This article was contributed by David and Christopher Mikkelsen, in support of REFUNITE and Ericsson.
Since 2010, Ericsson has been the lead technology partner for Refugees United (REFUNITE), a non-profit organization dedicated to help displaced people locate missing family and loved ones. Ericsson has supported development of an online family reconnection platform, providing technical expertise, and engaging with mobile network operators, other social organizations and employees to achieve the joint mission to achieve the joint mission of getting 1 million refugees registered on the platform.
In honor of World Refugee Day, June 20th, the founders of REFUNITE, brothers and social entrepreneurs David and Christopher Mikkelsen, reflected on the journey of the organization and its partners, which have brought REFUNITE to help more than 500,000 people in their search for missing family.
Ten years ago, when refugees became separated from their loved ones, the only way to try and find them, often across vast distances, was through a pen-and-paper tracing system, which failed to create data repositories that could be cross-referenced across countries, camps and organizations. The result was that few people became registered, and even fewer were reconnected.
Just a couple of weeks ago, REFUNITE crossed a remarkable milestone in our relatively short history: the 500,000th displaced person looking for missing family was brought onto our platform. How did we achieve this? Through using mobile phone technology and distributing the family tracing process to the refugees themselves.
While this is an achievement to note, it comes with the somber reminder that these are people unable to find their children, siblings, parents and friends. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t stop here: the world is harboring more displaced people than we’ve seen since WWII! And while Syria is responsible for both the largest numbers of its citizens on the run and the most headlines, there are unfortunately many other crises in full bloom, and numerous new ones threatening to erupt at any moment. REFUNITE will continue to work tirelessly to help everyone looking for loved ones to reconnect. Our aim is to continuously build out our platform to provide a digital home and infrastructure to soon millions of displaced people.
Spanning across more than 15 countries, REFUNITE, in partnership with Ericsson, IKEA Foundation, Zain, Vodacom, Free Basics by Facebook and many others, has built an efficient family tracing platform that empowers displaced families to search for missing loved ones through a text message, a phone call or our web platform.
The hard road ahead
Working in countries like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan presents unique challenges, as we work to build a platform that responds to the limitations of ours users’ access to technology, and their understanding of it. Developing services to a 58-year old illiterate Somali woman looking for her missing children is no easy feat. But when we succeed, we manage to reconnect loved ones who have often been separated and searching for years.
The achievement of bringing more than half a million people into our family tracing network should also be seen in the light of helping distraught people in dire situations. The incredible journey it’s been, the struggle, to embed our services, connecting refugees across jungles, deserts, cities and savannas, has brought us deep into the life of the people we seek to help; to better understand their lives, their habits, insights and key hindrances keeping them from finding their family. Getting to the core of these questions enables us to build technology that serves our constituents and help them find their way back to missing family.
On the eve of commemorating World Refugee Day 2016, we’re facing another year of record numbers of displaced people escaping war, unrest and hunger. Record numbers of families have had to abandon all they had and knew in the hopes of saving the lives of their loved ones. Far too often loved ones perish in the struggle; far too often families are torn apart and, still, may never find each other again. This is what REFUNITE and our partners seek to eradicate.
As the current refugee crisis also comes closer to home for many people, with thousands of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe each week, it is also becoming increasingly clear to people that our world is shrinking in size, and gone are the days where South Sudan’s or Syria’s problem remained their own: we’re interlinked, and likely to a lot deeper of a degree than we even know now. With this in mind, we believe that the problems we’re working to solve together are problems that need to be solved on a global scale, as a global society. The issues surrounding mass migration are too immense, and, frankly, too important, to be left only to charitable organizations to solve. It is not sustainable in the long run; we must come together as a global community to solve these issues, between people, governments, businesses and organizations.
We have spent the past eight years perfecting our work with the private sector, as we believe them to be crucial to building a better world, especially in the global south. With Ericsson, supported by the IKEA Foundation, Omidyar Network and many others, we have worked side by side in some of the world’s most dangerous and complex places, forging paths with telecoms operators, tech companies, ministries, communities and other refugee organizations, to address the often invisible tragedy of families separated and unable to reconnect. SMS by SMS, country by country, we’re changing how family tracing is performed, and helping countless people find loved ones they’ve sought for years. In the years to come, we will scale from 500,000 to millions, and help many more find an end to their search for loved ones.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of each of the partners of Global Citizen.