Nonprofits, Refugees & Smartphones: A New Way of Working Emerges

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Smartphones / Vincent Diamante

September 6, 2016; TriplePundit

With the number of displaced people in the world at its highest in recorded history, many organizations are finding new ways to support this influx of refugees. Smartphones are becoming vital tools for these populations as they adjust to their new environments. NPQ’s nonprofit newswire has previously addressed some of the ways social services and health care are transforming outcomes through mobile technology in places like Africa.

Refugees fleeing countries such as war-torn Syria perceive even the cheapest mobile device as a lifeline to their family and are taking advantage of free messaging app services such as WhatsApp and Viber to reach people around the world. NGOs and government agencies are also discovering that programs that help refugees secure a cell phone tend to ease many challenges around rebuilding their lives in a new country. Smartphones can allow displaced families to connect with loved ones, navigate through new areas using GPS, create bank accounts, send money internationally, and access refugee services and even job opportunities. Many refugees can receive help with Internet access through a telephone subsidy program known as Lifeline, and the FCC expanded this program to include wireless and broadband services this year.

The Oregon chapter of Catholic Charities has had a program to resettle refugees in the greater Portland area for decades, and a retired Intel executive involved with Catholic Charities is working with local retailers to obtain inexpensive smartphones while simultaneously trying to convince wireless and broadband providers to give access to refugees for a short period.

GeeCycle, an international initiative launched by social enterprise Techfugees, collects smartphones from people across the globe and distributes them to refugees. Techfugees also provide job opportunities for refugees and organizes “hackathons” to design technology tools and software programs for migrants.

International money transfer apps such as SendWave, PayPal, Xoom, and Western Union are becoming increasingly important in helping immigrants send money across borders. Juniper Research predicts that international remittances via mobile phones should reach $25 billion by the year 2018, which is a 67 percent increase from an estimated $15 billion in 2015.

Across the pond, the Britain-based Facebook group Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People launched in February and has been connecting refugees displaced in Europe with donors who can help pay for cell phone data and minutes for six months. Since its launch, the group has assembled over 20,000 members and raised about 100,000 British pounds for refugees’ phones.

The United States will admit 85,000 refugees from Near East and South Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin American and the Caribbean in fiscal year 2016. At least 10,000 of those refugees will be from Syria.—Aine Creedon