Lost and found for refugees


Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and now Syria — violence in so many places in the Middle East has torn loved ones apart. Men and boys may be forced into hiding. Women and children run for their lives. Too often it’s impossible to go back to the place that once was home.

According to the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2010 the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide reached 43.7 million. This includes internally displaced people (IDP) and those who have crossed their national borders and become refugees. Every minute, eight people flee their homes to escape conflict or persecution. Famine also drives people to the desperate decision to abandon everything.

In 2005, David and Christopher Troensegaard Mikkelsen met Mansour, a young Afghan refugee. Mansour had reached safety in Copenhagen, but he was desperate to find his family. David and Christopher wanted to help but soon found out how hard it was to search for missing relatives. Since none of the family tracing programs used collaborative technology, a lot of time was spent filling out the same forms in different offices. This silo effect meant that information wasn’t shared and families weren’t being reunited.

“In a very short time we were able to see that the best way for us to bring people together was through technology,” said David Mikkelsen.

In 2008, the brothers launched Refugees United (www.refunite.org) as a Web-based anonymous and secure family search engine for displaced people. In 2010, the program went mobile, thanks to assistance from Ericsson. Refugees United created, maintains and updates the refugee database, while Ericsson provides the mobile application, technology and systems integration to enable the application in mobile networks. Through their operations at refugee settlements, the UNHCR helps people create profiles on the search engine. The search engine is available in 23 languages, including Arabic, and new languages are regularly becoming available.

“The technology that we enabled together with Ericsson put us in a position where we could help not just thousands but the hundreds of thousands and hopefully millions of refugees who need our service,” said Mikkelsen. “With the mobile phone, suddenly we could reach people that the world had never reached out to before.”

Prior to the mobile application’s creation, Mikkelsen felt terribly frustrated when he considered that from Copenhagen there were so many ways for him to go online and reach out to people and yet refugees lived in a bizarre, unconnected nightmare. But mobile connectivity was a game changer. The mobile telephone has brought opportunities even in very poor countries and Refugees United quickly took advantage of mobile networks that have sprung up everywhere.

“Our application also runs on WAP-enabled phones, so it uses just a fraction of the bandwidth and data of a smartphone. Even old school mobile phones, the very basic entry model phones, are actually Web-enabled so they can allow people to enter our platform at m.refunite.org,” explained Mikkelsen. “If people have lost their friends and family, they can register and be found and they can search for missing loved ones, too.”

Many different types of refugees and displaced people register with Refugees United’s free service. People create public profiles by entering the information they think most appropriate for helping relatives and friends locate them. Individuals displaced by famine may feel comfortable posting their real names, photographs and locations online in their public profiles. Those who have a reason to fear being found are advised to create public profiles that contain information which would only be recognizable to close family and friends. Refugees can register on the search site using a wide variety of information such as name or nickname, distinguishing physical characteristics, former cities of residence, etc. Refugees United administers the database without involvement from any third parties. It is a fully independent, nonprofit organization, funded entirely by donations in cash and kind from nongovernmental sources.

“We connect ordinary people who find themselves in dire situations and get separated,” said Mikkelsen. “The reconnection stories that come in to us all the time let us know that our search engine is doing good. The other day I learned that two brothers from Eritrea were reunited though our search engine. They had to flee because of political persecution and were separated for four years. One ended up in Sao Paulo in Brazil. Through our local presence there he was able to access our search platform and found his brother in Toronto, Canada. This is a very typical story.”

Mikkelsen emphasized that the Refugees United search engine is a tool that anyone can use to search for lost friends and relatives. Stateless people and undocumented workers are welcome to use the search engine. The organization works with partners to help the illiterate and those with no previous experience with mobile applications gain access to the tool.

For instance, in Kenya, a major outreach project is ongoing. Many refugees come to Kenya from neighboring countries. The UNHCR, the Kenya Red Cross and the Refugee Consortium of Kenya all have people on the ground at places such as Dadaab and Kakuma, working with refugees. In partnership with Refugees United the refugees help people create accounts so that they can search and find their families. The refugees provide the information for registration which is entered into the system by an aid worker. Then a special scratch card, similar to the ones used for mobile phone recharging, is given to the refugee. The card provides a unique user name and password known only to the refugee.

“A lot of people that we deal with are afraid of ‘authorities.’ They may be unable to tell the difference between an aid worker in Kenya and a military officer in their home country,” said Mikkelsen. “Whatever information they choose to give us will be entered into the system and then the refugee enters the username and password to create the account. Even the aid worker doesn’t know these details. The refugees keep the cards for future reference so they can access their accounts for as long as the need remains.”

The search engine is for use by adults so aid workers encourage refugees under the age of 18 to enroll with an adult friend or relative. This is a safeguard to help prevent the exploitation of children desperate to find any family member. It is often a child though who may be driving the search. Mikkelsen remembered one reunification story where it was the tech savvy daughter who convinced her mother to register with Refugees United. From London, they were able to find their father and husband and bring the family together again.

The mobile application for Refugees United has made an incredible difference in the reach of the search engine. At the beginning of 2010, there were fewer than 10,000 people registered with the search service. Now just over 69,500 are registered and Mikkelsen expects that number to double this year. Hundreds of new profiles are created every day and word of the Refugees United technology tool is spreading.

Much of the recent focus has been on registering refugees in East Africa and more than a third of those with profiles on the search service are Somalis. Mikkelsen is now hoping to turn attention to registering refugees in the Middle East through Refugees United partnerships.

“We tell people that we don’t want $10. What we need is ten minutes of time spent helping with our work. Partnerships are very important to us. We work with some amazing companies who do for us what they do best,” advised Mikkelsen. “There’s no reason for me to fund-raise $200,000 for logistics for the next year if FedEx will support us. I can ask FedEx to send out the stuff we need. They are already in the logistics business doing a great job. When they add our shipments to what they are already sending out for others, it won’t be overwhelming for them and it will do a lot of good for us. When companies such as SAP and Ericsson make in-kind donations then all the employees of those companies become our supporters in doing good. They become part of the solution.”

At the end of the interview, Mikkelsen became emotional. He spoke about the importance of family and how unimaginable it would be to be separated and searching for his own brother.

“There are millions of people on the Earth who can’t find their families. In this day and age that’s just not okay. Family is everything. We have the tools to eradicate this problem. Our dream is to work ourselves out of the work that we’re doing now and move on to other problems in the world of aid that could benefit from technology.”

Watch the Refugees United video at: http://vimeo.com/24767782.