs of refugees, but individually they provide only fragments.
Organisations also face the challenge of managing the data over time. Although complicated, it is vital for this to occur in order to ensure the information is being regularly updated. If the information is not up to date refugees and migrants stop using it. This is problematic for all apps in the field and often leads migrants to stop downloading anything altogether. In fact, migrants and refugees frequently turn back to their original app of choice, Facebook, to communicate and gain information. This makes the other, more bespoke apps redundant, and often means they get deleted. The process then gets repeated when a new app, which is very similar to the last, gets funding. After a year the funding runs out and it too becomes inactive. Take the example of InfoAid. Although this app was successful when it was launched, it has since has become inactive due to lack of funding.
These apps are also naturally biased toward a certain migrant or refugee profiles, in terms of nationality, gender, age or dis/ability. These distinctions play a huge role in shaping the apps’ accessibility. For instance, many Syrian refugees own smartphones, but this is less true for Afghan refugees; those who do own smartphones are also likely to be men rather than women. Age and dis/ability are also important factors in smartphone use and app literacy. More broadly, refugees in camps often do not have easy access to internet or electricity, making it difficult for them to access digital tools altogether.
These are all issues which make the use of apps problematic. Unfortunately, this is not something that an app builder or organisation has much power over, but it means that there is a huge deficit in data, information and a lack of protection for certain people. This can cause problems in protection and assistance, as some voices are heard and dealt with while others – belonging to more vulnerable populations – remain silent, and thus ignored.
Moving forward, it is important that NGOs think critically about the lure of new, app-based solutions. Rather, we should be building on what we have already established by ensuring sustainable solutions; this would include stable funding and integrative technology for apps that do cater to the varying needs of different stakeholders. Equally, organisations must work together to find a solution to these problems at a larger scale rather than working individually to solve only a small part of the issue. Otherwise, we risk an abundance of new apps and technology which go unused. We must also attempt to make these apps inclusive by thinking about the needs of different people and the access they may have to these tools.