Print options

September 09, 2010

New Mobile Service in Uganda Allows Refugees to Find Lost Family

by Michael Onyiego

A new mobile application is being launched Friday to help reunite families torn apart by violence and natural disaster. The new technology, being tested in Uganda, could help refugees separated for years reconnect in a matter of minutes.

Over the past 40 years, civil war and ethnic violence have been a near constant threat to peace and stability in the Great Lakes region of Africa. In recent years, more than 60,000 United Nations peacekeepers have been deployed to the border region of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of the greatest concerns of these peacekeeping missions has been protecting the millions of civilians forced to flee their homes as a result of these conflicts.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has designated more than one million as persons of concern in Uganda alone. Without a moment's notice, many refugees are forced to flee with little or nothing, leaving friends and family behind forever. While agencies such as the UN can provide food, shelter and security to refugee populations, reuniting them with loved ones often proves difficult. The sheer size of many refugee flows in the region limits the ability of refugee agencies to actively seek out lost relatives on an individual basis.

But a new mobile application is now promising to give refugees the ability to find their loved ones. In partnership with the UNHCR, Ericsson and telecom provider MTN, Denmark-based Refugees United is launching a pilot program in Uganda which will allow refugees to register and search for loved ones through an online database accessible through mobile phones.

The work of Refugees United was originally focused on integrating and providing access to refugee databases online, but director Christopher Mikkelsen says using mobile phones provides more direct access to refugee populations.

"Mobile phones are extremely interesting in terms of refugee family tracing because the vast majority of refugees have access to one," said Christopher Mikkelsen. "Our preliminary research done around east Africa shows that all the way up towards 78 percent of refugees have access to a phone. This doesn't mean that they have one themselves, but there may be a community phone. While it can be tremendously difficulty ot reach refugees via the web, it is much simpler and much more efficient to go via mobile phones that furthermore is a process they are familiar with."

According to Mikkelsen, MTN, the largest mobile service provider in Uganda, has provided a toll-free number through which refugees can access an SMS questionnaire and create a profile. Users can anonymously input information such as nicknames, physical features and last known location which can then be searched through by family and friends.

While being launched initially as a pilot program, the organization believes over 3 million refugees could potentially benefit from the project. The program will run until the end of December, at which point Refugees United hopes to expand to other countries with large refugee populations such as Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  According to Mikkelsen the group's goal is to eventually go global and allow refugees around the world to reconnect in real time.