The Role of Technology in Addressing the Global Migration Crisis


Conference Report — Berkeley, California, June 2018

Rapporteur Jonathan Kent


On June 5 and 6, 2018, the World Refugee Council (WRC) and the Aspen Ministers Forum co-hosted a workshop in Berkeley, California, called “The Role of Technology in Addressing the Global Migration Crisis.” The meeting was generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and co-hosted by former Foreign Minister of Canada and Chair of the WRC Lloyd Axworthy, former US Secretary of State and representative of the Aspen Ministers Forum Madeleine Albright, and former Prime Minister of Greece and WRC Councillor George Papandreou. By hosting the workshop in Northern California, organizers looked to canvass the views of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, technology experts and civil society.

Over the past decade, there have been major technological innovations affecting our governments, workplaces and daily lives. Technology is also playing and is poised to play an integral role in the governance and lives of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). On the one hand, biometric identifiers, crowdmapping and crowdsourcing, mobile phone fund transfers, translation apps, online education programs, crisis forecasting systems, machine learning, blockchain applications, and trends in data acquisition and management can influence how international organizations and civil society groups respond to refugee and IDP situations. On the other hand, refugees and IDPs can use technology and social media on their own. When refugees and IDPs use technology to access information, finance, social networks, and humanitarian and development networks, they enhance their autonomy and self-reliance.

Technology is a double-edged sword, however. There are clearly benefits for refugees and IDPs. New digital platforms connect displaced populations to information and resources, giving them greater capacity to support themselves. Biometric identifiers, a digital identity and online apps can improve the distribution of humanitarian services such as food rationing and can also help refugees and IDPs find work. But the collection of sensitive data may place individuals at heightened risk, in particular if their personal information is stolen by the intelligence services of ill-intentioned governments. Technology may also lead to more chaotic outcomes by enabling, for instance, people smugglers to exploit the hopes and aspirations of refugees and IDPs for profit. Irregular migration can destabilize structured international efforts to provide appropriate solutions. Regardless, technology is inexorably transforming the lives of refugees and IDPs and how the world responds to their plight. Better research is needed to achieve a more complete understanding of how technology affects the refugee system and how to enhance the benefits and mitigate the risks.

→ The workshop was designed to explore how technology influences the global refugee system and the lives of refugees and IDPs. The WRC’s work has been focused on a number of core themes to transform the global refugee system: governance, responsibility sharing, political will, gender, finance and accountability. In light of these themes, the workshop assessed the following questions:

→ How can technology mobilize political will and increase accountability?

→ What are the risks technology poses to the global refugee system and how can they be mitigated?

→ How can affected populations be included in the development of technologies and solutions that are targeted toward them?

→ How will major technological communities and hubs transform themselves to reflect the diversity of the populations they serve? As it stands, there is a need for more inclusion and diversity in the space.

→ How can technology be used to facilitate greater responsibility sharing?

→ How can technology assist in mobilizing new sources of funds and improving the efficiency of existing funding?

Mobilizing political will and public opinion are crucial to achieving better and more coordinated governance outcomes. While technology such as social media can lead to anxieties and xenophobia toward refugees, it can also mobilize political will if used effectively. For example, youth are more likely to mobilize online through social media than through traditional political channels. Refugees and IDPs share their stories through YouTube and Facebook, creating publicity and awareness. Earlywarning systems using big data analytics have the potential to shift political decision making.

Technological innovations can improve transparency and accountability. Innovations in data gathering and aggregation will enhance peer-review evaluations and reporting on the behaviour of actors responsible for displacement and governments that neglect their international legal obligations. But to ensure the principled use of technology, a multi-stakeholder group should be convened to devise and implement a statement of principles on privacy, data management and machine learning algorithms for refugees and IDPs that states, international organizations and the private sector can agree to. Technology can create meaningful interactions between refugees and host communities. If different groups come together around technology, they may overcome institutional barriers and generate social trust. The organization Techfugees brings refugees, app developers, technologists, states and civil society to hackathons to work on common initiatives.
The Stanford Immigration Policy Lab uses an algorithm to improve upon the human decision making process of matching resettled refugees to communities where they would most likely flourish. By diversifying interactions and improving the integration of refugees with host communities, technology may foster the trust needed for further cooperation and responsibility sharing.

Technology can mobilize new sources of funding that allows refugees and IDPs to sustain themselves. Since these populations have trouble accessing microloans from banks because they are deemed credit risks, some technology companies are using crowdfunding to support small refugee and IDP start-ups. Carrying cash or valuable belongings on their journeys places refugees and IDPs at a higher risk of violence from criminals and state authorities. Technology companies are exploring blockchain technology to allow refugees to securely transfer their assets.

New technology applications can assist in providing refugees and IDPs with other services and necessities at different stages of their journeys. Online platforms for education and training help displaced people update or acquire new skills and knowledge helpful for their return home or potential contribution to host societies. Airbnb is also serving as a platform to connect refugees with the temporary accommodations of generous volunteer hosts. To make technology more secure for refugees and IDPs to use, decentralized data storage systems are being proposed as a more secure alternative to traditional databases and can allow such groups to access a verifiable identity.