With the growing recognition of refugee information needs and widespread mobile phone ownership, has come a slew of apps designed to help them out. From official government projects to startups led by refugees themselves, here are some online tools now in use.
In October 2015, the appsforrefugees.com website was launched in the midst of the European refugee crisis. Over the summer of 2015, there was a proliferation of mobile apps to support refugees, but no structured collection of the applications.
John Tucker launched the Apps for Refugees initiative to showcase the array of free smartphone apps targeted for refugees creating one space for refugees, creators of apps and others to quickly see what is available. Today, the site includes nearly 35 apps that can be downloaded from Google Play Store and the Apple App store. The stock of apps at appsforrefugees.com is still growing.
Apps are categorised by topics, ranging from culture (Welcome App Germany) to health (Medical Dictionary by Farlex) to language and translation (Refugee Phrasebook), as well as by region, with the vast majority available in European countries, targeted to cater to the needs of refugees who are settling in these countries.
According to John, the peak of new apps being created is now over but there are still new apps coming to the market. Most visitors to the site are between the ages of 18-34, with slightly more female users. One third of traffic is from mobile phones (around half from iPhones and half androids). There are currently three people working part time on Apps for Refugees and the team have plans to improve the site technically to improve the user experience ensuring refugees can access the services they need as quickly and efficiently.
An app designed to help Syrians newly arrived in Turkey navigate this new and unfamiliar territory, Gherbtna is the brainchild of Mojahid Akil, 26, a computer programmer who is himself a Syrian refugee. As for so many arriving Syrians, Mojahid found adapting to a strange language, and a foreign legal system overwhelming. He and his colleagues designed Gherbtna while working for a Turkish tech firm, and launched it in early 2014.
The app, which translates as exile or a feeling of foreignness, offers newly arrived refugees help in four critical areas: Information, relating to asylum procedures and broadcast via infographics and animation; News; Opportunities, which advertises apartments and jobs legally suitable for refugees; and Help Me, where refugees can ask questions about health, education and other legal services.
The app can guide users to everything from a Syrian restaurant to an Arabic speaking doctor and provide advice on a whole range of necessary bureaucratic process beyond registering a marriage and advice on Turkish customs and courtesies.
With over 40,000 downloads, 90,000 likes on Facebook, and an average of 3,000 daily page views of the website, Gherbtna is becoming successful. Mojahid and his team have many stories of Syrians finding accommodation, jobs and the services they need through the app. Plans for further development and expansion, including partnerships with key Turkish companies, are under discussion.
Ankommen is an official project run by the German authorities to help refugees on arrival in the country. An interactive section designed by the Goethe institute teaches the basics of German, the Asylum, Apprenticeship, Job section helps refugees through the system for registering as refugees and finding employment. The Living in Germany page provides practical information on culture and values. The app operates in Arabic, English, Farsi, French and German and once downloaded can operate offline.
Those involved in designing Ankommen stress that it’s not intended to replace more traditional routes to learning a language, such as classroom tuition – rather then app is intended to help teach the basics of social interaction and get users through the first few weeks of complete ignorance of German.
This ambitious project was a joint partnership between Google.org and a number of NGOs working directly to provide support to new arrivals in Greece and beyond. Early on in the crisis it became clear that information, especially on asylum processes, border access and navigation was a crucial need among refugees. Providing such information in a crisis that spanned several countries and jurisdictions, and in which policy and practice could change on a daily basis, was extremely difficult. Crisis Info Hub, an open source platform designed to be both accessible and easy to update by those in any given locale, was developed by Google working with Mercy Corps and International Rescue Committee in 2015. It offers basic information on registration processes, transport, medical care and accommodation amongst other topics. Project staff say it is currently used by around 500 refugees a day, lower than at the peak of arrivals prior to the EU-Turkey political agreement in March 2016.
Project staff say one of the biggest challenges was providing the necessary connectivity: even though the platform is designed to be light both in terms of data and battery use, many refugees could not afford data plans and instead looked for Wi-Fi access.
Tarjemly is a new initiative from the developer of Gherbtna, 26 year old Mojahed Akil. Language is one of the biggest and most complex challenges faced by newly arrived refugees, limiting their capacity to access help or navigate government registration systems. Tarjemly-live is a simple app that connects the user with a translator who is able to provide live, on the spot verbal translation services. The app can also be used to translate SMS. Available in Turkish, Arabic and English, users simply create an account and make an online payment (costs start at $14.99). The service uses freelance translators. The designers say that stories from users include using the service for everything from tracking down a relative in a hospital to handling legal situations in police stations. So far the app is still small, at just under 30,000 users and being financed by Syrian investors. Akil hopes to expand the user base in the future to include tourists, and to incorporate more languages.
Navigating Turkey’s legal system is crucial for all arriving refugees, but for most is a daunting prospect. Quite apart from the language issue, Turkey’s legal frameworks are very different to those of Syria and other countries in the region, leaving newly arrived Syrians in danger of failing to complete the right paperwork, or missing support they are entitled to. The solution offered by Souktel– a Palestinian NGO specialising in SMS services, – working with the American Bar Association: a SMS based legal advice centre. Those using the system send their question in via SMS, and backroom systems identify, analyse and sort the incoming queries so they can reach a lawyer with the right expertise who then responds. The project is staffed by people with a humanitarian background who understand the issues faced by refugees, as well as technical specialists and lawyers. Souktel reported more than 30,000 people using the service within the first three weeks and total traffic has now passed more than 200,000 messages.
Integreat was conceptualised in August 2015 by Daniel Kehne who saw a flyer for refugees produced in the 1990s by Tür an Tür (an association supporting refugees) and saw an opportunity – as well as a necessity – given the increase in number of refugees arriving in German cities, to bring it into the digital age. In collaboration with students and volunteers across Germany, an app was designed and built to provide incoming asylum seekers in Augsburg with critical information about their new and unfamiliar surroundings, available in 5 languages (Arabic, Farsi, French, English and German).
The challenge in cities such as Augsburg is that asylum seekers are distributed throughout the city so social workers face difficulties in quickly and effectively delivering basic information about health services, asylum processes, transport etc. to a widely disbursed group of people, who do not speak the local language. Integreat tackles this by ensuring that social workers in these cities familiarise new arrivals with the app as soon as they arrive. Integreat has to date worked with local social workers, NGOs and other relevant stakeholders in over 80 cities across Germany to create tailored content relevant for each setting.
The main challenge has been the huge demand for the service (>5000 downloads to date) and how to scale fast enough to make the service available in new cities in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Integreat now employs 5 people and has had 20-30 volunteers working with the organisation over the past year. The app is free for the end user, and is based on a subscription model which cities pay for on a monthly basis. Integreat are now looking to expand support services beyond basic information to job creation and language learning.