Everyone has a right to know the location of their family. At first glance that seems uncomplicated in our increasingly interconnected world. However, considering the sheer number of those forcibly displaced from their homes – 51.2 million people by the end of 2013 and 5.5 million uprooted by war in the first six months of 2014 – a pall is cast over such optimism. The near impossibility of keeping a record of so many is compounded by the agency norm: paper applications with often years of waiting to be connected with missing persons — both family and friends lost across conflicts and borders. Individuals are often left feeling powerless by limited options. REFUNITE was created to give agency back to the people, empowering them to take the search into their own hands through a global, web-based search tool for refugees.
REFUNITE is a technology-based non-profit working internationally to reconnect refugees and forcibly displaced people with their missing loved ones. Developed by David and Christopher Mikkelsen in partnership with Ericsson, a provider of telecommunications equipment and services, the platform is accessible through the web, a toll-free number, or through texting or USSD on even the most basic cell phones. Most importantly, the platform is user-driven–built, shaped and modified in close coordination with refugees.
For the user the process is simple: register a profile, search for missing family and friends, and reconnect through an anonymous database. In setting up their account, the individual enters identifiers that will make them recognizable to those who are searching, such as their name, a nickname, age, city of birth, tribe, scars, or clan. As no fields are required, one need only enter as much information as they feel safe submitting. Once a person is in the database, their information – except for their email address, phone number and location – is openly visible to other refugees and aid organizations. The data is securely analysed and paired to create possible matches. Between 2010 and 2014, there were 5.08 million searches, 5.5 million texts sent and 399,876 platform registrations.
Safety is a primary concern when it comes to refugees, and REFUNITE takes all possible precautions to ensure the safety of its users, from the design and coding of their platform to regular consultations with the UNHCR and local refugee protection officers to secure servers and databases. If someone claiming to be a relative or friend contacts a refugee, they are urged to clarify their identity by asking questions that only they could answer. It is up to the discretion of the individual as to whether they provide further contact information.
Accessibility is Key
REFUNITE is aware that sending text messages can be prohibitively expensive for displaced persons. Consequently, not only is the platform available free of charge to individuals and aid organizations, REFUNITE has developed telecommunication partnerships that enable free access through texting, USSD and toll-free numbers. At least one of these variations is available in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, the Philippines and Uganda. With Africa’s booming cell phone market and limited computer access, texting and USSD are the most effective, enabling direct, up-to-date communications and registration on their own terms, at their own pace.
To further expand the scale of the platform, the organization runs outreach campaigns within refugee camps and refugee-prone areas. Volunteers work with aid organizations, such as the Kenya Red Cross Society and the UNHCR, to assist with registration, providing access to phones for those who are without. Communication initiatives, including SMS campaigns, radio, TV and community forums, raise awareness of and comfort with the platform. According to the founders, “It is vital not to simply impose a technology on users but instead acknowledge and refine the tools communities are already using”.
All of these aspects are managed from their main office in Copenhagen, Denmark, and their Nairobi, Kenya, hub for on-ground operations and core tech development.
With their “penchant for rapid prototyping, risks and humbling mistakes”, REFUNITE has an extraordinary growth potential. For the 51.2 million forcibly displaced people around the world, this platform brings hope and independence.