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Britain's Tech Community Helping Migrants With Mobiles

FILE - Migrants heading for Austria consult a map on a cell phone, in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 5, 2015.
FILE - Migrants heading for Austria consult a map on a cell phone, in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 5, 2015.

Frustrated by the lack of technological solutions to the European refugee crisis, a group of London-based techies has started working with charities to find ways to help people on the move, most of whom have mobile phones.

Mike Butcher, editor of TechCrunch, a technology news site, kickstarted the idea by organizing a one-day conference for people to showcase ideas to help refugees followed by a "hackathon" at which people write software collaboratively.

"I called up about five friends and then, like the A-team, off we went," said Butcher, who hopes the "Techfugees" project will be replicated around the world.

In an open-plan office in London, the team sat working on laptops surrounded by pizza boxes, a world away from the refugee camps and fences on Europe's borders in headlines this summer.

Photos of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on a Turkish beach triggered outrage about how most European governments have responded to the huge influx of migrants, leading to protests, clothing donations and fundraising events.

But unlike in Europe's last major refugee crisis after the Balkan wars in the early 1990s, most people on the move now have mobile phones, giving techies a way to use their skills to help.

Working together

My Refuge, a website and app which tries to put refugees looking for a home in touch with people willing to provide one, is described by founder Sholi Loewenthal as "AirBnB for refugees, with no money involved".

The plan faces obstacles, such as how to work out if someone is a genuine refugee, so at the London event he spoke to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) staff for assistance.

He also met Dimitri Koutsos, an IT professional with no background in humanitarian work, who came along because he had some free time between contracts.

"I wanted to help," Koutsos said. "I come from Greece. We have a lot of migration there."

The two worked together at the hackathon earlier this month on My Refuge, with Koutsos lending his skills and experience, and Loewenthal bringing his idea to a wider audience.

As well as connecting people with ideas to others with the skills to enact them, the hackathon had another function – to identify existing problems and brainstorm possible solutions.

Helping people keep in touch

For example, a major problem refugees face is keeping in touch with family and friends while crossing borders. Many do not have internet-enabled smartphones, and, if they do, the signal is patchy so mobile apps are of limited use.

In response, one group at the hackathon was working on an SMS network in which people could send text messages to several people, like the group messaging function served by apps like WhatsApp and Facebook, but with simpler, cheaper technology.

Other people were trying to find ways for refugees to record crimes they face on their journeys, while another group was looking for ways to help Syrian refugees have a voice in countries to which they have fled.

Migreat, a website showing people what visas or permits are needed to move from one country to another, was also present.

The site currently supports people migrating to join their family, to work, to study or to find a visa after graduation, listing the thousands of possible visa permutations depending on age, family, income and other factors.

Useful tips

But staff at the London hackathon were seeking to add a new strand - advising those wishing to move to another country because they are fleeing war or persecution.

Migreat spokeswoman Josephine Goube said not all information on how to apply for asylum status is public knowledge. For instance, in her native France refugees who apply for asylum have a better chance of success if they speak French, she said.

Migreat intends to show people the way to get accepted as a refugee, not the way written on the government's website, "but the real way", said Goube.

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