Why new smartphone apps aren’t the answer to refugee justice

Smartphones are critical for refugees, not only to communicate with family and friends but to serve as a potential reporting mechanism for human rights abuses.

Whatsapp, a free app which enables users to make calls, send texts, and share photos and videos globally, provides refugees with a way of communicating with family or friends. Facebook Messenger allows messages and calls between Facebook users and is accessible to anyone with a Facebook account. Maps.me enables user to find their geographical location anywhere in the world, including at sea, wirelessly. Dropbox enables users to store and access and submit critical information, such as immigration forms, using a third-party digital space instead of the individual’s device’s storage.

These apps, stemming from existing web-based services designed to allow free and, essentially, limitless communication and sharing, have empowered refugees by enabling them to access and disseminate critical information.

New apps that have been designed to help refugees, however, are costly as they require individuals to learn how to navigate a new interface, perhaps use more data, and are less trustworthy (due to unfamiliarity) than those that they already use. Indeed, the mere act of downloading an app in the first place requires users to break with existing behavioural patterns on their devices, reducing the probability of successful adoption of any other app, beyond popular social media and communication apps.

One solution to this problem is incorporating a reporting mechanism within a familiar app such as Facebook messenger, using bots. Since many refugees already utilise Facebook messenger to communicate, there is not only a higher level of trust in the app, but they already possess the knowledge of how to use the app. By including a bot in Facebook messenger, a refugee would be able to submit information about a human rights abuse by simply sending a message and responding to questions. These questions would be designed to prompt users for verifiable information, and would also record their geo-location and other important metadata needed to verify their report.

Nevertheless, another more pressing barrier to these new initiatives is the lack of Internet access. Although refugees have data plans from their home countries, they lose connectivity at sea and in rural areas, often only establishing connection through an international carrier once they have reached their destination. The places refugees live, such as camps or rural areas, often lack digital networks and infrastructure or have expensive connectivity available. This short clip created by BBC Media Action and their research with DAHLIA simulates the reality of a refugees access to internet as well as their use of social media and communication apps.  Due to the scarcity of Internet that refugees face on a daily basis, many mobile apps created in response to the refugee crisis will have little, if any, impact on the real situations of refugees.

Technology designed to aid refugees must therefore aim to fit into the daily lives, which often includes limited or no access to Internet and the afore-mentioned communication apps. It is however possible to produce scripts, which when combined with platforms and tools such as Twilio and Google Sheets, are able to act as SMS bots capable of surveying phones and collecting data, without the need for a data plan. Such an endeavour would nevertheless still leave open-ended questions in terms of security, dissemination and trust.

Any form of technology which aims to aid refugees must be directly related to problems they encounter on the ground while also be adaptable to other circumstances. Overall, it’s important that the design of such technologies result from a sustained relationship between local NGOs on the ground, refugees, and technologists.


For more information about refugee connectivity, see the UNHRC’s Introduction to Refugees and Connectivity.

Published by

Sarah Villeneuve

Communications Lead @ The Whistle