March 29, 2016; PSFK

A recent article in Devex pointed to high rates of cellphone use among refugees as they to try to maintain contact with family and friends even while separated. The use of GPS and messaging apps like WhatsApp has altered the landscape, alerting helping agencies to the need to ensure these connecting mechanisms remain available while millions of refugees remain in the most volatile of conditions.

For instance, last year, SoukTel partnered with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative to provide legal information to refugees in Turkey to help them advocate for their rights and entitlements.

The mobile information service aimed to tackle this challenge through simple text-message interactions accessible to any refugee with a mobile—be it a smartphone or a basic device. Syrians can send legal questions via SMS to a hotline at any time, with text messages received and analyzed through a secure analytics platform. After being sorted, tagged by topic, and translated into Turkish, the requests are sent to Turkish lawyers—who offer real-time advice via a secure SMS channel, with translation back into Arabic so the Syrians can easily understand the content. A mobile outreach campaign marked the service’s launch—promoting local legal awareness sessions and offering short tips on basic rights, such as: “Did you know that with registration, your children are entitled to free schooling? Text the service to learn more.”

The article discusses the need to continue to experiment with and further fine-tune the technology and applications necessary to ease the journeys of these families. To be able to make use of such services, for example, refugees must have working equipment. One Swedish nonprofit called Digital Reliance supplies mobile phones and SIM cards to newly arrived refugees. It coordinates with phone manufacturers, service providers, and volunteers to put packages together that provide that connectivity. They distribute at train stations, airport terminals, and refugee help centers, and even help with assembly and phone setup. They have to date distributed more than 4,000 smartphones and 7,000 prepaid SIM cards.—Ruth McCambridge